I started working with preschoolers a few years ago, not long after I quit my office job. These days, I help out in a pre-k classroom at a school downtown, close to Rincon Center. The boys are obsessed with Star Wars, even the original movies, and the girls sport headbands like Lynda Carter-era Wonder Women. Some of their families call San Francisco home; many live in Marin, south of San Francisco, or in the suburbs of Oakland. A lot of them eat catered school lunches; others lug boxes and bags inevitably embellished with culturally significant images — Yoda, Tinkerbell, Dora — and stocked with kid-friendly things: string cheese sticks, raisins, fruit, lunch meat, hummus, and miniature yogurt cups and juice boxes from Trader Joe’s and Costco.
Our relationships with food begin when we’re very young. We’re shaped by what our parents give us. We like what we learn to like. Foods in fun packages — like pigs-in-a-blanket and eggs-in-a-basket — are universally appealing. Foods we associate with good times — like Popsicles — are as well. Childhood memories are powerful things, our therapists tell us. Chefs know this too. That’s why Grant Achatz of the esteemed Alinea in Chicago served, on his restaurant’s opening night, a whimsical riff on an American lunch-box staple: one peeled grape, warmed, still on its stem, dipped in a peanut puree and wrapped in brioche — the mad scientist’s peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.
Every Tuesday morning, the class visits the Ferry Building. We teachers gently prod our shifty little charges into the loose winding semblance of a line and lead them, meandering along the sidewalks, dashing through crosswalks. “Smells gross,” a boy once sniffed as we passed Yank Sing, the damp, slightly acrid scent of vapor hissing from steamers inside. “That’s only the best dim sum in San Francisco,” I almost blurted out incredulously. I remembered, of course, that I was walking with under-sized humans who still cried for their mommies and wet their pants on occasion. They’d never pecked a tiny hole in the soft translucent skin of a perfect Shanghai dumpling and slurped — with greedy, Dracula-like precision — the sweet, concentrated broth within. Divorced from that experience, the smell was, in fact, a little icky. An iron grate covers a patch of pavement directly outside of Boulevard, on the Mission St. side. The kids like to jump on it as they pass because it clangs noisily. A waiter inside polishing glasses — readying for the lunch hour rush — inevitably chuckles. Their small heads bob just barely into view with every leap.
I wonder if marching into the Ferry Building farmer’s market flanked by a posse of adorable 4-year-olds isn’t a bit like rolling into a club with a bunch of professional basketball players. You receive a lot of attention but it’s all purely by association. Beaming retirees and fanny-pack-toting tourists — this scene’s coterie of doting fans and relentless paparazzi — hover, stare, cluck, and coo. When cameras come out, teachers act swiftly, more like security personnel than hangers-on. “No photos, please,” we say firmly. “They’re minors.” Once, a very old woman wheeling her husband — a man in much less robust health — sidled up to me winking, her face as round, wrinkled, and fuzzy as an over-ripe apricot: “Do any of them need a Jewish grandma?” she practically pleaded. “Yes,” I responded. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Potato,” by Reese, age 4. She drew a potato and started to scrawl the word, but decided to write “green bean” instead.
For the kids, a Tuesday trip to the Ferry Building is an overwhelming assault of sensory delights. They grab at anything within reach. They swivel their heads as they walk, twirling constantly to see what’s happening behind them, mindful that they’re always missing something. Things fall apart; the line cannot hold. The other day, we were leaving the farmer’s market, heading for the lobster tanks inside, when a girl prone to dawdling dawdled. I asked her to catch up. She stared up at me and offered a retort for which I had no rote teacher-ly rejoinder “I’m just looking at the world.” At that moment, Incanto chef, Boccalone owner, and Food Network presence Chris Cosentino glided by, pushing a produce-stacked cart. A small blond boy sat on top of the cart, giggling. “Weeeee,” said the kid. I thought of Old Mcdonald’s Farm — the mooing cows, quacking ducks, and oinking pigs, and what Chris Cosentino would do with them if he had the chance.
This week, we checked out the mushroom mini-farms at Far West Fungi. “Eeek, blech,” said a girl, scrunching her eyes and nose, tilting her head to properly appraise the craggy shitake caps poking out from what looked like a wizened loaf of pumpernickel. “You don’t like mushrooms?” I asked. “I like mushrooms, but not ones with yucky shells,” she explained, cackling, waving her hands at me as if I were a dunce and she was making perfect sense. She noticed a poster of wild mushrooms hanging outside the store. “I like this one,” she said, pointing to a particular ‘shroom. “That is a shitake,” I said. “It’s just like the ones on the log you said were yucky.” Three hours later, she woke up from a nap and grabbed my leg as I walked past her mat. “Actually, I only like two kinds of mushrooms,” she said, as if to clear up a misunderstanding. “I like the big ones and the little round ones.” “Okay,” I responded. ‘The rest are yucky,” she added, sighing conclusively as she rolled over to fall back asleep.
As part of the weekly ritual, we pick out vegetables and fruits for the kids to enjoy for a pre-playground snack after nap. The kids make choices, which is good for them to do. We try to present attractive options: produce to provoke curiosity and wonder — like lemon cucumbers, sweet gnarled bell peppers sporting psychedelic hues, little damson plums, and baby carrots in leafy bunches etc. At snack-time, they’re excited but picky — especially when it comes to vegetables which, unlike most fruits, aren’t usually sweet and, on some level, candy-like.
“Green Bean,” by Stella, age 4. She drew a green bean and then turned it into an airplane.
I am reminded of a story my mother once told me. She had a nasty 3rd grade teacher with a favorite adage — “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” — and she took pleasure in invoking it whenever students dozed, doodled, or clowned through her class. The saying has drifted through my mind at snack-time, though in this case, it expresses patience, not exasperation. To rope in another livestock platitude, the vegetables kids adamantly refuse — no matter how sustainable, delicious, and healthy they may be — are not pearls cast before proverbial swine. You can’t force much with kids and food. You can lead them to water, and while you can’t make them drink, you can drink yourself, in front of them, and tell them how good it is. If you’re funny and sincere enough, sooner or later, they’ll get thirsty. Breathlessly extolling their virtues between bites, I practically wore out my molars chomping purple peppers before a boy took pity on me, kind of shaking his head as he reached out a small pudgy paw for his own sliver.
4-year-olds don’t know that much yet. They also have a pretty limited vocabulary. Yet they’re — like George — endlessly curious, and constantly — unlike George — growing and honing new tools for comprehension and conversation. As a result, they’re very good at asking obvious, simple questions that actually require difficult, complex answers. On Tuesday, halfway through the afternoon, two children, a boy and a girl, argued. The boy yelped imperiously, “Did you know that if dinosaurs were alive now, they would eat us?” The girl guffawed in disbelief. “Eat us?” she snorted, probably, for once, not on purpose. “No way! Why would they eat us? We’re not food.” The boy nodded solemnly, closing his eyes as his head swung up and down. “They would. Do you know why? Because we have meat in our bodies.” The girl started to say something, then paused, her eyes wandering down to the arms hanging at her sides. She lifted her left arm with her right hand and let it flop down, limp. She picked it up again and squeezed it slowly and deliberately, feeling bone and muscle, her fingers crawling all the way up to her tiny shoulder. You could tell her brain was working hard. She was thinking about meat — what she knew of it, where she thought it came from, what it looked like, what it tasted like. Grilled chicken. Pepperoni on pizza. Ham sandwiches. Shrimp. She yelled at me from halfway across the room: “Do we have meat in our bodies for real?”
I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard. She yelled again. I took a deep breath. I walked over and knelt down on the carpet. I didn’t mind talking about it; I just wasn’t sure where to begin.