Damn It feels Good to be a (Dumpling) Gangsta
If Instagram had existed the evening my first-born son, Grayson Detroit Nagrant arrived, I would have been queen of the mommy influencers. I was Martha Stewart-level insufferable. I staged photos of Grayson holding Starbucks cups in his Bugaboo pram while we strolled through the West Loop. The pram itself was outfitted, not with generic plastic blocks, but a dangling stuffed Takashi Murakami flower.
I stuffed Grayson’s Graco car seat into every booth and under every table of every hot restaurant in the late 2000s. It was incredible, because I was, and still am, a devotee of the anonymous restaurant review. The staff was so terrified they’d have to ask me to leave if my son started acting like a real housewife of Beverly Hills, the thought that I’d complain about the mushy sushi rice in the next day’s paper never occurred to them. Though Grayson generally slept through most of those meals, when the Alinea baby got cancelled, I knew I had dodged a bullet.
When we dined in, I kicked Gerber to the curb and bought a bulk order of ice cube trays off Amazon so I could freeze all the pureed “real” food I made Grayson, who would undoubtedly grow up with a platinum palate that would usurp Charlie Trotter’s.
I started making pedestrian stuff like pureed sweet potatoes, but quickly moved to Delicata squash with ancho chili and maple syrup. I made ratatouille with tiny non-choking-hazard flecks of mint. I was a terrorist of baby tongues.
Except that I wasn’t. Grayson loved everything. He hoovered up chili-spiked squash. He gummed the eggplant and cried for more (he couldn’t use sign language to ask, because it turned out that as crazy as I was, even I had limits on my oppressive first-time dad sociopathy).
It was a miracle! Except that it wasn’t. The thing no one tells you is that most kids will eat almost anything you put in front of them until they’re about one to one and a half years old, at which point they turn in to Jay Leno and never eat a vegetable for the next fifty years. On the other hand, if you want evidence of karma, it’s kind of fun, because nothing kills sanctimony faster than your two-year-old spitting black garlic-glazed seitan quinoa all over your generally slouchy boho capsule wardrobe.
Not long after murdering the ratatouille, Grayson evolved into his “Off White”-period (R.I.P. Virgil Abloh), aka, consuming only rice, pasta, or for variety, anything in the hue of beige. He’s now fifteen and has not grown out of this, though he has added in cheeseburgers and allows for tomato sauce on pizza, though still not on pasta, as if tomato sauce on noodles somehow transforms into poison.
Grayson has a minor peanut allergy. If, you are only as happy as your happiest child, imagine how devastated you feel when the birthday cake on his fifth birthday contains some kind of undisclosed nut, and he spends the next hour puking while his friends rock the gutter rails at Diversey Rock and Bowl.
Grayson is never without an Epi-pen and though we’ve been lucky that he doesn’t seem to go into immediate anaphylaxis and can generally be treated with a Benadryl tablet the few times he's had any nut exposure, it’s still terrifying.
Grayson would also rather skydive without a parachute than self-administer an Epi-pen or ask anyone else to do it for him. But, he’s not suicidal, and thus I completely understand and appreciate that the selectivity of his diet is his preferred self-preservation mechanism.
This is also why we’ve raised our second born, Beckett Wilde (he is so screwed if he becomes a writer, and also by now, you can tell I have sick white yuppy naming game) on a diet of Kraft “thick and creamy” formula mac and cheese and whatever Hot Pockets happen to be on sale.
Unless you are tourniqueting a wound, the irony in life is that the more you put pressure on something, the less likely you’ll achieve a great outcome. Sure, enough, despite the processed foods-laden toddler years, Beckett is basically Andrew Zimmern on an all-star episode of Fear Factor. Bring on the tarantula torte and the scorpion popsicles.
Good parenting sometimes means that you’re supposed to meet your kids where they are, rather than where you want them to be. I generally understand this, though I also believe you don’t really know if you truly don’t like something unless you try it at least twice. I will always ask Grayson if he wants to try the black truffle, the blood sausage, the foie gras, or anything I find particularly delightful, because, well, you never know. My wife always laughs at me as I do it, knowing it’s basically Charlie Brown asking Lucy to hold the football. It will never end the way I hope, but I am at heart an eternal optimist.
But, this is also why Grayson and I instead bond through sports. It’s his passion. Next weekend we’re going to see the Blackhawks play the Bruins in Boston. On trips like this, oddly, especially for someone who still throws candy wrappers in the middle of the living room like some imaginary butler will somehow pick them up, he is keen to meet me in the middle too. While we will kill some burgers in Boston, there’s a good chance he’ll also encourage me to slurp down one of my all-time favorite American restaurant dishes, “Lazy Man’s” lobster, basically a creamy already-shelled Thermidor at the Union Oyster House.
Beckett doesn’t love sports like Grayson, but he does love food. For years, I got to play tour guide, to transfer my love affair with Chicago, through weekend drives with him for legendary eats. We were like history buffs, with visits to Al’s or Manny’s or Calumet Fisheries serving as our museums.
Beckett is eleven now, a semi-pro gamer, and world class Gorilla Tag-assassin on his Oculus virtual reality headset. Because I somehow lost the intellectual curiosity to operate any joystick since eight-bit Nintendo, this means we haven’t been going on as many food trips or spending as much time together lately.
But, a couple of weeks ago, Beckett looked up from his iPad and like the reincarnated soul of Anthony Bourdain said, “Dad, I’m bored, let’s go get some soup dumplings in Chinatown!”
Just as Beckett made this request, Billy Zureikat aka @therealbillyz on IG, DMed me and told me to stop by J.T.’s Genuine (one of the best sandwich shops in Chicago if you haven’t been) so I could try his “Derek Rose”, aka chopped cheesesteak dripping in giardinara, so we could meet IRL. I try to stay away from meeting food people or getting too close to them, because I’m committed to evaluating the quality of a person’s cooking rather than how I feel about them personally.
But, while Billy is food people, he’s not a restaurant operator. He is an extraordinary guy, a lifelong sports enthusiast and former ESPN radio producer. He loved ballin’, but when he wasn’t able to ball as well as he used to, he went to the doctor where he was diagnosed with Lamb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy.
Billy, like most would, felt down about the diagnosis. He even kept it a secret for a little while. One day, while out walking, he tripped and fell on the sidewalk in front of woman who looked at him like he was crazy.
If you’ve been on the fence, now’s a great time to convert your free subscription to a paid one. This week I’ll contribute 50% of all proceeds from new paid subscriptions to Billy’s fundraising campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. (I will post the receipt here as proof of donation the following week)