My wife, my son, and I were returning, recently, from a day-trip to visit family in South Milwaukee. It’s a two hour drive from my Aunt’s house to our apartment on Madison’s far west side. We had left later than we meant to and our son was starting to scream in his car seat. We quickly realized we would not get home with enough time for both dinner and a bath before bed. The decision was clear: stopping to eat something would be better than waiting and arriving home with an exhausted and hungry toddler.
Upon exiting I-94, our best option was one of those chain restaurants with a hapless assortment of film-and-television memorabilia covering the walls. Definitely not our first choice. But, we thought, compared with drive-thru fast food, this was our best hope of finding something that resembled actual nourishment.
When you’re a nouveau-hippie food snob and your wife is one of those people who wants to place a copy The Omnivore’s Dilemma next to the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms across America, you tend to wring your hands over everything your child eats. Similarly, when you’re a student of educational theory, dinner time is just one more opportunity to worry about life-long habits of heart, mind, and body. As I pulled off the highway the air was heavy with sighs of guilt and I could feel the chilly breath of John Dewey’s ghost on my neck: To say that all genuine education is based in experience is not to say that all experience is genuinely educational….
It’s just one dinner!, I told myself. The kid needed food and I needed to finish the next sixty-five miles of driving without frantic wails from the backseat. The place was clean, the employees were friendly, and there were other little kids – reducing the risk that our toddler would be the only diner who might cry and make a scene. It wouldn’t be our proudest parenting moment or a meaningful culinary education, but we could do worse. Michael Pollan and John Dewey would have to suck it up.
We started with water for my wife, lemon-lime soda for me, and milk for our son.
White milk?, asked the very nice waiter.
Yup. Just milk, please.
Sounds good... white milk.... Got it.
Then we skimmed the kids’ menu. Grilled cheese and a side of apples seemed the most respectable choice. It's not health food, but how badly can a person f*%k up grilled cheese?
It was the saddest grilled cheese ever. There was neither a grill nor actual dairy products involved in this sandwich: severely toasted, high-fructose bread with two slabs of uber-processed American “cheese.” I’ve seen more impressive dining experiences improvised – while heavily intoxicated – in a fraternity house.
It’s just one dinner, I repeated to myself. It’s not a big deal…. Right?
Our mop-top son happily ate several bites but soon slowed down. We gave him the apples. He inhaled the measly four slices of fruit and started signing "more." We gave him more grilled cheese. He took one more bite and held the sandwich away from his face. He pulled the bread apart and stared at the congealed contents. Then he turned to my wife, wordlessly handed her the cheese-product/white-bread combo, and returned to eating only the cheerios, raisins, and crazins we had in our backpack.
No screaming or tantrum. He simply made clear that something was very wrong with this "food" and he would be fine with the fruit and cheerios. Thanks but, No.
My wife looked at the dinner remnants in her hand, looked at me, and said, "Can you blame him? This looks like crap!" We started laughing and our son joined in with a toothy giggle and mouth full of dried cranberries. There was more laughing, clapping, and several rounds of “Good Boy!”
Maybe the meal wasn’t a genuinely educational experience but we were confident that we had successfully avoided the dreaded miseducational experience: somewhere between the cheesy noodles and the occasional slice of pizza we allowed, our kid was still be able to tell the difference between food and… well… crap.
We’re doin’ just fine.
Image: Ein Glas Milch by Stefan Kuhn