We recently took our ten-month-old son Malakai Wolf on an international voyage to France, Israel and Greece. Along the way we made a special emphasis on giving him new things to try in an attempt to expand his culinary repertoire. Turns out both culturally and developmentally, the world is chock-full of interesting things to put in one’s mouth, and at the age of ten months, everything is a first!
Two of the (myriad) approaches to feeding babies are the conventional Western healthy mush approach and the baby-led feeding approach. The healthy mush approach espouses moving from breast-milk up to rice cereal and then pureed veggies (that is, mush). With baby-led feeding, we basically just give the baby little bits of whatever we are eating and see if he likes it.
Part of the trip was predicated around visiting Malakai’s two cousins who were born within weeks of him. My siblings’ babies are both second children and are well-versed in opening wide for heaping bites of healthy mush-off-a-spoon. Our little Malakai, on the other hand, either due to his paternal gastronomic genes or because as a first baby he never learned how, has been a little reticent in the spoon-feeding department.
In France, spoon-feeding did not come up, and little Kai sunk his (four) teeth into the freshest of croissants, chewy baguettes, delicate crepes and a traditional French omelet. While it wasn’t such a surprise that a fistful of buttery croissant guts was a hit, we hadn’t expected the omelet. In France, there is a tradition of creating layered omelet cakes that look a little like our version of lasagna. Each layer of egg is flavored or seasoned with something else and then stacked in a pan and cut into squares. Kai really enjoyed taking apart the colorful layers and eating them one by one.
My culinary roots in the Holy Land are deeply steeped in hummus. As a passionate vegetarian who was allergic to all dairy, I ate a loooot of hummus growing up. To this day, the experience of leaving the beaten path and straying up into an Arab village to experience the freshest most authentic hummus is still one of my favorite parts of visiting my family.
Hummus HaMalachim (“Kings’ Hummus”) in Deir El Assad is probably my favorite, and no trip to Israel would be complete without gorging on the perfectly seasoned staple served warm (Yes, in Israel hummus is eaten warm!) with soft stewed chickpeas, a stack of fresh, chewy pita bread and the requisite plate of pickles, olives, hot peppers and sliced tomatoes and onions.
While Kai proved adept at smearing the hummus on all surfaces and clothing, his appetite for it was lackadaisical at best. On the other hand, the big surprise of the meal was that Kai loves pickles. He could not get enough of the sliced sharp, sour pickles.
The other excitement was finding little Kai devouring large slices of tomato while we caught up with the owner on the state of the village and the hummus business. As Kai stuffed increasingly larger chunks of tomato into his little mouth, the owner expressed some concern for choking in response to which Kai happily spit out a large mouthful of skin and seeds and began beating on the table in delight.
Vacationing on the rural Greek coast with my family, we had plenty of opportunities to give Kai samples of local taverna fare. While fresh grilled fish seems to be a perennial favorite, a new delight was tzatziki. Most tavernas have a list of various prepared salads that accompany main dishes, but perhaps none is as ubiquitous as tzatziki, a cooling combination of thick Greek yogurt, grated cucumber and sharp, fresh garlic. Kai took tremendous delight in covering himself in tzatziki, swimming in tzatziki and finally even tasting some off a spoon.
Maybe the biggest success though was moussaka. While Kai has been happy to receive diverse handheld morsels to date, he has been less excited about anything on a utensil. He made an exception for moussaka, the traditional casserole consisting of ground meat, sliced eggplants and potatoes and a rich béchamel sauce on top. Waiting for our ferryboat off the island of Evia, we dined in a small portside taverna where I ordered the dish. Kai’s blue eyes got big upon his first bite of the flavorful ground meat cooked in tomato sauce taken off the tip of a fork. Upon tasting the layer of mushy béchamel, he opened his mouth like a little bird and demanded more.
We are now back in the land of fast food and allergy fears with a baby who has cut his—four—teeth on some of the world’s great flavors and textures. While I’m not sure which of these culinary experiences can be duplicated in Baltimore, we’re certainly going to try!