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San Francisco, a Valentine’s Day in the 1980s: It was a chilly day in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. The storefronts, coffee shops, and restaurants were decked out in their bright crimson St. Valentine’s Day best. I was still in my thirties, living out the cheerful but hectic routine of being a wife and a mother.
My spouse Jim and I were meeting up with our computer geek-y friend, Paul. Our eight-year-old son, Gabe, had created a Valentine’s Day card for Paul, decked out with illustrations detailing Jim and me sitting on the living room couch, with our tiger cat standing on our laps. Gabe was especially proud of the little mouse family that he had depicted as living in between our shoes.
The seafood restaurant where we would be eating was well known and well recommended. I was glad we had reservations. Sure enough, when we arrived, we spotted Paul already seated toward the back windows, one friendly face in a sea of happy people chowing down. As we took our seats, Paul deftly pulled a quarter from behind Gabe’s left ear.
When the waitress approached, Jim looked at me with that significant parental stare, “Are we gonna have to go through this again?”
I couldn’t help knowing what he was referring to: our offspring was not a fish eater. To be honest, he was not much of a food eater. He thought french fries were an essential part of any meal, even breakfast. He liked pizza and hot dogs and hamburgers. And that was it, as far as lunch or dinner entrees. Any other foodstuff required a huge fight. In the end, even if the food was put on the plate, he would leave it untouched if it wasn’t part of The Four Food Groups.
Both of us felt this as a failure of our parental skills. By the time I was eight, I was familiar with all types of foods: shepherds’ pie, roast beef with carrots, leeks and baked potatoes, corned beef with cabbage, pork chop medallions. And fish. All types of fish: catfish, trout, haddock, cod, shrimp, lobster, and clam chowder. My spouse’s food history was pretty much the same.
How could we possibly not be able to convince our kid to open up to a wider array of culinary treasures? Where did his food hesitancy come from? Was this tiny version of my husband and me even related to us?
As the waitress finished getting the adults’ orders squared away, she indicated Gabe needed to order. Luckily he was looking the other way and so I tugged on her elbow and pointed to the menu: “My son will have the hamburger soup.” As I said this, I pointed to the menu’s red-bordered “Daily Special – Every Day” selection: ‘Clam chowder.’
Then I put a finger to my lips indicating we wouldn’t be correcting my selection as “not being” hamburger soup. The young woman understood my plea, and smiled. “For you young man, hamburger soup,” she stated with a flourish, as she handed Gabe his Pepsi with ice. “We have the best hamburger soup, and you kids simply love it.”
Gabe nudged Jim in a happy voice, and asked, “How come no one has ever ordered hamburger soup for me before?” Wisely Jim reminded him this was one of the best places to eat in all of California, if not the world, and we wanted to make sure his first bowl would be made with extra attention to detail.
In between Paul explaining his latest theories on how the Universe was expanding, and why he found this expansion intriguing, our food was served. We had a huge antipasto platter, basket after basket of piping hot French rolls which we felt forced to slather with butter. Each of us dug into our small salads and began to feel that perhaps we should have paced ourselves better. After all, the main course had not arrived, and we probably had each consumed some 2,000 calories.
Jim made the comment that whether the Universe was expanding or not, we all certainly were.
But a sense of regret over too many calories consumed had no chance of surviving. The main course arrived, amidst the delicious aroma of the seafood we’d ordered. Paul and James both had lobster tails, while I was planning on relishing every mouthful of the cioppino stew now sitting in front of me.
But as the waitress served Gabe, I felt my heart race. This kid was a super bright eight-year-old – wouldn’t he question the hamburger soup? Would I have to offer his soup to Jim or Paul, and give in to order another burger and fries after all?
I held on to the slim but steadfast hope that a grey looking chowder might be exactly how a child would envision hamburger soup to look.
But Gabe put his spoon into the warm bowl of chowder, held the spoonful up to his nose, and then sank the spoon into his mouth. A look of pleasure spread across his face. He didn’t look to the left or the right, and barely noticed Paul making faces at me while he told another funny joke.
Although the cioppino must have been delicious, the main thing on my mind was that bowl of chowder. But Gabe finished it quickly, to immediately ask, “Is there any more?” We flagged down the waitress, and he began to work his way through bowl number two.
Only Gabe had room for dessert, but we adults had more coffee with some wonderful whipped cream. Pleasant and telling looks had been exchanged among us adults, to the tune of “Maybe Gabe’s long food rejection will soon be a thing of the past.”
As we gathered up our coats and made our way out of the restaurant, Gabe skipped ahead of me. Once out on the sidewalk, he turned and said, “Boy Mom, that meal was fabulous. I wanna come here all the time and have more hamburger soup!”
Jim and I waited a good two months or so, and at least another half dozen bowls of clam chowder, before we ‘fessed up. By then, clam chowder was one of the things he lived for. As you might have guessed, it was the first of many unfamiliar culinary items that he grew to love.Published in