Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Matthew Amster-Burton's "Hungry Monkey"

The other day I was at Lucy's gymnastics class and a very nice mom I met there let me borrow a food memoir she had been reading. The author was a parent/chef writing about feeding her kids. The mom who gave it to me had abandoned the book halfway, but thought I might give it a go anyway. I got about 10 pages in before I realized it was the most boring book ever to have been penned by anyone in modern civilization. Chaucer was more boring, but not by much.

Truth is, writing about food and kids and making it interesting is harder than it looks.

Many kid/food books (and blogs for that matter) are overly earnest "Your child will gobble up this delicious TOFU SCRAMBLE. My Harry eats it every day." Too many focus on dumbing down food so kids will eat it "Here's how to make the broccoli look like a magic elfin forest. Kids love trees." And face it, many just end up making you feel like crap, "Charlie's favorite afternoon snack is kale...Charlie eats kale three times a day! His doctor says he's the healthiest kid he's ever seen!" I mean, no one with a normal, finicky kid wants to hear about how some chef's kid slurps down eel and asks for kimchi to be served at his birthday party.

Writing about kids and food in most people's hands is a big, fat bore. It is nearly overlooked by much of the food writing community, for good reason. And that's why, when someone does it well, with humor grounded in reality, it is a relief. And well-worth the read.

So, I'm telling you to by-pass all the other smiley-faced recipe books this holiday season, the ones that tell you your kid should be eating and loving Pea Popsicles (Good God) or the food memoirs from parent cooks who have one year olds who can spot a chive across the room, and pick up Matthew Amster-Burton's book, "Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater."

Hungry Monkey is about Matthew's food adventures with his young daughter, Iris. In the hands of another food writer, this could be the reading equivalent of eating a piece of dry toast, but Matthew - in between challenging but compulsively do-able recipes for such dishes as Carnitas, Pad Thai, Thai Catfish Cakes and Iris' favorite Ants on a Tree - shows his readers that even kids who have pretty adventurous eating habits can despise something as simple as soup and take serious offense to something as middle of the road as ketchup.

I don't do a lot of stumping here, and Matthew is a blog-friend, so bear in mind I am less than impartial, (I have been a big Roots and Grubs fan since I started blogging) but I think he has something special here. I think he wrote the book that other food writers should have written and didn't. I think marrying food and kids and humor is a winner for the reader because - as you do with Hungry Monkey - you'll learn a little something, pick up a few good recipes you can take back to your own kitchen, laugh out loud and wake your spouse from a deep, deep sleep and ultimately, you'll realize how absurd feeding your kids can be and how we are all in the same ridiculous, mind-numbingly frustrating boat together.

Matthew was kind enough to answer a little Q & A for me. I think you will find him joyously warped. He also uses the word "fuck" in his interviews, which I find kind of sexy.

xo YM

1. Most people aspire to have a full fridge and shop as minimally as possible. Why do you love a bare fridge and shop like 8 times a week? That’s so quirky.

I love grocery shopping. One of the reasons I love it is that I only have one kid and I rarely take her along. But I also love going outside. I live in one of the world's most awesome neighborhoods, and every time I go out I feel like part of a story.

A bare fridge means I can make whatever I want for dinner tonight without feeling guilty about neglecting the stuff in the fridge.
Easier said than done. Earlier this week Laurie said to me, "There seem to be a lot of assorted meats in the fridge."

"Just chicken and pork," I said.

"And ham. And what's in this box?"

"Roast duck," I admitted. Oops.

2. Can you talk a little bit about giving kids decision-making power at dinner and how you tackled that with Iris? How important do you think it is that kids can choose dinner sometimes and what if they choose Ho-Ho’s?

I think Ho-Hos for dinner would be fucking hilarious. Don't Ho Hos look a lot like sushi rolls? Everyone will get a little dish of chocolate sauce and a dab of mint green whipped cream to mix in, and Iris will be required to eat her Ho Ho slices with chopsticks.

Okay, I'm convinced. Ho Hos tonight. Thanks for the idea.

Seriously, I love cooking dinner but hate deciding what to make. Iris likes making a pick every week. Everyone wins. She's never chosen something absurd, but if she did, I would totally go with it. Lately, her top picks have been pizza, burgers, udon noodles, tortilla soup, and sukiyaki.

3. What do you wish Iris would just love to eat, but doesn’t? Have you tried overtly to “cultivate” her taste or are you as laid back and cool as I suspect?

I'm extremely laid back (read: lazy). There are definitely things I wish Iris would enjoy, especially spicy things. Like, I can't make Thai curry for the whole family, because if it's not spicy it's not good, and if it is spicy, Iris won't eat it. She also hates risotto. I get away with salad by putting crispy chicken or pork on top.

I wouldn't even know where to begin if I wanted to cultivate Iris's taste in something. It would end up being a catastrophe. I'd be better off hanging my happiness on peace in the Middle East than convincing a five-year-old to eat broccoli.

4. I love that you had a little fun at the expense of Ruth Yaron’s decidedly comprehensive, but super-preachy “Super Baby Food”...How intense is that book? What’s one thing every parent should know about feeding their baby that Yaron won’t tell you or just doesn’t know?

Babies can eat mashed-up grownup food starting with their first mouthful. Just take some of that curry, noodles, casserole, or anything else chewable, smash it, and put it in your baby's mouth.

There's no such thing as baby food.

5. One thing I love about “Hungry Monkey” is how you distinguish between feeding iris and having a lunch date with her. I feel like exhaling every time I think of having a “lunch date” with the kids, not “feeding them”. I’d love to know how Iris would describe a typical lunch date with her dad.

Well, when I wrote that, I was talking about when Iris was a baby and we'd have lunch together at home. Now she's in kindergarten and has lunch with friends at school. Sometimes I get to come along, which is awesome. I love hanging out with kids, because they never complain about their jobs. They want to tell you about something that happened in class that makes no sense and may be fabricated, but who cares?

I do like to take Iris out to lunch on the weekends. The other day we went to Blue C Sushi, the conveyor belt sushi place I described in chapter 18 of Hungry Monkey. They had a new dessert item, mini-donuts.
Iris was thrilled.

By the way, I think you're hinting at the tragic flaw of my book, which is that I style myself as an expert, or at least a reporter from the trenches, but I ONLY HAVE ONE KID. Feeding one kid is easy.

Feeding two kids who are guaranteed to hate precisely the opposite foods, shit, I don't know what I'd do. Drink, I guess.

6. You put candied bacon in your Irish Oats...what else can I do with candied bacon?

Check the ads in the back of the Village Voice for ideas.

7. I remember getting a sneak look at your chapter “The Only Snack Dad in Preschool” just as I was coming upon my own tenure as a snack parent. I felt rejuvenated by your neurotic (I mean that in the nicest way) and hilarious search for the perfect class snacks. What is the best advice you can give parents who are looking to bring or pack snacks/lunch that kids might actually have a snowballs chance in hell of eating?

Here's a lunch that I guarantee your kids will finish: Ho Hos and a juice box.

Just kidding! Sort of. I struggle with this because I don't really like lunch box food myself. If I were packing myself a lunch, I'd make a bento box with rice and leftover meat and vegetables and stuff. I just dropped Iris off at school and, let's see, her lunch contains a couple of slices of ham rolled up in a flour tortilla and sliced (I call this a Ham Ho Ho...not really), a homemade cranberry-coconut cookie, and some dried honeycrisp apple chips.

8. Why? Why? Why are frozen brussel sprouts better than fresh? Is there some kernel of knowledge that has eluded me? (I went out and bought a bag of frozen to test this theory. Very scientific.)

What was the result of your experiment? Here's the deal: fresh brussels sprouts are only really good in the winter, and prepping them is a bitch. Frozen ones require no prep, are always in season, and cost less. And they taste great. Not as good as in-season sprouts from the farmers market, but very good.

9. Do you go out to eat with Iris often? Give us one 4 yr old eating out success story that you are proud of and one you and Iris are still working on?

We have a short roster of local restaurants where we'll take Iris. Any Chinese restaurant is fine, or any burger or pizza place, but the only fancy-ish restaurant we take her to is called Poppy. It's down the street from us, and they serve Indian-inspired thali meals--i.e., a bunch of little dishes of tasty stuff. Every thali includes meat or fish (or good vegetarian options), salad, pickles, hot vegetable sides, sometimes fried stuff. And our friend Dana Cree is the pastry chef and makes a mean dessert thali. It's a great place for kids because they can pick and choose among all the little dishes without being told, "Try this, and this, and this." And one thali can easily feed an adult and a child.

I never take Iris out to eat with the expectation that she'll try something new. That's a sure way to suck all the fun out of the experience for me. Have you noticed that I put a lot of emphasis on trying to make my life more fun? Me too.

10. You have the best snack philosophy ever – introduce them to the good stuff. I love that you love treats and chocolate and embrace the idea that kids like to eat them too. I also love that you do treats in the afternoon, so there is no “eat your dinner or no dessert” struggle at dinner. Please change the face of neurotic parenting and tell us why we should relax about sweets. And what, if any, constraints do you have on treats and nutrition-challenged snacks?

I think parents have three main worries about sweets: (1) Sweets will make my kid hyper. (2) Sweets will make my kid fat. (3) Other parents will make angry eyebrows at me if they think I'm letting my kid have too many sweets. Number three is probably true. The others are a load of crap. Why should you believe me? Because I'm some random guy on the Internet and I say so. (Seriously, there's more about this in the

I'm a hedonist. I have three great sensual pleasures in life: food, music, and, uh, I forget the other one (oh yeah, it's the one Iris is allowed to become interested in after I'm dead; see how cool and laid-back I am?). As far as it's possible in this society, I think I have a pretty uncomplicated relationship with food. Iris does, too, and I'd like her to enjoy that for as long as possible. You'd think that would be a recipe for unrestrained gorging on Ho Hos. It's not.

11. How was the process for you while writing this book? Anything totally surprise you? Things you would do again? Or differently?

The irony of every book about the author's family is that the author had to spend long hours away from the family in order to write it. I'm not looking forward to that part when I write another book.

I have to put in a plug for Scrivener, the software I used to write the book. It's a Mac word processor specifically for authors: it doesn't work well for short documents, but for writing a 75,000 word book, it's irreplaceable.

12. Any plans for another book?

I'd like to write another book, but I haven't had the right idea yet, and a sequel to Hungry Monkey isn't in the offing. Sorry!
(Alternatively: you're welcome!)

Matthew Amster-Burton writes for,, Seattle Magazine, and the Seattle Times. A former contributing writer for Gourmet, he has been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology repeatedly. Find him online at



Unplanned Cooking said...

I have had a few people recommend that book to me. I'm glad to hear it's a good read, because I've got it on my list.

Cal Orey, Author-Intuitive said...

I find your blog refreshing.