As her son entered the Age of Knights and Superheroes and her household became populated with small but brawny action figures, food writer T. Susan Chang was confronted with the question: What do they eat? Turns out, they like apples and milk and have highly nutritious diets!
It probably all began long ago with Popeye, that canny, spinach-fueled master of propaganda. I am sure I was not the only 6-year-old who watched Popeye with a certain skepticism, as the spinach biomass migrated from tin can to esophagus to bicep. Was anybody really buying this? How desperately our fond but foolish parents longed for us to eat our vegetables!
Many years later, I conceived a son, and soon he was hurling peas on the floor with the best of them. Like every parent since time began, his papa and I rapidly launched the "Just One Bite" campaign. It worked pretty well, probably because "Just One Bite" never morphed into the trust-violating "Just One More."
Right about the time we changed Noah's last diaper, we entered the Age of Knights and Superheroes. As our household became populated with small but brawny action figures, the question inevitably arose: What do they eat?
The opportunity was too good to waste. The Lego Knights naturally sat down for a picnic: Sir Santis served the sandwiches; Sir Rascus poured the milk. They chatted about knight stuff, like whose sword was bigger. I waited for results.
It's true that Noah continued to decapitate his knights and drop them from high places. But every once in a while, one knight would present the other with an offering of baked goods. So far, so good.
Now I was on a mission. When Noah begged for a Superman story, he got one. But in this story, Superman went on a camping trip, where he learned to cook chili. Lois Lane (who has an astonishing skill set, in my stories) proved an expert fisherman. Together they bested the Green Goblin, a malnourished sociopath who littered his campsite with junk food wrappers.
The latest addition has been Sir Magnus, a "Knight Light" whose mace, shield and furious eyes glow in the dark while Noah sleeps. The plot: Sir Magnus and Spider-Man bump into each other in New York while attempting to rescue the same hapless victim of a mugging. Spider-Man explains to his fascinated new friend that the calcium in milk makes his web super-strong. They chat, swap crime-fighting tips and discover their common love of… apples!
The battle against ultimate evil takes a break as Sir Magnus, who has a way with a food mill, teaches Spider-Man how to make applesauce. Marvel Comics, meet Iron Chef!
I've had my moments of doubt. After all, in the mind of Stan Lee, maybe Spider-Man ate nothing but modern wonder foods like marshmallow fluff and Tang. Does eating right have any place in the battle between good and evil? Should real food flex its muscles in fiction's wide-open spaces?
But then I think of the snack aisle, where the anti-heroes of food have already set up shop, proclaiming that food doesn't have to be real, as long as it's fun: Buzz Lightyear and his fruitless "Fruit Snacks," Sponge Bob's corn syrup-laden Pop Tarts. Bob and Buzz may be stand-up citizens of a kid's entertainment universe, but the message they send about food is positively morbid. They make Popeye seem like a model of candor.
In the real world, obesity and juvenile diabetes are threats as dire as any in Gotham City, and my son needs superpowers of his own to thrive. My food fables, hodgepodge as they are, could be the start he needs.
So we nourish Noah's dreams of power modestly: May he learn to run faster than a speeding softball and become more powerful than his sticky dresser drawer. May he leap three stairs in a single bound! Because in the end, our heroes are but figments of our true selves' imagination -- free, boundless and strong to the finish.
Yield: 1 quart of applesauce.
Fresh, warm, homemade applesauce bears no resemblance to the supermarket variety. Using as many different kinds of apples as possible gives the sauce complexity, character and usually a lovely color.
8 -10 apples
1 pint of water
1. Core and quarter the apples, leaving the skins on. Place them in a sturdy stockpot with the water and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally to keep the apples from sticking.
2. Cover and cook, stirring from time to time, until the apples have softened completely, about 35-40 minutes. Empty the apples into a food mill fitted with the fine disk and pass the apples through. Serve warm or cold.
Lemon-Herb Chicken Tenders
The following meal serves two kids.
1/2 pound chicken tenders
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
Leaves from 1 sprig of fresh thyme, chopped
3 sprigs of fresh parsley, chopped
1. Season the chicken tenders with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, heat the butter and oil together over medium-high heat until the butter ceases to foam. Saute the chicken tenders until just browned, 1-2 minutes per side.
2. Add the chopped garlic and lemon zest to the pan and continue to cook gently for a minute or two while the flavors blend. Add the lemon juice and simmer 2-3 more minutes, until the chicken is just cooked. Sprinkle the chopped herbs over the chicken and serve hot.
Coarse salt to taste
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 pound of spinach, well washed (or prewashed) and stems trimmed.
Freshly ground black pepper
1. In a heavy pan, heat the oil, salt and garlic together over low-medium heat. Keep the garlic just barely sizzling as long as you can without burning it, to allow its flavor to permeate the oil.
2. Add the spinach and raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring so the garlic doesn't burn, until the spinach has just wilted. Taste for seasoning and add pepper.
2 russet potatoes, peeled (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 sprigs of rosemary, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut the potatoes into "steak fries": Halve the potatoes lengthwise and cut each half into 1/4 to 1/3-inch slices.
2. While the oven is heating, place the cut potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan of generously salted water. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and blanch the potatoes until they are just tender enough to pierce with a fork, about 5-7 minutes. Drain the potatoes and dry well with paper towels.
3. In a large, stainless steel bowl, toss the blanched potatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped rosemary. Turn the potatoes onto a foil-lined baking sheet and bake in the oven, turning the potatoes with tongs at times, until golden brown, about 25-35 minutes. Sprinkle with additional coarse salt and serve hot.
Oatmeal Dried-Cherry Cookies
Adapted from Joan Nathan's New American Cooking (Knopf. To be published 10/26/05)
Yield: Approx. 4 dozen
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups uncooked old-fashioned oats
2 cups dried cherries.
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until creamy and pale. Add the eggs, one at a time, waiting until the first is fully incorporated before adding the second; then add the vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt and gradually pour into the bowl.
3. Stir in the oats and dried cherries, mixing well. Drop by rounded tablespoonfulls onto two cookie sheets, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Cool before removing them from the cookie sheets. Repeat with the remaining batter.