A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

What Do They Eat in Jail?

Is fast food the devil?

My children are a little confused about McDonald's, and I know I have to take the blame. First contact came when they spotted Ronald McDonald cavorting across the screen after one of their tv shows--something "educational" on a supposedly commercial-free station that has, nonetheless, to support itself by showing sponsorship messages before and after every show. Beaches, First Years, Pampers, McDonald's. These brands and images sear themselves into my children's brains, so they know who Ronald McDonald is before they've ever eaten a hamburger.

Second contact with the famous fast-food brand is, ironically, a sighting on the way to our regular Saturday lunch at Momofuku Noodle Bar--the anti-McDonald's. The golden arches on a formerly bohemian stretch of First Avenue in the East Village inexorably draw my girls' eyes out the car window. This occasions a backseat discussion, of sorts, between our then three- and five-year-old daughters. I can't let it go without intervening, so I have to tell them that it's not really very good for you, this McDonald's, and assure them that what we're going to have--fresh, steaming bowls of hand-pulled ramen, lovingly sauced with locally and sustainably raised pork, eggs, and other goodies--is soooo much better. After a few weeks of this exchange, my older daughter has a pretty good idea that she hates McDonald's--although she's still never stepped foot in one.

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It all comes home to roost during a discussion about crime and punishment. My older daughter asks whether there's food in jail. When I confirm that prisoners are fed, but with truly awful, horrible food, she sucks in her breath and looks stricken: "Like...McDonald's?" she asks in hushed tones.

Of course, that would be even funnier if, (not so) deep down, I didn't feel that McDonald's food really is the equivalent of prison slop: the cheapest, most easily mass-produced meals, made from the poorest quality ingredients that Big Agriculture feels it can get away with. And yet, somehow, this is the most popular food not just in this country, but in the world--our poor, gullible world.

And there's more. Some time later, my four-year-old pointed out that when you get food from McDonald's, you get toys as well; her expression suggested perhaps this wasn't such a bad thing. My first reaction was shock that she knows this (even before I ask, I know which kid in her class told her; this is how conformist our small world is: the kid from a different neighborhood is the first one I place under suspicion, and I'm right). This quickly gives way to a desperate need to set my girls straight. I take the drastic step of pausing "Dora the Explorer" on the Tivo, to get their full attention.

"OK, it's true that they put toys in the kids' meals, but you know why they do that, right?" I ask them. Not even turning their eyes away from the frozen picture on the screen, they say, "To get our money." Phew. Making my children safe from commercial manipulation, one step at a time? Check.

But one day they will leave this liberal, conscientious Park Slope bubble, and the all-sustainable, mostly organic, painstakingly curated food of their school lunchroom, and be exposed to the world--the world that doesn't just like but loves McDonald's. And will my speeches in the car, my brave stand in front of Dora, be enough to protect them? Or will they be mocked when they publicize their belief that prisoners get fed McDonald's hamburgers? And when they do get mocked (as they obviously will), will they blame me? We want to teach our children to make good choices, in eating as much as every area of their lives, but balancing our own prejudices with the reality of the world around us will never cease to be a tricky act.

What I cooked this week, with sources:

Cold Eggplants with Spicy Peanut Sauce (Madhur Jaffrey's "World Vegetarian")

Scallion and Miso Soba Noodles (Gourmet Today)

Corn Chowder (Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone")

Polenta-Crusted Chicken with Balsamic Caper Pan Sauce

Golden Beet Soup

Plum Cake (NY Times)

Elvis Presley's Favorite Pound Cake (The Gourmet Cookbook)

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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