The other night I took my oldest son to Momofuku. He’d been to Momofuku Ssam before, but not the original noodle bar. I couldn’t wait for him to try the ramen. See, I said, watching with a particular kind of pleasure as he tasted the food, as the look on his face changed with each bite.
Later I realized that I’d been doing this with him for twenty years. I still clearly see his high chair, his Beatrix Potter bowl, his spoon, like a tiny rubber-coated espresso spoon, his bibs, and remember the slow, patient feedings, spoon into porridge and across and into his mouth, and the wait to see how he would react: eating it sometimes, sometimes not, wanting more or spitting it out or grabbing my hand along the way. Then came the parade of new foods. We followed the standard allergy-drill for new parents, introducing them one at a time. We bought a baby food mill and I felt so proud to take a baked sweet potato, organic of course, something I’d made, absolutely brimming with vitaminic goodness, then puree it and feed to him. He ate it. I swelled with love. Next up: carrots. Now: pork belly with hoisin sauce.
Only twenty, he’s still eating new things all the time. But what about us? How often do we try something new? Two weeks ago I had my first whelk. It was on a seafood platter at a restaurant called the John Dory, nestled in ice among impeccable oysters and littlenecks and half a lobster. It had a minerally of-the-sea flavor and a pleasant, gelatinous texture. Tasty, but I ate it gingerly, chasing this foreign thing in my mouth with a piece of Parker House roll. I probably won’t be looking for whelks on my next trip to the fish market.
But then consider the case of something like collards. Collard greens are hardly new or exotic. I’ve had them over the years in restaurants, always with ribs, and where they were always dank and kind of greasy. So though I cook for a family that loves greens, down to an eleven-year-old who barely tolerates other vegetables, I’ve never given them a chance. They turn up in the CSA share, big, coarse, rubbery grey-green leaves banded together, and somehow I always forget to use them.
It’s not a matter of preference, not a white meat vs. dark meat thing. It’s not being picky. It’s not Eww, a whelk?! It’s a prejudice, really. It’s about stereotyping an ingredient, seeing it one way, and one way only, and never bothering to take a real look. So it might as well be new. And there’s the hidden upside—a kind of second chance, the opportunity to try something “new” and experience the flush of discovering that it is delicious. Very delicious.
I made them on a snowy Saturday afternoon to go with a dish of ginger-scallion noodles. Look for leaves that are vibrant, green, without yellowing or brown spots. Wash thoroughly, then cut out the tough center rib and they’re ready. I rolled the leaves and sliced them into wide ribbons, then steam-sauteed them with ginger, garlic, dried hot peppers, and a dash of soy sauce, making sure to let them overcook to get that delicious dry sear where greens begin to stick to the cast iron pan.
I invited my oldest son to join me for lunch. The two of us sat down with chopsticks. It was his first real taste of collards. Mine too.