Adventurous eaters ahead: Seattle food writer Matthew Amster-Burton shares his wisdom
Seattle food writer Matthew Amster-Burton shares his love of great cuisine with 11-year-old daughter Iris – to varying success.
Photo: Joshua Huston
When Matthew Amster-Burton set out to raise his daughter as an adventurous eater, his motives were largely selfish.
His thought was: “I hope I don’t have to change the stuff that I like to eat in order to integrate this baby into the household,” said Matthew, a Seattle-based food writer.
His plan more or less worked. Iris, now 11 years old, gladly tucks into much of the Japanese and Asian cuisines that her dad loves. Her most requested home-cooked dinner is an Asian-inspired chicken stir-fry and her family, which includes mom Laurie, is traveling to Japan this fall for an eating expedition.
But what began as a strategy for gustatory self-preservation evolved into something even better: a shared passion between a parent and child.
Because when it comes to a 40-something-year-old dad and a preteen daughter, “you don’t always have a lot of areas of common interest,” Matthew said. For Iris and him, it’s all about Asian food and the card game Magic: The Gathering: “When you have a kid, you take that [commonality] where you can get it.”
And given that everyone needs to eat every day, food and meals offer a natural avenue for bonding for all families — though for others it might not be a mutual love of Sichuanese hot bean paste.
“Regardless of your circumstances or dietary restrictions or constraints on your time, there are ways to connect with your family over food,” Matthew said.
Iris has not, however, developed her dad’s enthusiasm for cooking. A couple of years ago he suggested that she make one dinner a week. That plan lasted for about a month.
“I haven’t wanted to push it,” Matthew said. “We have a good relationship around food and I don’t want to disturb it.”
Photo: Joshua Huston
Iris, now 11, gladly tucks into much of the Japanese and Asian cuisines that her dad loves.
He does hope that Iris might be inspired by Japanese kids on their upcoming trip. From a young age, Matthew said, kids in that country are expected to help out in the kitchen. On a previous trip, when they arrived at a Japanese family’s home, their toddler was making octopus dumplings. The child was pouring batter into a hot griddle device, placing octopus into the griddle’s depressions and using two skewers to coax the batter out after the dumplings were cooked.
“Literally 2½ years old and operating this thing like a professional. What I’m saying is, I want to trade Iris in for this other kid,” Matthew joked.
Iris is excited about growing food; every year since was 3 she has gone to camp at Seattle Tilth, a nonprofit supporting organic gardening. This year she was a junior counselor at the camp.
Iris also gets to pick the menu for dinner at least once a week, a role she’s played since preschool. On other nights, Matthew tries to make something palatable to his daughter, but her tastes aren’t the only driver.
His motto: “I like to serve meals that are informed by Iris’ preferences, but not dominated by them,” Matthew said.
And while Iris was exposed to a bold mix of foods beginning in infancy, she doesn’t eat everything — including many vegetables, unless they’re tempura. Her dad is OK with that, too.
“The temptation is to get into a power struggle with your kids,” Matthew said, demanding they try three bites of this, or eat all of that or there’s no dessert. “It just doesn’t work.”
He thinks that kids will try more foods and eat better if they’re given some freedom to eat what they want. He figures that he’s making mostly healthy, seasonal foods without a lot of processed ingredients, and he lets Iris decide what she wants to eat and how much of it.
“You cook something reasonable, you put it on the table, and you let your kids decide what to do with it,” Matthew said. “Then your responsibility is fulfilled.”
Matthew Amster-Burton has written three books about exploring food with Iris, first in Seattle when she was younger, then on trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong. He has his own blog, rootsandgrubs.com, and also co-stars with Seattle cook and author Molly Wizenberg in a weekly comedic, food-related podcast called Spilled Milk at spilledmilkpodcast.com.