For a 5-year-old, Iris Amster-Burton spends a lot of time thinking about food. She likes to flip through cooking magazines and recipe books, looking at glossy pictures of cupcakes or strange Japanese dishes, such as broiled salamander on a stick.
She even spent part of a recent afternoon giving my toddler a lesson in toy sushi — colored blocks Velcroed into hand rolls.
"This is fish eggs. This is pickled ginger," Iris explained to my 19-month-old. "No, don't eat it! It's just pretend!"
Iris' culinary precocity is at least partly planned. Her dad, Matthew Amster-Burton, a Seattle food critic and enthusiastic home cook, decided early on he didn't want to dumb down his menu just because he had a kid.
So instead of jarred baby food or purees, Iris gummed cabbage and beef piroshkis, spicy enchiladas and Sichuan fish.
Skip the bland food
Years later, Matthew has a budding gourmet on his hands, as well as an amusing new book — "Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
The book is part memoir, part experiment, part baby food cookbook without the baby food — an antidote to the ubiquitous advice that bland cuisine is best for little ones.
"I really didn't want to fall into something where I was cooking separate food for her," said Amster-Burton, who is 33. "Luckily, pretty much from her first mouthful of solid food, Iris was way more interested in what we were eating anyway."
My wife, Rainee, and I had a similar experience with our daughter, Mimi — for a while. She'd try almost anything, from the sourdough bread that she'd "help" me make to vegetable chili or even plain sprigs of rosemary she picked in our yard. But a few months ago, her tastes contracted, as I've since learned often is the case with toddlers.
"We broke the baby," Rainee worried at one point. "She only eats fish sticks."
I thought that perhaps Iris and Matthew would have some influence: Iris in showing Mimi it's OK to try new things, and Matthew in helping me expand my culinary repertoire to include some fun noodle or rice dishes. So I brought Mimi along for a visit to their apartment in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Using a partly broken electric stove in his tiny kitchen, Amster-Burton prepared one of the recipes from the book — bibimbap, a Korean stir-fry that involves thinly sliced flank steak marinated in soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil with Asian pear, toasted sesame seeds, garlic and scallion. The steak is sauteed and served over rice with fried egg, kimchi, carrots, spinach, mushrooms, hot pepper paste and whatever else is handy, but toppings can be modified to appease the more finicky among us.
Bibimbap isn't exactly a kid-friendly recipe, though, and the girls were less interested in playing sous-chef than they were in jumping on Iris' bed and dancing to Abba, which Matthew's wife, Laurie, was playing in the other room.
So Amster-Burton cooked, and I grilled him about Iris and what she eats. Is she on her way to becoming an executive chef? Has feeding her sushi and Thai chicken salad really turned her into a 5-year-old foodie?
Food offers daddy-daughter time
Eh, not so much. If she's any less picky than other 5-year-olds, "it's by a factor of like 5 percent," her dad said. She has decided she no longer likes spicy food, and she doesn't really do vegetables.
But pushing Iris into the gourmet world isn't the point. Instead, Amster-Burton makes clear that the book is pretty much about one thing: a stay-at-home dad who loves to cook while bonding with his little girl.
"She has a vast interest in food beyond what she actually likes to eat," Amster-Burton said. "Someday that's going to pay off."
What about those times when dad spends hours in the kitchen, only to find Iris doesn't like the result? Amster-Burton's approach is reassuring to any parent who's ever had the urge to chain their child to the table until she takes just TWO. MORE. BITES. OF. CHICKEN!
"There is a solution to picky eating, but you may not like it: It's recognizing that it isn't a problem," he writes. "Kids are not dropping dead of scurvy."
Once he puts the food down in front of Iris, his job is done. He wants her to enjoy his cooking, but that's up to her. She won't starve.
Introducing Iris to great food is similar to trying to shape a child's taste in music: No matter how much indie rock you play for them, they're still going to prefer "'Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush' as performed by some kids who sound like eunuchs on Zoloft," he says.
Did Iris enjoy her bibimbap, sans some of the more controversial toppings? I think so, but to be honest I didn't really notice. I was too busy trying to get Mimi to eat something besides white rice.