Q&A with Dinner: A Love Story’s Jenny Rosenstrach
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Friends, I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to publish a blog post. Where to begin? Earlier in the fall, I wrote about Jenny Rosenstrach’s new book, How to Celebrate Everything. Shortly after finishing it, I began rereading Dinner: A Love Story, which I loved even more the second time around — the stories, perhaps because my children are a few years older, made me laugh harder, cry more easily. I found myself reading the last page over and over again.
As I read these books, questions arose, and so, with the encouragement of a friend, I decided to reach out to Jenny who kindly responded. I’ve since learned she is as wise, practical, and funny as I always imagined. Here are Jenny’s thoughts on cooking with children, social media, what she’s been eating lately, what she might write next, and so much more.
Do you have any go-to recipes/activities in the kitchen that you find work well with children or toddlers? Any holiday-specific activities/traditions? Or tools you’ve found helpful to facilitate having children help?
My daughters are both teenagers now* but when they were little, we had a go-to move called Babysitter in a Box, which was a large Tupperware container filled with various non-breakable measuring cups, spoons, and bowls. We’d give them a cup of water and they’d play. Often, they liked to just mimic what we were cooking (pouring water from one bowl into the other) instead of partaking in the cooking. As for traditions, every year the girls invite a few friends over for holiday cookie decorating and a screening of “Elf.” We use their grandmother’s recipe and make sure to provide an ‘interfaith” selection of cookie cutters. If I had to tell the story of my life through a baked good (I was raised Jewish and Presbyterian), it would definitely be the Star of David Christmas Cookie. Along the same lines, our preferred snacking option for tree-trimming is a platter of potato latkes with all the trimmings.
*Typing that actually sends a shiver up my spine, not because of the whole teenager thing, but because they are getting so big so fast.
And on that note, how do you loosen up and allow your children to help in the kitchen? I find it so stressful when they “help,” but they have so much fun “helping.”
You are asking the wrong person. During the week, usually I’m cooking against the clock, so when they ask “can I help?” what I hear is “can we delay the process by an hour or two and make it really messy while we do so?” I always wished I had more patience on a daily basis, but the solution I came up with was weekend “project” cooking. In other words, when we had more time and when I approached cooking more like an activity to kill a few hours as opposed to something that had to get done to keep people from starving, it was much more successful. Baking cookies and making pizzas are good recipes to start with. Gnocchi is good when they get older — in How to Celebrate Everything, I wrote about the pasta-making ritual I have with my younger daughter.
And on that note, how do you get children to actually be helpful? I loved the passage in DALS about things changing for one of your co-workers when his child turned 6 and could actually make his own breakfast, and then I realized I still make cinnamon toast for my 6-year old every morning. Part of this is because I like to do it, but part of me feels I should encourage my children to do more for themselves. Any tips?
Yes, the best tip I have is this: Get out of the kitchen. (This is assuming they are old enough, of course.) I found that whenever I was in the kitchen helping out, they either fell back on my advice or I’d start correcting the way they did things. I’ve tried to use this strategy outside of cooking, too. Yesterday, my 13-year-old asked me what time she should start getting ready for a 6:00 soccer practice, not because she doesn’t know — she’s been playing soccer for six years and she’s 13 for crying out loud! — but because it’s just always easier to have mom figure things out for you. (My response was: “Pretend I’m not here. I’ll bet you’d come up with the answer all by yourself.”)
Do your children read your blog? Are they comfortable being written about? I’m starting to worry that one day my children might resent the stories I share about them.
They read the blog now and then — they definitely read the books — but any time I’m writing about them in a specific way, I make sure they approve. The thing is, I don’t actually write about them specifically very often. If you ask regular blog readers what they know about my children, they could probably tell you that they play soccer, read books, run cross-country, and don’t like eggs. And that’s kind of it. I’m not sure if they’d even be able to recognize them (unless they own my books), because I very rarely show their faces on the blog or on social media. In the birthday chapter of How to Celebrate Everything I wrote mini profiles of them — about how Abby loves to organize and how one of Phoebe’s defining characteristics is her loyalty — but I think that’s as personal as I’ve ever gotten. I don’t ever drill deep if you know what I mean. A good example is a post I wrote once about Einat Admony’s famous cauliflower dish. It was about how it happened to be the perfect recipe to make with my middle schooler because on this particular night, it involved standing next to each other, not looking at each other, chopping and talking, something I felt I hadn’t done with her in a while. So without sharing anything personal about what we discussed, I like to think I gave parents an idea about how to reach out to their kids if they were craving a connection. That’s the way I try to approach all this. Someone once asked Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman this question and I loved her response. She said “You can share a lot without sharing everything.”
In regards to the chocolate-pudding-pie-from-scratch experiment—how do we know when not to mess with tradition? Trial and error?
I think it’s personal and it also depends on the holiday. My mother has been making her “famous” Jell-O pudding pie for Thanksgiving for probably three decades now. I think the reason why my homemade version of it tanked so flagrantly was because it was messing with everyone’s idea of nostalgia. And nostalgia is heightened on Thanksgiving, don’t you think? I feel like it’s fine to mess around with family recipes on a random Thursday during the week, but it’s an entirely different thing to do it on Thanksgiving or Christmas, holidays that I believe should be all about continuity and tradition.
Deconstructed meals were huge for my neighbor’s sanity—her daughter was instantly happier at the dinner hour. But will she ever mix foods again? Is Abby still happiest with deconstructed meals?
Ha! You ask me that like I’m an expert or something — I’m decidedly not an expert in anything but my own family’s eating habits. But I will answer by saying “I forgot I even had that strategy in the arsenal.”
What if you feel you use cooking as a way to “check out” or hide in the kitchen. How to be more welcoming or social if you like “hiding”?
I guess I’d have to ask: What’s wrong with using cooking as a way to “check out” or “hide?” I think it’s an amazingly therapeutic thing for people, and in today’s world, why would we want to get away from anything that helps us feel better and that is not connected to a screen. I have some of my most cathartic creative breakthroughs when I’m chopping onions.
Social media. How do you handle it? When I read DALS I feel so nostalgic for the pre-social media time—when I worked and cooked and did things and didn’t do them because I thought they’d make a great Instragram post or story. The sincerity of everything seems lost. It’s like we do things just to show people we’re doing things—we feel we have to document and publicize everything we do. How do we teach our kids not to get wrapped up in it all? How do you shut down at the end of the day when there’s always more work (on social media or elsewhere) to be done?
I know what you mean. I have such a love-hate relationship with social media. On the one hand, I have made so many connections with people who I never would have otherwise — and from a business standpoint, as you know Alexandra, I’m not sure authors and bloggers can afford to pass on any form of sales platform. But the drive to curate spontaneous moments is absurd and when I spend a few days going down that road, I actually feel a little icky, like I’ve eaten too much candy. So I’ll go cold turkey, and disappear for a week or two. Then I get totally sucked back into it and the cycle starts again. It’s like a drug.
I will say, however, that it’s been so interesting to see social media evolve from a promotional tool to a content source in its own right, and forces food writers to think creatively about how to best use all the platforms at our disposal. I find that in a weird way, it’s made me value the blog and the writing part of the blog more than ever. You can’t go very deep on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook in the way that you can with a blog post or a chapter in a book. So no matter how popular social media gets, I do believe that readers will always crave stories and formally written recipes, and so it’s more vital than ever to keep that part of the business thriving. (P.S. If you asked my husband this question, he would reply “Social media is the root of all evil.”)
Are you still keeping a dinner journal? If so, could share some recent entries or share what you’ve been cooking recently? What will your next book be about?
Yes, and you know what’s funny — I just looked at the entries for the last two weeks and other than two or three newish recipes, it would look almost identical to two weeks in 2012. All the classics from the books and blog are there: Pork Ragu, Salmon in Parchment Paper, Chicken Curry with Apples, Fried Flounder, Homemade Pizza, Turkey Chili, Burrito Bowls, Chicken Pot Pie. You could interpret this two ways: 1) We are really boring or 2) We really walk the walk! (I prefer option two.) I will also say that we are OBSESSED with two dinners now that are relatively new to the rotation: Sushi Bowls (salmon or tuna) and a Diana Henry Mustardy-Herby Baked Chicken Thighs. Both so easy and healthy.
As for my next book, I have a few ideas — including, believe it or not, a YA novel — but I’m taking suggestions. Got any for me?
Thank you so much, Jenny!! Friends, wouldn’t the above pictured set — Dinner A Love Story, How To Celebrate Everything, plus Jenny’s second book, which I do not own (Santa, take note!), Dinner: The Playbook, a Moleskine notebook, and a pen (not any old pen, I might add, but an amazing pen that makes even the worst handwriting look beautiful—thank you Darcy!), make such a nice gift? Surprise! One of you will get one. Leave a comment below. Answer any of these questions: What should Jenny write about next? What’s your favorite DALS post? What would YOU ask Jenny?
UPDATE: GIVEAWAY IS CLOSED. Winner is: Liz A. Thank you all for taking the time to leave such thoughtful comments. I have so many posts bookmarked both for reading and recipes, so thank you, and Happy Happy New Year!!