Washington -- The lump crab meat floated in a lemon grass broth. The mushroom was local and grilled. The lettuce had a pedigree -- Batavia lettuce grown by a former political reporter turned organic farmer. The guest of honor was Alice Waters, a celebrated California chef and a big banana in the natural food movement. The guests were a collection of Washington-area chefs, mostly women, brought together by Nora Pouillon to her place, Restaurant Nora, for an evening of dining and discussion.
The topic of conversation was what kids eat for lunch.
At one point Ms. Waters held the floor by describing the kind of peanut butter and jelly sandwich she gave her 9-year-old daughter Fanny. The bread was high-grain; the peanut butter was pushed all the way to the edge of the bread. The jelly was sugar-free. And the sandwich was sliced sometimes on the diagonal, sometimes on the horizontal. Slicing, she said, added the element of surprise to peanut butter sandwich making.
Fanny popped up in many of the conversations that night, because Fanny and her mom have a new book out, "Fanny at Chez Panisse" (HarperCollins, $20), which looks at restaurant life and food through the eyes of the 9-year-old girl.
When I met Ms. Waters, I began asking her questions about her daughter's eating habits. Did Fanny still like salad? I had read this in the book but had a hard time believing it. Instead of diving into a salad, as Fanny does, my kids, boys 7 and 11, treat salad like a form of alien life. When they see it, they flee.
Yes, Ms. Waters said, her kid loves salad. She added that the secret to raising little salad-eaters is to use exceptionally flavorful lettuce. I recalled reading that her kid wraps the garlic croutons in pieces of red oak lettuce and eats it like a sandwich.
Her kid also liked pizza, which made me feel a little better. But of course the pizza her kid liked was homemade; the recipe was in the book. My kids love pizza, too. But they prefer the kind that comes in a box. In an instant telephone poll of pizza preferences I conducted one night last week, my oldest kid rated my homemade fresh dough grilled pizza as tied with Pizz-A-Boli's but slightly ahead of Domino's.
During dinner the chefs engaged in a spirited discussion of how to teach kids to appreciate good food. Ms. Pouillon, the hostess, a striking woman with strong views, said children should be served a seated meal with several courses at school. She had such lunches, starting at the age of 5, when she was a student at a French school in Vienna, Austria, she said. She credited the hour-and-a-half meals with teaching her about food as well as developing social skills. "You learn how to feed yourself. To sit down, to eat slowly and digest," Ms. Pouillon said.
Ms. Pouillon disdained the lunchtime sandwich, saying she preferred that children eat their food with a knife and fork.
At another point in the meal voices rose with excitement as the chefs talked about the ideal food class for kids. Ms. Waters glowed as she spoke of kids harvesting food grown outside the (( school, then carrying it into the classroom and cooking it. Instead of calling the class "nutrition," it could be called "foraging," Ms. Waters said.
It was heady, brighter-tomorrow stuff. I had trouble, however, dTC seeing foraging in my future. I recalled how one of my kids helped me grow green beans on our backyard fence. He helped plant them, harvest them, even snapped off ends. He just wouldn't eat them.
I took comfort, however, in the story of Anne Amernick, another chef at the dinner. Ms. Amernick, who grew up in Baltimore, is a highly acclaimed Washington pastry chef and author of "Special Desserts" (Clarkson/Potter, $16). She also is the mother of two boys, Jay and Dan, who are now in their 20s. She told me that when her boys were small, they would come into the kitchen and demand "bird seed," their name for the scraps of cake and buttercream frosting left over from the desserts she was making.
A few years later that phase ended, and they preferred Hostess Twinkies. However, a few years after that, when the boys became teen-agers, they wanted only the best -- duck, foie gras, lobsters. They also ate junk food. Now, as adults, her sons know good food, she said, and one of them is interested in cooking.
"The good stuff was always there," Ms. Amernick said, recalling what it was like at the table when her sons were much younger. "Usually they would take a few bites, then ask for peanut butter."