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The Potluck Minefield

Mark, August 2015
Mark, August 2015

Some people are afraid to check the mailbox because it invariably contains bills and “payment due” notices. My fear is less common: I’m afraid to open Mark’s lunchbox at the end of the day. Why? Well, first, I’m always anxious to see if he ate well. And his eating patterns are unpredictable—sometime his favourite meals are left untouched as if he had started a new diet without telling us, sometime there are only a few sticky crumbs left, coating the insulated liner of the blue box.

But above all, I dread the daycare’s pink post-it notes stuck to the food containers. “Shit, we got another ‘Dear parents’!” I growl when I spot one.

“Dear parents, Mark needs more underwear.”

“Dear parents, please bring a hat and sunscreen.”

“Dear parents, please bring more t-shirts, pants and socks.”

According to the daycare staff, I should move the entire content of Mark’s wardrobe into the tiny plastic bin bearing Mark’s name written inside a yellow star. And provide a whole aisle of “kids products” just in case.

Sometime, the notes are more precise. Last Monday, it was to let parents know that one kid had lice, so “dear parents, refer to the attached City of Ottawa information sheet.” Fuck.

And today, the pink note was announcing the upcoming “multiculturalism celebration day.”

I was invited to dress Mark in “traditional clothing” and bring a dish for the “cultural potluck.”

As Mark was putting his shoes on, i.e. trying to find the right feet and failing miserably like most almost-three-year-old kids do, I was cornered by the daycare’s supervisor.

“So I guess that for the potluck, you can bring either French or Chinese food!” she beamed.

I wish the world didn’t assume that French were gastronomic demigods.

“Uh… yeah. I’m just afraid that we don’t have an allergy-friendly kitchen, and both French and Chinese cuisines have many ingredients that are not… you know, kid friendly.”

“Just list all the ingredients! And remember, no nuts, some kids have dairy intolerance, are sensitive to gluten… oh, and we recommend avoiding sugary treats.”

Great. That should be easy.

As much as I like the concept of potlucks, I never quite enjoyed them back when I worked in an office environment. First, I don’t know how strict other people are about hygiene. I know, I eat food from street stalls and in local restaurants that wouldn’t pass a health inspection check and I’m not squeamish. But even the street food vendors know a thing or two about food—it’s their job. I’m not sure Cindy from marketing or John from HR is a good cook. I also hated the way corporate gods would walk in and put their contribution on the table: “I got my wife to make an apple pie!” “My wife’s special meat loaf!” Look, if you are busy and can’t cook, I get it, but it seems super sexist to use your wife as a caterer for a potluck she doesn’t even attend.

Second, I never know what to bring (and I can’t really ask a wife to help out…). Between allergies and diet preferences or restrictions, food is a touchy subject and it’s highly cultural.

Let alone participating in a potluck for a class of toddlers who may or may not eat anything at all, depending on the moon and on how cooperative they feel that day.

We are lucky, Mark isn’t picky if he is hungry (if not, he plays with his food like any other kid). He loves Chinese specialties like spring rolls, dumplings, rice, barbecue meat, soy sauce, tofu, vegetable-based dish, etc. He also enjoys more mainstream food like pasta with pesto, omelets, noodles, fish, cheese, bread, jam, all kinds of fruits, yogurt and he doesn’t mind trying new stuff (which is useful when traveling!).

But what French food would be acceptable for toddlers? French kids typically eat what parents eat. A kid-friendly meal would probably be pâtes au jambon (macaroni with butter, ham and shredded cheese), or an oeuf à la coque (soft-boiled egg with toasted buttered bread). Runny yolks…that wouldn’t fly in Canada. Nor would most French cheese, unpasteurized, very sharp and sometime stinky.

Baking was out of the question in the middle of a heat wave (and because of my questionable baking skills).

I didn’t even consider Chinese food because as much as I love Mark and appreciate the daycare, I’m not making a batch of spring rolls or dumplings for toddlers—they are delicious but require an army to make (and eat).

Ah, I know! Croque-monsieurs. I can totally make that—this is the fancy name for “grilled ham and cheese sandwiches”. Got it!

The following day, I checked with the daycare’s supervisor. The verdict? Good idea, but many kids don’t eat pork. No problem, I can substitute ham for chicken or turkey breast. Nope. Won’t work. Just to make sure they really don’t eat pork, these kids are not given any meat at all unless it’s provided by the parents.

Croque-monsieurs without any meat is just buttered toasted bread with cheese—lame, even by my standards.

So I decided to bring fresh bread and some cheese, like at a wine and cheese party (without the wine, put the phone down, don’t dial 911!)

“How about the cultural clothing thingy?” Feng asked.

“Do we have any?”

The only remotely cultural item I could find was a “Boca” football jersey we bought in Argentina, but Mark’s Spanish isn’t good enough for him to pass as Latino. We don’t have silk clothing, just a traditional communist hat, and we don’t have a French bérêt (although I guess I could have given Mark an empty pack of cigarette as a prop?)

The usual dinosaur t-shirt would have to do.

That day, I walked in with my French buns, cheese (brie, spreadable cheese and goat cheese if you are curious) and added it to the table, already crammed with food contribution, remembering a not-so-distance past when Mark was only drinking bottles of milk.

What’s next? An office party for three-year-old kids? Prom night?

Note: Apparently, the potluck was a success and the kids actually love the Vache-qui-rit and brie cheese.

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