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—sometimes his favourite meals are left untouched as if he had started a new diet without telling us, and sometimes 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.

Sometimes, 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 as 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 the 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 a 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 meatloaf!” 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 participate 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, and yogurt and he doesn’t mind trying new stuff (which is useful when travelling!).

But what French food would be acceptable for toddlers? French kids typically eat what their 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 sometimes 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 are just buttered toasted pieces of 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 cigarettes 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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  1. N August 26, 2015 at 9:46 am

    I’m not anti-social, but here the school organizes so many “special” events (almost once a week!!!) for which the parents have to contribute, that I mostly just answer that we can’t make it.

    1. Zhu August 26, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      Once a WEEK?? Poor you! I’d be complaining to. Can you excuse yourself from the events easily?

  2. Tracy/Latinaish August 26, 2015 at 11:17 am

    This was hilarious and very relatable. Happy to hear Mark’s classmates ultimately enjoyed your contribution, bérêt or no bérêt 😉

    1. Zhu August 26, 2015 at 4:04 pm

      Nice to see you, it’s been a while! I remember reading all your cultural stories with your sons… looks like I’m standing where you used to stand 😉

  3. Jeruen August 26, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    And here I thought you made tea eggs. With just eggs, tea, anise, soy sauce, cinnamon, pepper, and sugar, that should be safe enough, no?

    Anyway, on a more serious note, I just realized that Mark is as old as how long I have been living here in Berlin. He was born in October, right? And I moved here in September. Jeez, time flies fast!

    1. Zhu August 26, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Yes, I realized the same thing when I was writing my last email. Three years! He was born on October 12, and I remember you moving in Sept.

      Tea eggs… meh, some kids don’t eat eggs!

  4. I Say Oui August 26, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Ha ha, yes, a croque monsieur without ham is a grilled cheese sandwich, which would be American.

    1. Zhu August 26, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      … especially when using Kraft cheese because no expensive gruyère here…

  5. Martin Penwald August 26, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    I guess we can find some Camembert, but it is probably not the best idea for young kinds. I can understand common allergen should be avoided (by the way, cheese is a no-go for lactose intolerant), but religious superstition about food are really annoying, especially when in this case, you can’t bring any meat by fear one is an evil one. I find it very disrespectful for other parents, considered too dumb to be careful.
    Seriously, after that, I wouldn’t have made any effort. A bag of chips, and that’s it.

    Maybe a 4-quarts or a tarte Tatin? nothing too evil in these things.

    Rhââaa, I should take some vacation in France, I’m hungry now.

    1. Zhu August 27, 2015 at 11:24 pm

      Quatre-quart and tarte tatin are great options… if you can bake.

      I can’t. I really can’t. May as well eat my dough raw, something strange happens in the oven everything I bake. T’m a candidate for Pinterest Fail: .

  6. Holly August 26, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Wow – this must violate a million of the ministry’s codes! First they are asking parents to bring in food that will be shared by children other than there own – first no no, second, those foods will have been prepared in kitchens that are potentially unsanitary by people who won’t be wearing hair nets or have food hygiene qualifications – second no no, third the contents and potential cross contamination of food stuffs can’t be guaranteed. Seriously – if the ministry found out about this there would be HUGE problems!!

    1. Zhu August 27, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      Daycares are super strict about rules and this is an official daycare centre, so I’m 100% sure it is okay to organize a potluck. They really follow rules and guidelines religiously. I think it’s cultural, I tend to agree with you but potlucks are a tradition around here… and to be honest, toddlers are unsanitary to start with anyway 😆

  7. Alan August 26, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    I agree with you on the office potlucks. I used to bring a jar of pickles. Secret Santa was another lame attempt at office bonding. I would usually bring a small box of Ferrero Rocher and get back some stupid gag gilft like edible panties re-gifted from previous parties.

    1. Zhu August 27, 2015 at 11:28 pm

      I would have loved you for pickles. I craved them so much when I was pregnant! 😆

  8. Christiane September 2, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Potlucks are always tricky !!!
    Hmmm brie ….
    Vache qui rit is awesome !! I would have been shocked if the kids had not liked it.
    Ahhh daycare rules. ….

    1. Zhu September 2, 2015 at 12:59 pm


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