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Orange chicken

(article, Carrie Floyd)

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One of the great things about family and friends is how they keep stories alive that you might otherwise forget. Such as the one about the babysitter who caught her hair on fire when she stuck her head in the oven to light it. Or the surprise on the waiter’s face when I bit the cork in half after he handed it to me to inspect. 

Then there are the things you would just as soon forget. And there’s nothing like those close to you for keeping these stories alive. 

Take the orange chicken, for example. 

“Remember how you used to call salmon ‘orange chicken’?” my friend Joanie asked over our last dinner together.

“Nope,” I said. “Why would I do that?”

“To get the kids to eat it.”

“That doesn’t sound like something I would do.”

She smiled, I bristled, she insisted, and we argued like siblings: “Did not!” and  “Did too!” (And I thought to myself, “She’s not coming to my birthday party.”)

The next day I queried another friend, “Did I ever call salmon ‘orange chicken’?” Sure enough, there are corroborating witnesses. 

Orange chicken? Even the words make me wince. How desperate was I to get a little food down their little gullets? 

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The first thing that baffles me is this: My children don’t even really like chicken. It’s one of those weird on-again, off-again food cycles that can be dizzying to parents. 

I’m thinking it went something like this: They ate chicken, but wouldn’t try fish. On a whim, I called the salmon “orange chicken,” and they ate it. 

The second thing that baffles me is that neither of the kids especially like salmon, either. They will, however, both eat chicken in the form of gai satay, Thai chicken on a stick. And how did that come to pass? Did I call it “white salmon”?

This is the problem with little white lies. 

It’s frustrating as a parent when your kids won’t even try things. One friend’s seven-year-old son won’t eat any fruit, except apples and pears. I admire her c’est la vie attitude. I love fresh fruit so much I don’t think I could stand by as a neutral third party. I wouldn’t stoop so low as to call it “candy,” but I can see myself turning a bowl of plums into a fence my kids would want to paint, à la Tom Sawyer. 

On Gastrokid I saw a post on this same subject: pseudonyms for food (or food-o-nyms, as I’m now calling them). Matthew, one of the dads who writes on this blog, admitted to calling broccoli “little trees” to get his son to eat it. And he tells of another reader who tempted her children with tofu by calling it Princess Cheese. 

I can’t tell you how hard my kids laughed when I told them this. “Princess cheese?” my daughter scoffed. “You've got to be kidding.” 

And my son very earnestly asked, “Why would anyone want to eat a little tree?”

Exactly. That’s the question, isn’t it? Right up there with, “Why would anyone want to eat an orange chicken?”

There’s a very small window when parents can get away with this kind of nonsense. And why do parents even bother?
 
My theory is this: Up until a certain age, most young children will eat and try anything, because they are regular bottom feeders. Then somewhere around age three, many start saying “no” and resisting their parents (and not just at the table).

Parents are stupefied. Just yesterday little Lester was devouring avocados and Camembert cheese, and now he won’t even try a bite of blueberry pie — pie_, for goodness’ sake, not Marmite or raw oysters! And so the parents, with the best intentions, start renaming. 

Or reframing. 

It doesn’t seem so innocent when put that way, does it? 

My response now to the orange chicken is similar to the feelings I have about that feathered hairdo I sported in the 1980s: Why?
 
Hindsight, it’s true, offers perspective.
 
Where parents and food are concerned, good intentions get muddled with other matters. You want your kids to eat a healthy diet, not to mention the food you like, as well as the food you took the time to make and put on their plates. 

I’m not dismissing the importance of any of these issues, but what I’ve learned in my 11-plus years of parenting is that kids don’t always do what you want them to do. And bringing too much attention to any one thing — tasting a new food item, or suggesting a plain rather than a Hawaiian shirt to go with the plaid pants — often yields the opposite of what is desired. 

That said, there are worse offenses than calling tofu “princess cheese.” Like eating it. But if you call it "triple-cream cheese," I might be willing to try it.

p(bio). Carrie Floyd is the Culinate food editor.


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