When I adopted my son in Russia almost seven years ago, he was a voracious herbivore. I recall watching this little seven-year-old, in the cramped kitchen of our Moscow host family, as he dug into a bowlful of freshly sliced tomatoes with gusto. Once he had finished them off, he scarfed down a cucumber salad en route to the carrots. "How wonderful," I remember thinking, "that he eats vegetables."
Alyosha's arrival in America changed all that. Although I tried to reinforce his sensible eating habits by providing him with all sorts of garden-fresh veggies, I could not strictly monitor his preferences when he was at school or at a friend's house. Slowly but surely, the allure of fast, junk, and processed food exerted its power. In a very short time, my seven-year-old was consuming Cheetos with the same ardor he used to reserve for radishes and head lettuce.
Now that I look back, I think I can recall the precise day when the great changeover occurred. I had set a garden salad before my little Cossack, only to watch him regard it with a mixture of disgust and curiosity. Then he got up, took two hot dogs from the refrigerator, and ate them cold.
In ensuing years the situation improved only marginally, to the point where he would allow me to nestle three or four peas next to his pork chop or chicken breast. On rare occasions I even managed to slip him a carrot slice. But if he decided that I was trying to impart a nutritional lesson, he'd reject these vegetables unconditionally, as if his dinner plate were a sovereign nation of meat entitled to all necessary means of defense against invaders from the Kingdom Plantae.
I eventually realized that I could not force-feed my son, that the best I could do was to provide a good example in my own eating habits. Little did I know that help was but a dinner invitation away.
About a year ago, some friends of ours had us over for supper. Hungarian goulash was on the menu. When Alyosha saw the meat awash in its dark, steaming gravy, he licked his lips in eager anticipation. Our hostess had also set an immense salad in the middle of the table. When we passed the plates I took it upon myself to dole out a very small portion to Alyosha, who rolled his eyes but was now old enough to recognize the impropriety of making a scene.
As we ate and chatted, I watched my son out of the corner of my eye. He was doing a fine job with his meat and bread, but judiciously worked his way around the salad. Then he glanced up at me and, perhaps to indulge me, speared a piece of lettuce with his fork and placed it tentatively in his mouth.
Within a few seconds his eyes widened and he sat up straight. He tried a little more salad, and then - if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed it - he reached for the large salad bowl and loaded a massive helping onto his plate. "This," he blurted out, "is delicious!"
I wish I could adequately convey the feeling that washed over me upon hearing those words from my son's mouth. It was akin to the elevation of spirit one experiences at the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's "Messiah." I felt the strongest compulsion to stand, but suppressed the urge. The salad was delicious. The best I had ever tasted.
Later that evening I asked my hostess about the dressing. She showed me a small amber glass bottle of a condiment she'd purchased in Germany. It bore the pedestrian name Wurze ("seasoning"), and she mixed a teaspoonful with olive oil and vinegar to make her dressing. She added that Wurze was very cheap, but I replied that to me it was invaluable.
When I told her of my salad woes with Alyosha, she insisted on giving me my very own bottle. Little did she know how that act of charity would alter the culinary balance of power in our home.
Needless to say, I made a salad to accompany our own supper the very next day. Alyosha looked it over and, perhaps recalling the pleasant experience of the night before, downed a slice of cucumber and a piece of lettuce. As I reached out for my portion, he suddenly wrapped an arm around the salad bowl and drew it into his embrace. "But what about me?" I asked like a five-year-old denied his treat.
My son rolled his eyes and slowly shook his head. Then he ever-so-carefully graced my plate with one small leaf of lettuce and a slice of radish. I watched as he devoured the salad with the sort of vigor displayed by lumberjacks at pancake-eating contests.
Little has changed in the ensuing year. We have a salad - an immense salad - at almost every evening meal, and my son dutifully consumes 90 percent of it, occasionally proclaiming, "I love this salad!"
As for the little bottle of Wurze, I'm almost down to the dregs, and have found no supplier in America. Is it worth it to fly to Germany for eight ounces of salad dressing?
I'm already looking for cheap tickets.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society