book club: “hungry monkey” by matthew amster-burton

hungry monkeyI was in the library a few weeks ago checking out The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and on my way out, a little book on the New Arrivals shelf caught my eye.  It was called Hungry Monkey, the story of  food writer* and new father Matthew Amster-Burton and his quest to impart his eclectic food tastes to his daughter, Iris.  The author documents his daughter’s eating habits from infancy to age four, following her  through periods of omnivorosity, ultrapickiness, and everything in between.

You may think it unusual that a single gal with no kids would take an interest in such a book, but actually I have been intrigued by the subject ever since I worked in restaurants way back when.  Parents would order tacos for their kids “No vegetables, just plain meat, that’s all they’ll eat”, and I would always secretly judge a little bit, thinking to myself, “Have you even TRIED to get them to eat a taco with vegetables?  It’s just iceberg letttuce and tomato, for pete’s sake; it’s not like it’s broccoli!”  I suspected, as did Amster-Burton, that kids’ pickiness could be in part due to the parents’ expectation that they would be picky (and thereby not exposing them to diverse foods), rather than something inherent.  I reasoned that children in other cultures must eat whatever food is put in front of them, and that pickiness was somehow another outgrowth of spoiled American privelege.

After reading this book, I do have a new appreciation for what parents go through in this department, especially those who don’t have the luxuries that Amster-Burton has.  Currently a stay-at-home dad, his budget and schedule allow him to tote Iris around his gentrified Seattle neighborhood (Capitol Hill), taking her for lunch at a kaiten-sushi joint or to one of the many specialty markets to grab supplies (lobster, anyone?) for that night’s dinner.  But in spite of exposing Iris to all manner of foods, she still goes through a picky phase, rejecting foods that she had once downed with gusto.  The conclusion that Amster-Burton comes to, through his own experiences and through talking to other parents, is that a certain amount of picky eating is probably unavoidable, and a phase the vast majority of kids experience to one degree or another.  Unlike some of the “parenting experts” he quotes, though, he takes a fairly laissez-faire approach to the whole situation, trusting that his child will not die of a food allergy or suffer malnutrition from not eating enough vegetables.

It was quite entertaining to read about Iris’s encounters with “unusual” foods (at one dinner, presented with a whole fish, Iris proves to be a more intrepid eater than her parents!), and to experience second-hand the little joys and upsets the author lives through as he tries to share his favorite foods with his daughter.  The book is hysterical in parts, and  Amster-Burton has a talent for relaying funny Iris stories in a way that transcends a show-offy “look how cute my kid is” tone.  His wittiness and hip sensibility (he was a rock critic before being a food writer) will appeal to the many thirtysomethings, just starting families, who ate sushi and pad thai in college as often as pizza and subs.

As funny as the book is, it’s not just about superficial anecdotes.  Underlying the whole story is the sense of joy that the author has at sharing each new food with Iris- the glee when she gobbles something up readily, and the pangs of disappointment when a favorite food is eschewed.  Amster-Burton brings Iris into his “food world”, taking her shopping, letting her select menus, and spending many hours in the kitchen with her.  As a dad into sports might play catch with his child to share his love of baseball, Amster-Burton shares his love of food with Iris by making her an active participant in the daily food rituals of the household. And I think that regardless of where Iris ends up on the picky scale as she grows up, she will look back and cherish that one-on-one time spent with her dad.

*Matthew Amster-Burton can currently be found writing about food on his blog, Roots and Grubs.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Both the author and myself had some pre-conceived notions about picky eaters.  Did the book change any views you may have had, or (for those of you who are parents) reinforce what you already knew to be true from experience?
  2. The author confesses that he was, in fact, a very picky eater as a child, but turned out to be an avid food-lover.  Most of you reading this are probably adventurous eaters; is this something that you came to on your own, or did your parents nudge you in that direction? Do you think being a “food lover” is innate or learned?
  3. The author describes being forced to try sushi as a kid and almost throwing up, but trying it again in college and loving it. He credits this to the fact that the second time he tried it, he expected to like it.  Do you agree?  Can you think of a food that you probably liked because you expected to like it, or anything you didn’t like in spite of thinking you would?
  4. Not every family can spend the time and money the author does to introduce his daughter to so many foods.  What can working parents or parents with less means do to bring cooking and diverse foods into their children’s lives?  Or do you feel this is even important?
  5. Food obviously plays a huge role in the Amster-Burton household.  What role does food have in your household?  Do you feel that kids need to know “where food comes from” and participate in food preparation, or is it enough just to make sure they’re eating reasonably healthy foods?

13 responses to “book club: “hungry monkey” by matthew amster-burton

    • Jen- I’m just going to paste your answers here to get the discussion going. Thanks for taking so much time and getting really in depth with your post and responses!


      1. Absolutely. It was actually great fun to get to read this while going through the picky eating phase. My little one often stands beside me as I cook. He’ll taste all the ingredients with me as they go into the meal. Then, when it’s time to eat, he’ll look at the food all cooked and say, “No, thank you.” I guess I should take comfort in the fact that in a way, he’s already eaten the meal – just not the way I intended. And, well, he’s polite.

      2. I am definitely an adventurous eater. Now. For me, it was definitely learned. And, I started learning out of necessity. When I started cutting out whole categories of food, first with Atkins and then by going gluten-free, I learned to focus on what I could eat rather than what I couldn’t. That meant trying things I had never tried before. And, for me, revisiting some of those foods I didn’t think I liked. I made a new rule. To try each food at least 3 different ways. Turns out, that if cooked properly, there are many foods I like that I didn’t use to like. In a way, I taught myself to be adventurous and truly appreciate food.

      3. Honestly, there were a lot of foods I didn’t expect to like. And, once I challenged myself to try new foods, I found that I did like them. (I actually didn’t have high expectations for Brussels sprouts, but they’ve become one of my favorite veggies.) For me the experience was a little different.

      4. I do feel this is important. My kids and I take a minimum of one night to cook together in the kitchen. We get to spend time together. We talk about food, ingredients, tastes, etc… and we have great opportunities to connect on other issues as well. Since I do work quite a bit, it is very important to me that I spend quality time with my kids. But, I haven’t translated that to get food on the table as quickly as possible so we have more time. I just brought the kids into the kitchen with me.

      5. Food is pretty important in our house. I do think that it’s important for the kids to know about their food and participate. Nutrition and healthy eating is so important to me. Unfortunately, I never learned to cook growing up. My mom went into the kitchen and then some time later, we were called to the dinner table. Food was there. I never really thought about how it got there. So, when I was out on my own, I had no idea what to do in the kitchen. As I’m teaching myself now, I’m including the kids in the process. We discuss food preparation and techniques.

  1. I guess I’ll go ahead and answer my own questions rather than wait. Don’t be shy though, people, I know at least a few of you read this! 🙂

    1. My view of picky eating and feeding kids in general has definitely shifted after reading this book; it seems that picky eating is not so much a function of parenting, but just a phase that most kids go through. The author’s conversations with people from different cultures illustrated this nicely. However, I do think that kids like Iris who are exposed to many foods will stand a much better chance of being healthy, well-rounded eaters later in life.

    2. I wasn’t a particularly fussy eater as a kid, but we didn’t have a huge range of “exotic” foods (unless you count venison?) at our dinner table. As I got into my teen years, I became really interested in learning about other cultures, and trying new foods was a part of this. I think being a food lover is part of having an open mind and a thirst for experiencing new things. Parents can certainly encourage this, but if you’re not somewhat inclined that way naturally, you’re probably not going to be a very adventurous eater.

    3. I definitely think that I liked many French foods, like pâté, because I expected to like them. A couple I can think of that I didn’t like, despite having a very open mind, were oysters and andouille (a French tripe sausage, very tripe-y tasting). But I may give them another go at some point.

    4. I want to clarify, first of all, that I have no intention of condemning the author for feeding his daughter expensive or extravagant foods like lobster. For all I know, they forego stuff that other families deem a “necessity”, like cable TV. However, for parents who are stretched really tight, I still think you can manage to get variety into your kid’s diet without spending a lot… The bigger factor is probably time constraints, but I think the author does provide a lot of good recipes that don’t take a ton of time to make. Those of you who are parents can probably respond better to this question than I, though!

    5. Food has a bigger role in my family now, I think, than it did when I was growing up. Now that my siblings are all adults, we plot potluck-style Christmas and Easter dinners over the phone and via email, and enjoy sharing each other’s dishes and recipes. I think that if I had kids, I would certainly attempt to get them in the kitchen with me, but not to force it if it wasn’t something that caught their interest. But regardless of their level of participation, they would be made aware of “where food comes from”, and I would try to foster an appreciation and thankfulness for good food.

  2. 1. I come from a long lineage of picky eaters, I was setting out to change the world buy raising two un-picky eaters, this has not happened. But, I am so glad that Amster-Burton didn’t agree with feeding your kid the same thing 15-20 times and then they’ll like it. This has not been my experience. What has been better is to offer what everyone is eating, and not make any praises for eating, or curses for not eating a certain food. But we do have to encourage eating in general. What a short attention span little people have!

    2. I didn’t really consider myself a food lover until recently, when we had children and was forced to cook— I found a deep appreciation for people who can whip up a meal. Now I love it, as a hobby and a challenge. My kids now love soba noodles, edemame, tofu… Things I would have turned my nose at in early college. I think, for me, learning to eat more variety was to please my husband’s family, who ate totally different food than my parents. They helped me to try new things, with a generous amount of friendly teasing.

    My parents started exploring more foods after we all moved out. And now they’re fridge looks like a case at Whole Foods. Which is so refreshing. Maybe they didn’t have enough capital to feed us/eat as they wanted to. They always did encourage trying. For which I’m thankful, but I came to my own conclusions in my own time. I do think it’s a bit of both. If you’re told you won’t like it you probably won’t. If you’re allowed to make the decision on your own, you just might love it.

    3. I remember trying liver an onions to be tough in front of my grandpa. I still can’t handle that one. I really don’t have another good example (:

    4. I feel this is so important. I am a full-time-art-directing-working-mom-on-a-budget, so we do what we can. Make tons of meals from scratch, saving money from the pre-made helps us to afford a little higher quality staples. We make our own yogurt (it’s super easy…), bread, spaghetti sauce… All the things I used to buy in a jar/can/box/plastic packaging. This is wonderful… Except when you haven’t prepared and you have nothing ‘quick’ on hand. I keep whole wheat couscous and cooked chicken breast now. Can’t beat the five minute prep/cook time for the couscous.
    We also pick our battles, our veggies in the summer are from our garden and from the in town Farmer’s Market. I try to bake our own bread (in our spare time… Some months I do better on this than others). We buy meat, poultry and fish in bulk. The kids have yet to like fish. And in Iowa fresh fish (or even good frozen fish) is hard to come by. We tend to steer clear unless back on the West Coast visiting our parents.
    I do try to have them eat things that aren’t just meat+potatoes. We have this little food co-op health food store about 1 1/2 hours away. Whenever we’re up to go shopping or something. We stop by there for bulk dry items. We try to work hard at a diverse/healthy food. We can tell when we’re feeding the kids blue box macaroni and chicken nuggets the kids go a little nuts and have sugar highs and tummy aches. No good.

    5. If you can’t tell– food does play a huge role in our house. My husband has worked in restaurant’s as cook/chef’s assistant for most of our married life. And I’ve been a server/bartender for all of high school, college and until I started my career. We love good food, good wine. We also love to show our kids how the food grows in the garden, where eggs come from (our 7 hens), where the beef comes from (a friend’s farm), and so on. My three year old saw a char-roasted pig on a spit, rotating over a fire and said, “Mommy, that pig looks delicious.” I was so proud!
    We also have stools in the kitchen. The kids can pull up to the counter and help me stir, and dump ingredients. I’m not as brave to let my 3 year old have her own skillet, but for now we let them experiment with us too.

    This was a wonderful book. Thanks for the great discussion questions!

    • Mary,
      Thanks so much for taking me up on the invite to stop by and comment. It’s so nice to get a variety of perspectives! My parents, like yours, have begun to expand their food horizons and I get a kick out of seeing quinoa or arugula in their houses. I love the anecdote about the pig- I would have been proud too 🙂 So many kids would think it was “gross” because to them, meat is something that comes in a plastic shrink-wrapped package!

  3. I confess, I didn’t read the book. I’ll do it, but I put it off because I can tell the guy thinks he’s got kids all figured out. He’s a lot like I was when my kids were that little. But the best is yet to come… His daugther Iris is only 4….he has lots of food stages to get through yet.

    My eldest is now 13, when she was little Iris’ age, she ate everything. I was such a proud mom that my daughter ate Thai food. Fast forward to now – she doesn’t eat Thai food. Ever. She might eat Japanese food (not sushi) because all things Japanese are cool in middle school. When we dine out, she eats chicken fingers, except when she decides she’s a vegetarian (every other month or so) and then it’s a salad with grilled chicken on top (because that’s somehow “vegetarian”).

    With my younger kid, I just didn’t have time to contemplate anything. Food wasn’t an amazing adenture for me to share with him, it was just dinner. Now, at 11 years old, he will try and eat anything. And when I say anthing, I mean anything. Like the squirrel he shot last fall – I had to find a recipe for squirrel, for goodness sake!

    I think this guy needs to have another baby….and I want to see the book he writes when his kids are grown. But I will read the book – thanks for turning me on to it.

    • My niece is 13 and also going through the on-again-off-again “vegetarian” phase. 🙂 He does mention in the book that when he was a teen, the thing that got him out of his picky eating was peer pressure and the fact that his friends were eating different foods.

      Wow, squirrel?? What recipe did you come up with, I’m so curious!! And did anyone else eat it besides your son?

  4. I did a quick review of the book and posted my answers at my blog. I’m still deciding about what recipe to make from the book.
    Here are my answers as well.

    1.I remember clearly always saying that I didn’t want food to really be an issue in my house. I fully thought that I would be able to make meals and my kids would eat them. We did really well for the first year (6 months to 18 months) and then the pickiness started to show with my oldest. Food became an issue and it started to really affect me and over time I realized that this too will pass. I grew up hating some veg and as an adult I love them. Sometimes it all depends on how it was cooked and served.

    2.I fully believed its learned. I’m 27 and I’m still having issues with some foods. I hate the texture of most seafood. Sushi, the nori makes me gag. I’m taking way more chances now than I did growing up but than again maybe thats because growing up we were a steak and mashed pototoes family. If we go out for dinner, for say Thai, my mom gets the most american/canadian style food item on the menu. Its also said that it takes upwards of 20 times of putting a new food infront of some kids for them to be willing to try it.

    3.I competely agree. There are many things in life, food being the one of the main ones, that if you think your not going to like it you won’t. If you don’t have an open mind to trying out things then of course your palate is going to be limited because you haven’t pushed yourself to try. Food and eating is about way more than taste and its a visual experience first. If you don’t like the looks of things then usually you’ve convinced yourself its going to taste bad as well

    4.This is really important. You spend your kid’s childhood showing him/her the world and the wonders it holds. Food is one of them. I still struggle as to how to share this passion with my children since they are young themselves (2 and 4). But introducing them to things doesn’t have to be some of the fancy or exotic foods Matthew brought home. My kids are thrilled to roll out cookie dough, to help load the slow cooker. Just asking them to help pick a vegtable from the market or the grocery store could make them more likely to try something new (we’re still working on this one at home).

    5. I do think its important that kids know where food comes from. I like the fact that my 4 year old knows that beef comes from cows, like you see in the fields, flour comes from wheat. Children are very curious by nature and I fully believe in helping my kids learn as much as their curiosity needs. We’ve tried dragonfruit that we’ve seen at the grocery store cause my kids were questioning it, they were not huge fans of it, but they were initally eager to try. My children love Christmas time because I go nuts with baking. Rolling out the sugar cookies is something they battle over. Even though my oldest is a picky eater hes still curious about food things, hopefully like the author this will mean he has a good chance of being a avid food lover as he gets older.

    • Jessica, you make a really good point on question 4, that we can share food and cooking with our kids and it doesn’t have to be anything exotic. I love the idea of having them select a veg or fruit from the store, for example. I did like the part in the book where he talks about growing cilantro on the balcony and making quesadillas with it; I thought that was a creative way to involve the kid without necessarily having them cook. I have to confess that if I had kids, I would probably find it hard to include them in the actual cooking without feeling like they were underfoot, so I’d probably try to do other things to engage them outside the kitchen proper.

  5. I am so far behind the ball, I am only about half way through how to pick a peach…i am also half way though Wicked and Yoga mind body and spirit…maybe I should stick to one book at a time.

    Really enjoying How to Pick a Peach and maybe I will catch the next book

  6. .The squirrel recipe was a stew – it wasn’t very good. We’ll try a Kentucky burgoo next squirrel season. Squirrel tastes like dark meat chicken, and it is really bony. I am not fond of dark meat chicken, so it’s not really my favorite, but I do like burgoo, which is like chili.

  7. Sorry this is so late, I have been on vacation! I also posted the pad thai that I made from the book.

    Question 1
    I didn’t think that one could accomplish what Matthew Amster-Burton has. I just figured that most tastes had to be acquired and no child would enjoy sushi in their first years of life. I guess I was wrong!
    Question 2
    I think that being a food lover is learned, all I wanted to eat when I was a child was ketchup sandwiches and luke-warm milk, now look at me! My dad actually steered us away from vegetables because he didn’t like them. We would be alienated at the table if either my brother or I were caught with a piece of broccoli on our plates! Not that this bothered us, no veggies, great!! We did eat a ton of fruit growing up and now I love veggies as much as fresh cherries or any fruit out there.
    Question 3
    I remember the same thing happening to me with sushi. Everyone was eating it so I gulped it down the first time and the next day I wanted more. I think it was probably peer pressure! One thing that I didn’t expect to like was mussels. Once when my brother and I were younger we dared each other to eat a mussel at a local buffet. I did it and have loved them ever since, where as he didn’t and got into trouble for wasting food. Ha. Score one for the big sister!
    Question 4
    Really, I only have a cat, and I would do anything for her. Unfortunately when we change her food it doesn’t go well. That all I have to say on the subject.
    Question 5
    Well since the only child that I have is my cat I will elaborate on her. My cat is getting fat. She can lie on her back with her legs in the air… buutttt the food that I feed her has gotten rid of her gingivitis (yeah, who knew). It’s very expensive food and I would put her on a diet but trust me, a cat without food at 3am is probably just as bad as a screaming child. Once I put her on a diet and now she has anxiety attacks every time her bowl is half empty. I have thought long and hard about her food but seriously, she doesn’t care where it comes from, just as long as it’s there. She does like dolphin safe tuna though.

  8. I have to buy a copy of Madame Pamplemousse! The drawings are charming and even if Alex doesn’t care for it maybe Penny will. I remember reading some of your reviews but I was deep in new house, new garden mindset at the time and wasn’t online much. Here’s a better late than never entry for the heck of it.

    1. I expected the book to be a insipid foodie spouting how exotic and varied his child’s diet was. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he has a kid not unlike my own, picky most of the time but sometimes unexpectedly adventurous.
    2. I was a very adventurous eater as a child and yet I could be terribly picky about mainstream foods. My father especially encouraged this. I think that love for good food and the willingness to try more exotic food can always develop in people, no matter the age. However, I do think that the style of dishes you are raised on as a child will keep a special place in your heart as “good” even though you learn there are “better” ways of making them. I fully believe that taste is subjective.
    3. I agree. I think our expectations change how we taste. I think processed food tastes worse and worse each year I stay away from it and that it ultimately has nearly as much to do with my idea of how bad the ingredients are as it does to do with how it actually tastes. Do Doritos really taste bad now or have I convinced myself that they are just short of poison? I bet you could find a lot of people to disagree with me.
    4. I feel it is important. We make cooking and eating real, homemade food a priority in our life. But, I also have a very unique and lucky situation where I’m at home full time. I don’t really have any tips other than when you do have time, try to make the most of it. My parents both worked long hours and on small incomes yet found the time to cook regularly.
    5. I think it should depend on thier interest. If you lead by example then that is really all you need. Catch them when they do show interest and always offer them opportunites to be involved.

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