Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.
People often say that having kids changes your perspective on things. This is true. It is true in the same way that any major life event (birth, death, marriage, powering through Infinite Jest or finally beating Battletoads in two-player mode) changes your perspective on things, but it is also true in some very specific ways. For me, one of the most important shifts has been in empathy.
As a parent, you are constantly forced to deal with difficult circumstances only partially within your control, thrown at you with all the pointless fury of a hurricane by a much smaller being whose inability to grok basic logic makes the situation even more infuriating, even while it absolves him or her of blame. Over time, you find yourself dealing with situations you never even imagined and managing them in ways you'd have scoffed at previously. It's the ultimate object lesson in you don't know until you're there.
For many of us, our pre-parent years are filled with "I'd never do that" judgments of those who walk the path before us, doing the best they can to deal with a life that is suddenly and constantly defined by chaos. "I'd never let my child eat a tub of gravy for dinner," or "I'd never let my kid make a tortilla Leatherface mask in the middle of a restaurant." You know how it goes. We all have a list, updated with every new opportunity to judge a struggling parent. I still do it. I'm trying not to.
Just as I'm constantly finding new temptations for passing judgment on the lives of others, I'm constantly handed humility in a to-go bag, to eat quietly after the kids go to bed, hunched over the kitchen sink. I find myself doing things I know a past version of myself would have found worthy of scorn, but which my current self sees as the only available port in a quickly gathering storm. I open boxes of cereal in the grocery store so the kid in the basket who won't stop whining will be busy enough shoving Cheerios in his mouth that I don't accidentally forget the dish soap. I bribe my daughter with ice cream so that she'll eat whichever vegetable I've cooked for dinner, and which has suddenly and with no precedent appeared at the top of her BANNED FOODS list. Most recently, I let my two-year-old watch an episode of Curious George on an iPhone, in its entirety, with the volume on, in the middle of a somewhat swanky dining room during a busy Sunday brunch service.
We were at State of Grace, 3258 Westheimer, a venue chosen after conducting a scientific poll of my Facebook friends, who assured us that a DEFCON brunch there wouldn't be a suicide mission. Our older daughter was still at a friend's house, having spent the night, and we were attempting to placate the younger one, who'd spent her sister's entire absence complaining about the unfairness of it all. A fancy brunch makes anyone feel better, I think, whether your mood enhancer of choice is a cocktail or a cinnamon roll the size of your head.
"I definitely want that. That's what I'm having for brunch," declared our youngest when I announced the cinnamon roll while rattling off the menu in a pre-brunch strategy session. It was the second item listed. It was the first thing we ordered when we sat down, the rest of our meal coalescing around it in a wave of gravy and syrup and monkey sounds.
Over the years, we've developed a few instinctive moves when first sitting down at a table. First among these is "move everything out of arm's reach of the baby." This includes salt and pepper shakers, menu card holders, floral arrangements and those little boxes of sweetener packets. This time around, two-year-old Joshua became utterly fixated on a small pitcher of salt and the small wooden spoon resting in it. He's obsessed with miniature versions of everyday things, which give him a sense of ownership, as if they are part of a world created with him in mind. That's how he accidentally wound up taking a small sip of rye whiskey one night, but that's a story for another time.
Sometimes, of course, it's better to make strategic concessions, allowing access to the battery-powered votive "candles" or stacking a few packets of Splenda in front of a kid as decoys, which secures a few extra minutes of calm for your table and everyone else's. This time, we conceded the saltcellar. Joshua spent the better part of the meal trying to spoon all the salt onto his plate and back into the pitcher and we spent the better part of the meal trying to keep him from spooning all of the salt onto the floor. We were mostly successful.
We figured we'd be fine once the food arrived. He's a pretty good eater, and we can usually count on him to focus on the task at hand. This was what happened when the complimentary beignets arrived. Josh forgot about the salt and set about the engrossing task of denuding his beignet of powdered sugar. He was quite thorough. Underneath their snowy mantles, the beignets were light and delicate with a delightful yeasty bloom and a restrained sweetness.
We figured my wife's Dutch Baby — a brown and undulating landscape of oven-puffed pancake — would find similar favor with the kiddo (he usually treats our meals like his own baby tapas buffet), and it did. He ate every buttery bite we offered him, though the few strawberries my wife placed on his plate drew inexplicable tears.
His favorite dish of the day was a side order of fried okra. He stripped them of their breading and eschewed the white barbecue sauce, which was a mistake. These were among the loveliest fried okra I have ever had, the cornmeal crust not much more than a sheathing of tempura cooked just long enough to set and crisp. I was leery of the white barbecue sauce, but its balance of vinegar tang, suave creaminess and assertive mustard pop won me over.
The bigger kid got her cinnamon roll, though we all agreed it was a bit tougher than we'd have liked, even if the cream cheese frosting was excellent. My chicken-fried chicken was delicious and dependable, though I immediately wished I'd ordered differently, if for no other reason than to try something I couldn't get just as easily elsewhere; the blue crab omelette, perhaps. I consoled myself with a couple of corn and Gulf crab hushpuppies, well-balanced despite the waitstaff's warnings of sweetness. They are sweet, certainly, but it serves to amplify the roasty qualities of the corn and the delicacy of the crab meat. Joshua only wanted the powdered sugar dusted on top.
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Few DEFCON experiences are complete without at least one near-catastrophe. This one came not on account of my son, who had moved on from the saltcellar and the powdered sugar to the aforementioned iPhone video session (he'd made some moves in the direction of playing an unsolicited game of catch with the next table over and all other efforts to distract him had proven futile), but on account of my wife, who does not like smoked salmon. At all. Not even a little bit. And who mistook the salmon rosette on our daughter's Toad in a Hole plate for a tomato rose. And who stole the entire thing before I could answer her question that no, it was not a tomato. And who panicked, slightly, on the realization of her error. She powered through and we avoided embarrassment, but only just. For the record, I tried a bite of the salmon that she missed. It was delicious. On the plus side, she hasn't pilfered from anyone's plate since.
We had a couple of cocktails, too. Mine was a peach and rye sour that wanted more peach and more sour, but the thrum of cardamom was quite nice. My wife's was a watermelon and rum riff that was similarly muted. They were good drinks, but, in a city where the baseline of good cocktails has risen dramatically, these weren't quite as good as I'd hoped.
The check came just as "Monkey George" was safely piloting his rocket ship back to earth. There was a bit of salt on the table, and Josh had used that tiny spoon to eat his meal. We gave our apologies to the waitstaff, who had to reset more of the table than they might have expected. We tidied up some (always a bit of good form for DEFCON Dining), retrieving one apparently inexcusable slice of strawberry that had wound up on the floor without our knowledge.
On the way home, we added another item to the list of things we'd never have done ten years ago and yet would do again in a heartbeat. We chastened ourselves, but only just a bit. If you see us out at a restaurant and our kid is engrossed in some form of electronic surrogate parenting or other, try not to judge us. We've probably already tried everything else and, really, we're just trying to get through dinner.