The Boy Who Ate the World

The author's son, James celebrated his sixth birthday with shellfish.

The author’s son, James celebrated his sixth birthday with shellfish. (Kathleen Brennan/)

My son, James, was a SAVEUR baby, born in 2001, three years after I joined this magazine’s staff. I’m reasonably certain that he was conceived during a work trip (not as scandalous as it sounds; my husband was with me). He feasted in utero on dishes from SAVEUR’s test kitchen. And I went into labor shortly after dinner at an Italian restaurant we’d recently featured. If ever a kid were destined to become a food enthusiast, it was James, who signaled his enthusiasm upon delivery, latching onto me with a gusto that caught the nurse’s eye. “He’s an eater!” she exclaimed.

My husband, Mike, and I, both culinary journalists, would have been a little disappointed had we brought into the world someone indifferent to or overly fussy about food. But from the moment this child could handle solids, he was up for anything. We brought a 3-year-old James along on an assignment in France and watched him devour a plate of lamb testicles, followed by a generous chunk of foie gras. At an aquarium the following year, he pointed to a fish tank and asked, “Can we eat them?” We laughed; he wasn’t joking. When his kindergarten class read Charlotte’s Web, James didn’t fret about the pig’s fate. “If Wilbur dies,” he said, matter-of-factly, “that means we get hot, juicy bacon.” (He was compassionate, I swear, but led with his appetite.)

The author with her son and 18-month-old sous chef, James, in 2003.

The author with her son and 18-month-old sous chef, James, in 2003. (Kathleen Brennan/)

During visits to SAVEUR’s office, James often passed judgment on the test kitchen’s dishes as if he were the editor in charge of the story. He liked to talk about what we were tasting, whose recipe it was, and the ingredients that went into it. He seemed to have a particular knack for identifying herbs and spices. Melissa Hamilton, the magazine’s food editor then, once served him potato salad. Without missing a beat, he asked, “Is there tarragon in this?” She shot me a half-amused, half-startled look and said, “You’re in trouble.”

Despite having a full-time job that revolved around food, I still enjoyed coming home and cooking dinner, and James enjoyed helping me. He would stand on a chair in our cramped galley kitchen and squeeze whole canned tomatoes for pasta sauce, peel shrimp for scampi, mash together a miso marinade for salmon, and stir broth into risotto—waiting impatiently for the liquid to disappear before adding the next ladleful. That was our main time together during the workweek, and I cherished the ritual.

Get the recipe for Miso-Glazed Salmon »

It’s a cliché to say that you cook best when you cook with love, but like many clichés, it happens to be true. While I had always put care into the meals I made for family and friends, there was something much more primal about the effort that went into the meals I made for James. My greatest satisfaction as a cook came from watching him in his high chair, scarfing down my food, and hearing him say, “Good, mama!”

My daughter, Ava, was born in 2004. Two children don’t just double the workload, they quadruple it. As a result, I no longer cooked as much as I would have liked, and Ava didn’t get quite as much one-on-one time with me in the kitchen. She turned into a pretty good eater anyway, but James remained my muse, the voice in my head as I stood at the stove.

He kept me honest. If I took a shortcut, like failing to blind-bake the crust for a quiche, he pointed it out. Not obnoxiously—he simply knew, from all that time by my side, that things tasted best when done the right way. He made me want to do better, and my food was better because of him. Once James became old enough to cook by himself, his zeal could be maddening. (He was not exactly economical when it came to the use of utensils, pots, and ingredients.) Mostly, though, it was fun and inspiring to observe.

Cut to June 2019, at the reception following James’ high school graduation. As everyone milled about, the school’s chef and dining-hall staff came over to get a picture with their “most satisfied customer.” Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who loved cooking for this 6-foot-2-inch, 195-pound man-child. I knew it was time for him to leave home, and part of me was ready for that. Yet the thought of losing my kitchen muse, my absolute favorite person to feed, suddenly filled me with sadness. Then James returned from the photo op and snapped me out of it. “So,” he said, “what are we doing for lunch?”

Kathleen Brennan is a James Beard and IACP award-winning food writer and editor. She and her former SAVEUR colleague Caroline Campion collaborated on the cookbooks Keepers (Rodale, 2013) and The Dinner Plan (Abrams, 2017).

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