Several years ago, I embarked on a quest to prepare all my food at home. I became increasingly aware of food labels. A paranoia gripped me surrounding all of the things on the labels that I either couldn’t pronounce or readily identify. Social media only served to cement this fear with memes and enthralling videos of the food industry. All those things “they” didn’t want “us” to know. Suddenly afraid of the variety of colors available in M&M’s, I vowed to make everything at home, no preservatives and no unnatural food colors. I planted a giant garden, too big for me to keep up with. If I could grow fresh vegetables myself, I reasoned, then I would know that they weren’t full of pesticides. I wanted to be certain that the food I fed my kids would not lead to attention problems or food allergies.
My youngest son was in the third grade. He had always been a big fan of food. Stuffing both cheeks like a chipmunk, and filling his stomach like an engorged pinata. Despite his love of the stuff, he would often have stomach cramps and digestive problems. My need for reading labels may have stemmed from this. Whatever the case, I was sure that pure eating was the key to overall health. So entered “the secret ingredient”. Beets in the not-so-red velvet cake, beans in the soup, giant zucchinis pureed in the spaghetti sauce. The “secret ingredient” may very well have been the only saving grace of any of these meals. But it worked. The enthusiasm of a third grader would more times than not trigger the question, “What’s the secret ingredient, mom?” The real answer was usually far less interesting than my standard response. “My secret ingredient is love!” Followed by, “No, really mom…”. “Okay, you got me, it’s floor. My secret ingredient is floor. I dropped it.”
While he was pretty sure that I was kidding (I usually was), I began to notice an increased curiosity about the preparation of meals. I can’t be sure now if he was just making sure that I wasn’t dropping his food. But it became a way that we could do something together. He took some amount of pride in naming the dishes we created. “Fantastic Poppers”, for example. They were a dough pocket stuffed with cheese, spinach, swiss chard, and chickpeas (or some similar combination of high nutrition and fiber) baked to golden brown. The secret ingredient having been the chickpeas, hidden only slightly be being mashed up like hummus.
I think our shining creation came one afternoon when he wanted a sweet treat. I couldn’t possibly just run out to the store and pick something up (the food dye!). We came up with a cookie recipe, and a secret ingredient, of course. In his excitement, he couldn’t keep the secret ingredient to himself. I had to explain that the secret ingredient was supposed to remain that way, and if it was told the cookies might seek their revenge. After all, they packed a mean chocolate punch! We had some amount of discussion about the lives and ways of these particular cookies. They were all about honor, discipline, and tradition. We named them Chocolate Ninja Cookies.