I started working with preschoolers a few years ago, not long after I quit my office job. These days, I help out in a pre-k classroom at a school downtown, close to Rincon Center. The boys are obsessed with Star Wars, even the original movies, and the girls sport headbands like Lynda Carter-era Wonder Women. Some of their families call San Francisco home; many live in Marin, south of San Francisco, or in the suburbs of Oakland. A lot of them eat catered school lunches; others lug boxes and bags inevitably embellished with culturally significant images -- Yoda, Tinkerbell, Dora -- and stocked with kid-friendly things: string cheese sticks, raisins, fruit, lunch meat, hummus, and miniature yogurt cups and juice boxes from Trader Joe's and Costco.
Our relationships with food begin when we're very young. We're shaped by what our parents give us. We like what we learn to like. Foods in fun packages -- like pigs-in-a-blanket and eggs-in-a-basket -- are universally appealing. Foods we associate with good times -- like Popsicles -- are as well. Childhood memories are powerful things, our therapists tell us. Chefs know this too. That's why Grant Achatz of the esteemed Alinea in Chicago served, on his restaurant's opening night, a whimsical riff on an American lunch-box staple: one peeled grape, warmed, still on its stem, dipped in a peanut puree and wrapped in brioche -- the mad scientist's peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.
Every Tuesday morning, the class visits the Ferry Building. We teachers gently prod our shifty little charges into the loose winding semblance of a line and lead them, meandering along the sidewalks, dashing through crosswalks. "Smells gross," a boy once sniffed as we passed Yank Sing, the damp, slightly acrid scent of vapor hissing from steamers inside. "That's only the best dim sum in San Francisco," I almost blurted out incredulously. I remembered, of course, that I was walking with under-sized humans who still cried for their mommies and wet their pants on occasion. They'd never pecked a tiny hole in the soft translucent skin of a perfect Shanghai dumpling and slurped -- with greedy, Dracula-like precision -- the sweet, concentrated broth within. Divorced from that experience, the smell was, in fact, a little icky. An iron grate covers a patch of pavement directly outside of Boulevard, on the Mission St. side. The kids like to jump on it as they pass because it clangs noisily. A waiter inside polishing glasses -- readying for the lunch hour rush -- inevitably chuckles. Their small heads bob just barely into view with every leap.
I wonder if marching into the Ferry Building farmer's market flanked by a posse of adorable 4-year-olds isn't a bit like rolling into a club with a bunch of professional basketball players. You receive a lot of attention but it's all purely by association. Beaming retirees and fanny-pack-toting tourists -- this scene's coterie of doting fans and relentless paparazzi -- hover, stare, cluck, and coo. When cameras come out, teachers act swiftly, more like security personnel than hangers-on. "No photos, please," we say firmly. "They're minors." Once, a very old woman wheeling her husband -- a man in much less robust health -- sidled up to me winking, her face as round, wrinkled, and fuzzy as an over-ripe apricot: "Do any of them need a Jewish grandma?" she practically pleaded. "Yes," I responded. "Doesn't everyone?"
"Potato," by Reese, age 4. She drew a potato and started to scrawl the word, but decided to write "green bean" instead.