News & Politics

The Food-Critic Father

Todd Kliman knew that becoming a dad would change his life, but he was determined not to go the route of chicken fingers and Chuck E. Cheese. After more than 1,500 restaurant visits with his son, he's learned a thing or two about eating out with kids.

“Welcome to my world,” my friend Laura said when I called to tell her my wife and I were having a baby.

“You mean the world of early-morning feedings and interrupted sleep?”

“I mean,” she said, “the world of chicken tenders. You’re in for a rude awakening, my food-critic friend.”

There are things every parent-to-be fears.

The grand, existential worries: Let him be breathing, I said to myself at the moment of delivery. Let there not be a cord wrapped around his neck. Let him be normal.

Then there are the little, quotidian matters, the myriad concerns of getting along with what is, let’s face it, a new housemate. A wailing, demanding housemate. A housemate who makes the slob you once roomed with–the one who raided the fridge and lounged on the couch in his underwear–look not half bad by comparison.

In the months preceding our son’s arrival, I kept hearing that life was about to change, that being a parent would alter my reality in ways big and small. But it wasn’t until Laura framed the terms of my soon-to-be life that the existential abstraction–change–became quotidian and concrete.

I thought I had prepared myself. Long before our son was ever a notion in our heads, my wife and I sat down one night and figured it all out–discussing, with the certainty of people for whom nothing is at stake, how we’d raise our Hypothetical Kid. We’d never buy a minivan, we wouldn’t build our existence around our Hypothetical Kid’s world. Hypothetical Kid would enter ours.

But what was this world I’d created? As a food critic, I ate dinner out every night–often following a long lunch. Sometimes I went out to two dinners in a single night, and the wine sometimes meant that those nights stretched into the morning.

I understood when I accepted this job that I was to think of myself as a kind of public functionary–a Designated Eater. I endured the caloric overload and the punishments to the body so readers could spend their time and money more sensibly. Not that I ever complained. This was the other thing I accepted–griping was bad form when you were eating out nightly on someone else’s dime.

If it wasn’t all Champagne and truffles, the fact remained that every meal was a restaurant meal. I lived a fantasy life, and I nurtured one, too. As much as I existed to feed my readers tips, I existed to feed their fantasy of the bon vivant.

Some bon vivant I was about to be, I thought, spooning strained carrots and mashed peas to a newborn.

“You have to sacrifice certain things now,” an obstetrician said, preparing us for our new life.

But there were sacrifices I wasn’t sure I was prepared to make.

In the beginning, things were a relative breeze.

In their first few months, most babies sleep 18 hours a day or more. The car seat was an ungainly purse we carted everywhere, leaving it on a chair beside us or on the floor next to our table. Jesse slept in his protective pod or stared blankly and drooled.

Half the time we brought him with us to restaurants, I didn’t even notice he was there until it was time to leave.

“Wait,” my wife said. “It gets harder.”

We hit more than 100 eateries in those first three or four months–white-tablecloth spots, dives, and everything in between. By our son’s first birthday, he had been to more than 250–a fact I shared with the friends and family who gathered at our house to eat cake and watch Jesse open presents.

“You’re kidding,” someone said.


“Two hundred fifty,” she said. “You’re keeping a total?”

“Actually, 272,” I said. “But who’s counting?”

She shook her head. “You’re such a guy.”

In a sense, we entered a new phase when Jesse graduated from the car seat, where he mostly slept, to a high chair, where he mostly didn’t.

But it was the night I took my one-year-old son out for barbecue for the first time that we truly entered a new stage of parenthood.

Barbecue has always held a certain primacy for me among all the foods I cook and crave, and I wanted it to be special the first time my son dug into a pile of smoky ‘cue.

It was a long drive. My wife had expressed doubts about chancing a place this far from home in rush hour, and now as we hit a patch of traffic on the Beltway, she worried we’d be getting home too late. Jesse wailed and wailed.

I told her we could bail at the next exit.

“Stick to the plan,” she said, slipping Jesse animal crackers.

I suspected she encouraged me to keep going only so she’d have the ideal incriminating illustration to use against me the next time I suggested we venture out too late for a restaurant.

Traffic eased up. We managed to be only 40 minutes late.

Fortunately, the food–ribs, pulled pork, beans, cornbread, coleslaw–came quickly. Jesse, despite the in-car appetizer, was ravenous. He attacked his plate, shoving bits of spare rib into his mouth as if satisfying some deep need. I’d never seen him go at any food like this. But I’d never turned him loose on barbecue. He’s got it in his genes, I thought, marveling at his sauce-smeared face. I took pictures.

We drove home in one of those warm, expansive moods when your earlier fears have been exposed as premature and overstated and life feels loose and easy. We laughed and celebrated his initiation into the culture of barbecue and the world of adult eating.

And then at 3 in the morning, my son, snugly sleeping between Mommy and Daddy, spewed the contents of his stomach all over himself, our bed, and us.

Even after we changed the sheets, the smell of wood smoke and stomach acid was unmistakable.

Yay, solid foods!

Next: “My fork!” he cried.