By Jessica Dupuy
Most of us were raised not to play with our food. But Bill and Claire Wurtzel contend that sometimes playing with your food is exactly what’s needed to enjoy the simple, beautiful things in life—in fact, they wrote the book on it. Or rather, photographed a book about it. In Funny Food, Bill, a former advertising creative director-turned-jazz-musician, and Claire, a New York City special education teacher, reveal how the lighter side of breakfast has kept them and their marriage not only youthful, but healthy too.
Edible Austin: When did you start playing with your food?
Bill Wurtzel: I’ve made these breakfasts for Claire ever since we were married, but it was just for fun. Being creative with food on the spur of the moment came easily to me. So, I started taking pictures of the breakfasts and snacks I’d make for her, and I shared them with friends and family. The next thing we knew, we were publishing a book of these photos.
Claire Wurtzel: Not that he’s a cook, mind you. But he is a great photographer.
EA: You’re not trained culinary professionals, so what led you to care about healthful foods?
BW: When we first got married, my idea of a healthy breakfast was a Coca-Cola and a brownie. But Claire changed my ways pretty quickly and since then, everything that we eat is healthy. All of the ingredients in Funny Food are healthy and the portions are measured.
EA: Is this something you also did with your family? It’s obviously something that was fun for you as a couple.
BW: Yes, we have two daughters and three grandchildren. Starting when they were about two, if they were going to be finicky about eating, just by having some play and a little pretend, they would get involved and eat the food. As they grew older, they started making the foods themselves. We’re all very adept now. And the best part is that they eat their fruits and vegetables.
EA: What inspired you to bring your food play to inner-city kids?
CW: When I was a child, we lived in Manhattan in a poor neighborhood where a local community house offered free classes to mothers to learn about making healthy meals on a small budget. My mother used to take these classes and was very proud of learning that, and as a result my siblings and I all grew up eating healthy, raw foods. Having had that background, and looking at how my mother could learn and make changes, Bill and I thought we could help make a change within communities, as well. Looking at the statistics on childhood obesity and diabetes, we decided that we wanted to go into the different communities and help try to educate about healthy eating.
BW: As soon as we show the images of these funny foods, the kids are immediately enthralled. And I tell everyone that we’re going to play with our food today as long as you can keep from throwing it around the room. With a pancake, I demonstrate how I make a funny food and ask them what we should make and what ingredients we should use to make that. So I then bring them to a table where there are a bunch of ingredients set up, and I encourage them to make their own picture and tell them that the key is to use different food groups to create a healthy meal. And they come up with the most beautiful ideas like Cyclops and boats and monsters. We take pictures and then they get to eat them. And they just love it.
CW: We’ve seen in the workshops we hold that if the kids make it, they’ll eat it. Do they live this out once they go home? I don’t know.
EA: How did you get involved with children with autism?
CW: A co-worker’s daughter who works at a school for children with autism asked if we’d go to the school to do a workshop. Bill had never worked with [children with] autism before, and even though I had worked in special education, I had never actually worked with children with autism. But we thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen? The kids were about ten, and to everyone’s absolute astonishment, it was the most powerful experience. Bill began by playing a song for his kids about eating funny food. The kids were riveted and learned the song. Even kids who were nonverbal sang.
BW: It’s interesting to realize how impaired these children were and you can really see the reaction they had to the music and the food. Kids who don’t talk were communicating to me and they were so focused on what I was doing and wanted to participate.
CW: We would love to keep doing this. One boy, who was only able to communicate using a language board, was so excited to make a boat with his food. It was so amazing how he immediately connected to the whole experience. We really would love to continue working with children in this way.
EA: You did this for your wife more than 50 years ago having no idea you’d be able to impact kids in this way.
BW: Food and play, what else is there?
The following are excerpts from Funny Food, by Bill & Claire Wurtzel. © 2012 Welcome Enterprises, Inc., www.funnyfood.us
WACKY IS GOOD
The imaginations of children are boundless, and allowing them to create without imposing judgments is essential to their development. They may see odd things in the shape of a piece of cheese or an egg that you could never have fathomed. Give them the positive reinforcement they need to let their imaginations run wild.
IT'S A BALANCING ACT
Balance is the key word. Combining various food groups is the heart of good nutrition. An assortment of foods on the plate is also a natural way to teach portion control. Instead of three pancakes, one pancake and some fruit and protein provide a more balanced mixture of needed nutrients with a healthy amount of calories, fat and sugar.
Scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, fried, or in an omelet, frittata or quiche, eggs are a healthy way to start the day. Contrary to previous beliefs, new research shows that moderate consumption of eggs does not have a negative impact on cholesterol. Eggs are versatile, easy to cook, affordable, delicious and highly nutritious. When possible, always opt for organic, free-range eggs. They’re higher in omega-3 fatty acids, are free of antibiotic and pesticide residues and contain no arsenic, which is added to factory-farmed chicken feed to prevent infections and accelerate growth.