Family Dinner: Health and togetherness in the Graf-Sherburne home

This summer, Little Village magazine is sitting down for family dinner. Through the lenses of five unique families, we’re exploring the benefits (and challenges) that emerge when we eat together. We’re considering modern interpretations of the word “family,” and we’re documenting — of course — the delicious foods families are cooking up.

CSA-fed The Graf-Sherburne family make a gluten-free weekday meal Photo by Helaina Thompson

Before the table is set and the salad is tossed, dinner with the Graf-Sherburne family begins with a bicycle ride — training wheels optional.

Eight-year-old Lucy tends to take the lead, her little brother Max, 6, hastily peddling behind. Following his two children, Andrew Sherburne directs the parade to the Millet Seed, a neighborhood urban farm half a mile from their Iowa City home where the trio picks up a weekly supply of vegetables.

While her husband and children retrieve produce for the night’s dinner, Liz Graf arrives home from her job as an OB-GYN physician assistant at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Graf gets home at 5 p.m. Besides a quick breakfast, she says, “I haven’t seen my kids all day.”

Graf is simmering a pot of rice on the stove when Lucy and Max burst through the back door. Leaving Sherburne in the kitchen, Graf and the kids retreat to the backyard garden to plant a handful of pumpkin seeds.

“It’s my zen moment to be in the kitchen,” says Sherburne, who co-founded FilmScene and works as a filmmaker. “It’s a chance to think or decompress or listen to a podcast.”

Photo by Helaina Thompson

Bok choy and Napa cabbage from the Millet Seed inspired tonight’s dinner — a Thai-style coconut chicken curry — as well as a refrigerator relieved of “half a red pepper, half an onion and a few carrots” says Sherburne. To accompany the main dish: a spring greens side salad garnished with radishes from the Millet Seed and tossed with a three-ingredient (white vinegar, olive oil, sugar) vinaigrette.

Purchasing a weekly share from a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farm can be “intimidating,” Sherburne admits, but he enjoys the challenge of creating family meals around a bounty of in-season vegetables grown nearby.

A few years ago, Max and Lucy were diagnosed with celiac disease, so the Graf-Sherburne kitchen has since become a gluten-free zone. Around 1 percent of Americans live with celiac disease. Left untreated, some individuals with celiac disease, like Max, experience bloating and fatigue. Others experience no symptoms at all, like Sherburne, who discovered he also had celiac disease only after his son tested positive.

Sherburne and Graf suggest keeping it simple when preparing gluten-free meals for the kids. “We pretty much always have carrots and nuts and apples and peanut butter,” says Graf.

“Make meat, make a vegetable. We know that’s safe,” Sherburne adds.

At the table, Graf assembles two bowls of salad and places a heap of rice on each child’s plate. Sherburne assists as Max and Lucy scavenge through the curry for bites of chicken and potato. Lucy petitions for a side of raw carrots.

“I’m full,” Max announces not yet ten minutes into dinner. As Graf and Sherburne eat, Max and Lucy begin to squirm and crawl beneath the table, but Graf says she is not out to “crack a whip.” She acknowledges that sometimes ten minutes seated at the table is all a family can ask for.

Lucy hints she is ready for the next course. “How do you spell dessert?” she asks.

As Graf retrieves a bag of marshmallows from the kitchen, Sherburne delivers the classic answer: “D-e-s-s-e-r-t. That’s how you remember the difference between dessert and desert. Dessert has more s’s, because you always want more.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 223.

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