When my Havanese puppy, Mabon, first came to live with me, he was a tiny ball of white fluff, and the ribs enclosing his skinny body were visible. He had only recently been weaned, and his breeders in northern Vermont gave me precise instructions about feeding him half a cup of puppy kibble twice a day. The trouble was that his baby teeth made mere pinpricks on the desiccated pellets, and he would give up trying to chew and swallow them. Clearly he was not getting enough to eat, or perhaps what he was getting wasn’t worth his effort.
When we visited the local vet in nearby Danville for final shots, I tentatively asked her what she would think of my cooking for Mabon. To my delight, she answered that I couldn’t do anything better for him, and she gave me a few tips and guidelines. The heart of her message was to trust my instinct and feed him as I would a growing child. So I worked out my own formula: one-third meat, poultry, fish, eggs; one-third fresh vegetables that are good for dogs; one-third starches (rice, pastas, grains, dried beans).
I went home elated. I quickly got out a little frying pan and cooked up some small chunks of the grass-fed beef that my cousin and I are raising on Stannard Mountain in northern Vermont. I added a couple of lightly cooked young carrots from the garden and some leftover rice I had in the fridge. Watching the way Mabon’s nose quivered in anticipation, and how he gobbled up his first good meal, convinced me that this was the way to go, and for more than four years now Mabon has enjoyed a home-cooked supper almost every day.
I think my own love of cooking was born when I was about nine years old and I had my first dog, a Scottie I called Sally MacGregor. I had been longing for a dog, but my parents made me wait until I was old enough to walk her alone on the New York City streets in winter and to feed her. In those days, supermarkets weren’t overflowing with canned and dried pet foods, let alone “treats,” so feeding an animal meant cooking. But it never seemed like a chore to me. I loved standing at the stove listening to the sizzling sound a few pieces of meat made as I fried them, and enjoying the good smell that rose up from the pan. I liked sharing some of what we were eating with a creature I treasured. It was my way of caring for her.
Now that I am ninety, living alone, I find that part of the fun is in planning a good meal that will please me and that also offers something fresh and nourishing and tasty for Mabon. Just to give an idea of how Mabon and I share our meals, and how I make his food a part of the rhythm of my daily cooking: I might be browsing in the supermarket and come across some ground lamb in a vacuum-sealed package. There is too much meat here for me to consume alone. But I’m tempted—ground lamb is an item not often found in meat counters—so I grab it, sensing that Mabon will like a few lamb burgers as a change from his more usual beef burgers. Also, I have a yen for something with a Middle Eastern flavor, so I will make a few meatballs in a yogurt sauce one night, and maybe a more ambitious dish—a small-sized moussaka that is particularly delicious—another night.
It was experiences like this that led me to keep a log of my cooking for Mabon and me and share the recipes with other pet owners. The more I talked to friends with dogs, the more I sensed that they, too, felt that something was missing in the way they fed their canine friends. But they were apt to be discouraged by their vets, and by what they read in various dog journals about cooking for their pets. Not so Jeffrey Steingarten, who once devoted the monthly feature he writes for Vogue magazine to the subject of feeding his newly acquired golden retriever, Sky King. Jeffrey was sizzling up some tasty lamb sausages for himself one night while Sky King looked on hopefully. But all that that poor, hungry dog was given for supper was a bowlful of dry pellets. Finally, he nudged Jeffrey and asked: Who is the carnivore around here anyway? From that moment on, Jeffrey cooked for him almost every day. Not just scraps, but beautifully braised short ribs and other carefully prepared delights.
The recipes and suggestions that I have gathered here represent the kinds of dishes that Mabon and I have shared in the years that we have been together. He is clearly a healthy dog with an insatiable appetite. The first thing I ever saw him reject was a piece of overripe banana, which he sniffed at disdainfully and dropped on the floor when I offered it to him. Since then he has joined the ranks of kale haters, and he’s not too fond of the broccoli family. The way he eats tells me a lot about his preferences. He always goes for the meat or aromatic fish first, nosing away the veggies and the starch the way a child would.
As to seasoning, I am generally careful, when cooking for the two of us, to hold back on the salt, pepper, and sugar, as well as some items that are considered suspect by dieticians who have made studies of dog nutrition. I’ll remove Mabon’s portion of dinner when it is ready, and then I’ll jazz up mine and finish cooking it. You might well ask whether the flavor of what I am making for myself is compromised. I haven’t found it so. Just be careful to taste critically and adjust and taste again, and I’m sure you can satisfy your own palate and at the same time offer your furry friend a purer version that would pass muster with knowledgeable nutritionists.
Clearly I am not an expert. I am guided by common sense and Mabon’s responses. I do try to keep up with the latest findings in publications like The Whole Dog Journal and DogWatch. But I don’t want to become obsessive about measuring the nutritional aspect of every bite. I am simply the fond mistress who enjoys cooking for herself and her canine companion, and I hope to persuade you to join the pack. Check with your vet if you have doubts about something you are introducing to your dog’s diet and whether a vitamin supplement is recommended.
Aside from the pleasure—and this book is for people who enjoy cooking—there are several reasons why sharing with your dog makes sense. For one thing, it is in the long run more economical, even though your lucky dog occasionally will be savoring some juicy beef or a rich fillet of salmon or a few nips of ripe, runny cheese. There is no waste, because together you and he will be consuming every last morsel. How frustrating it is in cooking for one when you can’t finish up that whole pack of ground turkey before it goes bad.
Some of Mabon’s needs have challenged me to be more experimental. I wouldn’t ordinarily have bought that pack of rather bland ground turkey. Most grains have proved to be very good for dogs, and I have played with some of the less familiar ones, like farro and quinoa, embellishing them with roast vegetables. There is a whole array of different kinds of rice now on my kitchen shelves, to say nothing of pasta made with flaxseed or buckwheat, instead of the villainous white flour. Mabon is an avid plate-licker, polishing the plates and even some of the pots and pans so clean that I have to remind him, hey, you’re only the pre-wash.
I also have to think ahead for Mabon, because, once it is suppertime, he is hungry and uses his sharp, insistent bark to get my attention. So I have waiting in the fridge containers of cooked rice, and/or dried beans, polenta, and grits, that I can quickly put to use for the starch component of his dinner.
I can hear the doubters protesting about all the time this must take. But my strategy is to prepare these do-ahead items when I am making them for my own dinner. I will cook a cup or so of rice, eat my relatively modest portion, and store the rest for the week ahead.
Don’t let yourself feel guilty if you can’t produce that good, well-balanced meal for His or Her Highness every day. You do it for your own pleasure, and there are times when you’re running late and the doggy larder is empty, and you have to fall back on a can or some kibble.
So thank you, Mabon. We are a team. I love having you around when I cook—the way you scratch my leg to remind me it’s almost suppertime, then watch my every move in the kitchen, and, when I have your bowl ready, how you dance on your hind legs to reach for it. At last, you seem to say, the best moment of the day!
Lamb or Beef Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce
This is the dish I secretly longed for, as I mentioned in the introduction; when I saw the package of ground lamb in the supermarket, I knew I had to make it for Mabon and me.
2 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
About ½ lb ground lamb or beef
1 teaspoon beaten egg
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of allspice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 fat garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ teaspoon light olive oil or vegetable oil
½ cup plain yogurt, at room temperature
Pour a little water over the breadcrumbs, and let them soak until the water is absorbed. Squeeze the breadcrumbs and discard the water. Mix the crumbs with the meat, egg, cinnamon, allspice, parsley, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Squish everything together to mix well, then form into six meatballs about the size of golf balls. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan, and slip the meatballs in. Fry slowly, turning to brown lightly on all sides, and cover for the last half of cooking time (about 15 minutes for lamb, or 10 minutes for beef). Pour the yogurt over the meatballs. Cook just enough to warm the sauce, and serve with rice.
Excerpted from Love Me, Feed Me by Judith Jones. Copyright © 2014 by Judith Jones. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.