Teaching and Learning in the Kitchen

Children learn best by doing.

They follow our example in all things, as I remember well from my own childhood.

I have no doubt in my mind that the reason I am a chef today is because I grew up in a family of great cooks, all of whom had no qualms about spending hours a day cooking food for their families to eat. Not only did they have no qualms–they loved doing it. And they did it pretty much every day.

And when I was growing up, where did I spend most of my time?

In the kitchens of my mother, grandmothers, aunts and uncles.

And what did I do there?

I watched a lot.

For whatever reason, I was endlessly fascinated in what went on at the stove and on the table, in the sink and on the counter. I watched from my station on the floor under my Mom’s or Gram’s kitchen tables, as all sorts of fascinating alchemy went on around me–from making noodles and hanging them on a clothesline strung overhead across the kitchen, to canning tomatoes (once while canning tomatoes, my mother accidentally scalded her hand in boiling water and our next door neighbor lady put a grated up potato on it, and wrapped it in a bandage “to pull the heat out”–it worked–Mom’s hand didn’t blister at all) to making fudge to the cooking of countless pots of beans to the rare occasions when Gram stirred up her boiled custard that no one to this day can replicate.

And I played at cooking, too, down under those tables–pots and pans, wooden spoons, plastic bowls and measuring cups that were not in immediate use were given to me, and I would “cook,” stirring and measuring and scooping under the table, out from under the feet of the women passing to and fro as they actually worked, but still close by where they could keep an eye on me and I could happily watch them.

And then, before I knew it, I was old enough to help, in ways large and small.

My little hands were quite nimble, and so I was often put to work shelling peas or stringing beans.

I was also good at picking the strands of silk from between the kernels of corn fresh from its green, fragrant shucks. I could hull strawberries and pick through dried beans and lentils looking for bits of stone or stray sticks or beans that were wizened and crinkled or off-colored and untrustworthy-looking.

Soon enough I was trusted with a vegetable peeler and could tackle piles of carrots. Before that, I remember being given the task of peeling dozens of boiled eggs for deviled eggs or those mountainous batches of potato salads that my mother made every summer for the annual family gatherings with all the cousins, aunts and uncles, all of whom dearly adored her potato salad. (And I still prefer hers to anyone else’s. No one else makes it right.)

I am certain, absolutely certain that if I had not been included in those long hours of food preparation, if I had not helped plant and harvest vegetables, if I had not been intimately involved in tending livestock and preserving the fruits of our labor for the winter–I would not be a food-obsessed chef and food writer today.

I might still be a journalist or something.

Or maybe even a veterinarian. (I even was a pre-vet major for a time. The math classes killed me.)

But certainly, I would not be who I am today.

We are the sum of our experiences, filtered through our own unique personalities, talents and skills which are inborn.

But I am only a sample size of one person. Let’s look at how Morganna has turned out.

Most of her childhood memories of me are tied in some way to food. She remembers picking blackberries in the woods with me when she was about four or five.

She remembers me getting her to eat lamb by telling her it was dinosaur meat.

She remembers her Aunt Nikki making her candied carrots, which she called “Bugs Bunny Candy” and they were the first cooked carrots Morganna would eat.

She remembers being obsessed with garlic at an early age, and carrying heads of it around so she could smell them.

And she remembers, from the time she could stand on a step stool and reach the counter, helping me in the kitchen.

And in truth, she remembers helping her Grammy, my mother, as well.

And where is she now?

She’s a line cook at a fine dining restaurant here in town, and is planning on possibly transferring from OU to Johnson & Wales University to finish her BA as a culinary degree.

(And yes, Mamma is very proud of her. Very proud indeed.)

Now, I am not saying that every child we teach how to cook at home is going to run right out and become a chef.

Far from it.

But what will happen is that every child who learns how to cook also learns how to eat. And what to eat. And how to eat it. And when, and why.

Cooking lessons bring a child a sense of accomplishment and impart important skills that push that child towards self-sufficiency and independence, which, as I recall, is the point of raising a child into adulthood. Knowing how to cook is a skill that will serve any child, as well as that child’s loved ones very well for the rest of their lives. (And it is a marketable skill as well….)

But learning to cook isn’t just about cooking, because cooking isn’t just a chore.

It is a part of our cultures. It is a part of our selves, our families. It is history, it is art, it is science, heck it is even math.

It is part of what makes us human.

For it is theorized that cooking food is what enabled us to evolve these big brains which went on to create art, science, music, literature, history, philosophy and culture. Cooking then, is part of what not only makes us human now–but made us human in the first place.

So, if you teach a child to cook, you are not only introducing him or her to a useful life skill–you are teaching them what it means to be human.

Cooking and sharing food brings love and peace–so when we teach our children to cook, we are also teaching them how to be good, humane, loving human beings.

So, this Sunday, it was Kat’s turn to start learning how to prepare food and be a good little human while she is at it..

She has helped her Daddy make scrambled eggs for several months now, by guiding his hand as he cracks the egg and sprinkling in the herbs, but Sunday, I gave her her first real task–she sat down on the floor with me and helped shell horticultural beans.

And she worked at it diligently for over forty-five minutes–and was sad that we had no more pods to empty!

I had to open the pods for her–they are leathery and tough, but she would with careful, nimble fingers, pull each bean out and put them in the colander, while tossing the empty pod into the pot I had brought in for them.

She was so absorbed in the work–she commented on the beans, she counted them as they came from the pods, and she noted what color they were as she shelled them. (Horticultural beans can be pure white, white with pink stripes, white with red stripes, solid pink, solid red or red with white stripes. I am fascinated with the genetics involved in such a variable appearance.)

It was wonderfully relaxing to have her working with me, both of us sitting comfortably on the floor as we worked side by side.

I am so proud of her.

And she was and is so proud of herself–and guess what? Because she shelled those beans, even though they were an unfamiliar food, she readily tried them, tasting the broth of the stew they cooked in, and the beans themselves. She loved it. She insisted on stirring the stew with me, so I held her up to the stove and we carefully manipulated the wooden spoon in lazy circles in the pot, sniffing the delicious steam that rose to wreath our faces in the savory scents of herbs, onions, garlic and leeks.

Later, she helped me mix the dough for the berry crisp we made for dessert. She was especially fond of sniffing the cardamom jar, and she helped me pour the rosewater over the macerating berries. I taught her to put a dot of rosewater behind her ears so she could “smell like a flower,” as she said.

I think she is well on her way to learning to love food, the way it smells, feels and tastes.

And her education in how to cook has only just begun–but the photograph above chronicles the exact day and moment it began, at least in a practical, not just theoretical sense.


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  1. This brings a big smile to my face. Kat is really growing up. Way to go!!

    Comment by Maureen — August 11, 2009 #

  2. I remember learning to cook by watching my mother and father and grandparents cook. We were always in the kitchen and life revolved around food. This is probably why my brothers and I are all good cooks and love food.

    My husband’s children were never around cooks and see food as a necessary afterthought, although one of them is beginning to explore food preparation. My 2 1/2 year old step-grandson is fascinated by the kitchen though, and I love encouraging him to watch and help and play in the kitchen.

    What a happy story.

    Comment by Mardel — August 11, 2009 #

  3. I cant decide what you seem to be better at – cooking or writing? You do such an awesome job of both!
    Your writing is so relate-able, and it amazes me how, a few thousand miles away, in a different context everyone has similar stories… i grew up in a similar surrounding too, in a house where the men and the women loved their food and their cooking and took so much pride in even the simplest of meals that were made.. that’s perhaps why some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around food.. so comforting. lovely post.
    and lovelier still is Kat.. so wonderful to read of her growing up stories..

    Comment by roxana — August 11, 2009 #

  4. I have wonderful memories of cooking with my dad. (Still enjoy it when we get together.) I continue to enjoy cooking, and my younger son is becoming a lover of food prep as well. Last Christmas, all he wanted was a “better play kitchen and a good set of stainless steel pots and pans.” He has a wonderful time creating recipes for his restaurant, “Aidan’s Caliente Restaurant.” He has actually created some of his recipes in the real kitchen with me, and he loves it when dinner consists of his own creations. His “Goomba” Soup has become a family favorite!

    Comment by Kara — August 11, 2009 #

  5. I love this post. It reminds me of days spent at the feet of my grandmother. I learned to cook from her and relish those memories. Hopefully, my little ones will have the same memories of time spent with me in the kitchen, stirring imaginary soup and making delicious strawberry air drinks. It’s beautiful.

    Comment by Mitzi — August 11, 2009 #

  6. Beautiful post. It reminds me of my own childhood, too.

    Comment by Maninas — August 11, 2009 #

  7. Exactly how I’ve been feeling as I teach my 23-month-old how to stir pancake batter and put the potatoes in the pot to boil.

    Comment by Zoe Dawn — August 11, 2009 #

  8. My Mom actually hated to cook, but I loved cooking with her anyhow. I have many good memories of that. She always cooked from scratch with fresh whole ingredients, and was very patient – so she was a great teacher, she just didn’t much like it herself. And cooking with my grandma remains one of my favorite memories.

    This was a lovely post.

    Comment by Diane — August 11, 2009 #

  9. Lovely post. I am hoping to start teaching my son (15 months) to cook. He loves to vacuum and clean – maybe I can get him to take over housecleaning duties?

    I just wanted to point you to a great kids book on the Korean dish bibimbap (spelled in the book’s title Bee-bim-bop). The text is great, the illustrations are great, and there is a recipe at the back of the book with parts for the child to do and parts for the adult to do. (My only reservation with it is that we would never make bibimbap from scratch like that- we’d make Korean BBQ first and make bibimbap from the leftovers.)


    Comment by Kim — August 14, 2009 #

  10. A lovely post. It was great to read about your growing-up cooking experience and about Kat’s.
    I grew up like that, too, except my learning never involved watching others do it. I mean, I don’t have any memories of sitting in the kitchen watching other people cook. We were always being taught directly, as Kat is. We were homeschooled, and cooking lessons were part of school. My mom, having gone through a great deal of trial and error in learning to make bread, taught us how to knead and fold and measure and check for doneness with a knife, and when my dad was making dinner he’d always have me be his taste-tester and teach me about adding more of this herb or that. Cooking and baking were a natural part of life and continue to be for me, though I have no family to feed but myself.

    Comment by Christy — August 14, 2009 #

  11. i wish i had the chance to learn to cook when i was young, but i guess it is not too late for me to self learn now. your daughters are really lucky!

    Comment by rokh — September 8, 2009 #

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