Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Someone's in the Kitchen with Mama


I spotted an article in Slate Magazine this morning about cooking with children: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2012/03/children_cooking_how_young_can_they_be_.html. It made me feel very proud of the cooking I’ve done with my 2-1/2 year old son. I always loved cooking with my own mom, although I started at a much later age, maybe 9 or 10. But what really spurred me on to get him involved in the kitchen was when I was taking care of my then 11-year-old nephew, who happened to be a very picky eater. He was in rehearsals for a show right around the corner from our house, and my sister-in-law asked if I could pick him up for his dinner break so she wouldn’t have to make a 1-1/2 hour round-trip during rush hour. I was delighted to help, but concerned that he wouldn’t eat anything I made. But then I read an article about how children are much more willing to eat food that they helped make themselves, so I decided to recruit him to help me make homemade meatballs and marinara sauce. For a kid who generally only ate bread and cheese, he ate an impressive amount of “his” meatballs. So I decided to do the same with my own son.

At age 2-1/2, the majority of his contributions are cracking eggs, pouring milk or sugar or flour into a measuring cup, and stirring, stirring, stirring. But I can already see that he will be ready to make more significant contributions very soon. Knives and flames are still on the forbidden list, but there are plenty of recipes that include very little of either that he will be able to manage with just the tiniest bit of help from me, very soon. In fact, he has already made shepherd’s pie with my help only in browning the beef, pouring the boiling water for the mashed potatoes, and pointing out the right line on the measuring cup. My son spooned the meat into the baking dish, poured on the frozen corn, measured the milk and butter for the potatoes and stirred them up, spread them carefully over the top, and sprinkled the whole thing with shredded cheese. He was so proud of his creation! And I can imagine him making his own meatloaf the same way – cracking a few eggs, measuring out the bread crumbs and herbs and salsa, squishing everything together with freshly-washed hands, and then pressing it into a pan. In fact, every time I make a recipe, I think about what parts of it he will be able to do and how soon.

I know he will love making chicken parmesan, whacking the chicken breasts with the little mallet, carefully laying out the squares of mozzarella, and pouring the sauce over the top. He’ll love pouring oil onto his hands to slather over a whole turkey. He’ll squeal with mock disgust as he pulls the guts out of a whole chicken and replaces them with some chunks of lemon.

But the best part will be when I break out my mother’s chocolate fudge party cake recipe that I remember learning to make with her. Or when I teach him all the different options for my grandmother’s 3-bean salad recipe. Or when I show him the intricacies of slicing my grandfather’s favorite Swedish tea ring just so. Or when I pass along my mother-in-law’s tortilla soup recipe, the one she made for me when we brought my son home from the hospital. I will love sharing all the family stories and traditions. I look forward to teaching him that Christmas means making Kinderpunch for when we decorate the tree, or having hot mulled cider simmering on the stove while the trick-or-treaters come around on Halloween. Or the first time he helps me decorate the bunny cake we make every Easter, or the gingerbread man cake we make for his dad’s birthday every year.

Food is more than food. It’s family tradition. It’s a link in a chain of family, and love, and laughter, and story-telling. And I can’t wait to carry on those traditions with my own children!


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