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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Real Men Make Quiche

Photo by Brandie Kajino
On the first day of his Summer of Cooking, my nearly twelve-year-old son came to me at five o’clock, the appointed dinner-preparation hour, with slumped shoulders and a heavy sigh. “Mom,” he said. “Can we start the cooking lessons tomorrow? I don’t feel like making dinner tonight.”
Aw, really?
I clapped him on the shoulder. “Welcome to my world, Son. That’s exactly how I feel. Every. Single. Night. Now go wash your hands and get in the kitchen.”
If the boy learned nothing else for the rest of the summer, that single epiphany of empathy would have more than satisfied me.
My girls’ schedules filled up with camps and activities for the months of July and August, but the boy’s calendar turned out fairly empty for the season. So we talked it over and decided that his job for the summer holidays would be to acquire culinary skills.
I never learned to cook until I lived alone in an apartment near Osaka, where my Japanese 101-level language ability and the dearth of take-out places did not facilitate ordering in every night. My mother, who tried for years with little success to introduce her stubbornly disinterested daughter to the ways of the chef de cuisine, presented me a Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook before I left the country, and I spent many an hour in my tiny kitchen making dishes I couldn’t recognize as things I’d ever eaten before.
The first time I attempted a hamburger I broke an egg into a bowl containing a lump of ground beef, then attacked it with my hands to work them together. Either the egg was too big or the meat was too small, because it turned into a goopy mess of stringy pink soup. I added some flour to stiffen it up. Then I remembered that Mom always puts soy sauce in her hamburgers, so I poured maybe a quarter cup of it into the bowl. Too soupy again. More flour. I kept on like this till I got it to what felt like the consistency of a raw hamburger. Then, lacking a grill, I sautéed my sticky little patty in a skillet.
Had I been making a salt-crusted chicken-fried cube steak, I’d have very nearly hit it on the head. But at least I went to bed that night with a full stomach and marginal sense of accomplishment.
“This will not happen to my kids,” I decided, and engaged the bull-headedness with which I defied my mother toward the compulsory culinary education of my children.
The first thing I learned over my son’s Summer of Cooking is that I have raging control issues.
Well, that’s not true. I already knew I had raging control issues. But they blazed into their full solar glory as I struggled to coerce my child into doing everything exactly as I would:
“You’re getting sugar on the counter!”
“Stir this way, not that way!”
“Not that spoon! The other spoon!”
Of all the things I might’ve learned in my youth, this was the one that stuck? A My-Way-or-the-Wrong-Way attitude that makes one’s instructional manner resemble that of a cross-eyed Nazi with PMS?
I spent the summer learning patience, grace, and how to give directions without qualitative assessments attached:
“Crack the shell in half, then pass the yolk back and forth to separate out the white…” (Shut up and say not another word. A trace of yoke in the albumen will not hurl the earth out of orbit.)
“Sift the cocoa powder over the batter…” (Close your mouth right now. A dishrag will resolve the explosion-in-a-chocolate-factory mess on the counter. And floor. And ceiling.)
“Roll the dough from the center to the edges…” (Bite your tongue and stand silent. If the pastry sticks to the counter and tears, he will simply begin again. A tough Quiche crust will neither render us failures as human beings nor rupture the fabric of space-time.)
The boy made an admirable job of it, assisting each Sunday in writing up a meal plan for the week, going with me to the grocery on Monday to purchase all the ingredients (and see how much they cost), then showing up at five o’clock each evening—like it or not—to work up dinner. Beyond the mechanical techniques involved with feeding a family, he learned a few soft skills as well, such as:
I don’t have to want to do it, feel like doing it, or enjoy doing it to get it done.
No matter how badly the job is going, the family still has to eat. Always have a back-up plan. Even if it’s just getting in the car and driving to Chili’s.
If you have to pull the batteries from the smoke detector, be sure to put them back in before you start cooking again.
Surprisingly, I learned a few soft skills, too:
My demeanor alone predicts the unfolding outcome of a family interaction with about 75% accuracy.
Kids want to please their parents. So behave as if pleased by their attempts, their progress, their hard work. Even if the resultant product is not especially pleasing.
Opening the window to vent the kitchen will often prevent the smoke detector from finding out about what’s going on in the kitchen.
One other side-effect of my son’s Summer of Cooking is that he’s now looking forward to the fall. “I won’t have to do this anymore after I go back to school, right?” he asked me.
Oh, but he may. Because about half-way through the summer I realized that he has become useful. He can now read a recipe, understand it, and follow it. When guests came for dinner one evening, we split the cooking jobs and worked in tandem, he at one counter and I at another.
Mama likes having a co-chef.
His sisters, coming up behind him in years, are already anticipating their own Summers of Cooking. I am employing the Tom Sawyer technique of insisting that they are not yet ready for or capable of such apprenticeship, thereby whetting their appetites all the more.
The time approaches, I believe, when I may retire from the kitchen altogether. Because training my children to employ life skills with independence is the goal of my vocation, right? The whole point of parenting is to do one’s job well enough that the job successfully launches itself right out of the house.
And with all that I’m learning through my children’s training, I expect to become a really great mom right about the time I’m done momming.
I should be awesome when I cook with my grandkids.

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