Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kids in the kitchen

As Tom has written here before, we watch way too much Gordon Ramsay on BBC America. On The F Word (the "F" stands for food), Ramsay has been mounting a campaign to "get women back in the kitchen." Not out of any sexist belief that they should be there, but because he believes that cooking doesn't have to be complicated, time-consuming, or mysterious to be good.

I, however, am beginning to think that what we really need is a campaign to get kids into the kitchen. Tom and I laughed about this article that claims that three-quarters of children in the UK don't know how to boil an egg, since I boil eggs so rarely that when I do, I have to get out the Joy of Cooking to remind myself whether you put the eggs in the water before the water boils or after, and how long it takes to hard-boil them. But the article makes a good point: lots of kids these days grow up with no experience in the kitchen at all.

I've had firsthand experience with this truth in the last few weeks, as we've had houseguests with kids and visited relatives with kids. The friends who stayed with us have two daughters, ages three and six. We made pizza one night while they were here, and invited the six-year-old to make her own pizza. She looked a little worried until she opined that it was like making the "Lunchables" that are like little pizzas. Later, it came out that she'd never made herself a peanut-butter sandwich. A week later, this scene was repeated as we made pizza with my six-year-old nephew.

After the second experience, I asked Tom how old he was when he started cooking. He said he couldn't remember a time when he didn't help in the kitchen, and that he probably started cooking for himself as soon as he was big enough to reach the stove.

Now, his situation was a little unusual, since his mother has had rheumatoid arthritis since he and his brothers were very young, so the three of them were called upon to help out with household chores early because their mother had a lot of physical difficulty doing them.

But even though I had a very able-bodied mother, I also couldn't remember a time when I couldn't make myself a peanut-butter sandwich, and have clear memories of making simple, cooked dishes like scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and hot dogs by the time I was in first or second grade.

By fourth or fifth grade, I was doing a lot of cooking and baking, as you can see from this well-worn copy of The Cookie Book, which I got through the Scholastic Book Club. (I still maintain it has the world's best peanut-butter cookie recipe, which is why I've held on to it.)

This is not to say that our parents put us in front of the stove and toddled off, cocktails in hand, to play bridge. There was definitely supervision and guidance. When I was probably four or five, I put a plastic pot from my kitchen play set on the stove and turned it on, which resulted not in the delicious dish I'd hoped for, but a stinky pile of melted goo and a stern reprimand. But that experiment was also followed up with instruction about why you have to use real pots and pans on the stove, and an explanation of how the stove worked.

My sister recalled my mother calling home when she had to work late to say "Don't cook!" I suppose Mom feared coming home to a charred shell. But my siblings could all slap something together out of the fridge if they got hungry, and when a parent was home, they could cook.

Consequently, I was a little stunned at how anxious the mere idea of putting sauce and cheese on pizza dough seemed to make these two six-year-olds. And I say this not to cast blame anywhere, but just to raise a question about the state of kids' "culinary literacy" these days. As trendy as organic food, farmers' markets, CSAs, and "slow food" generally are these days, it seems like kids are generally left out of the equation...except in terms of how adults can control their intake of junk food, and improve the quality of school lunches.

But I think the real way to make long-term change is to get kids into the kitchen, and to teach them how to cook! Talk about empowerment: kids who know how to choose ingredients, follow a recipe, and experiment in the kitchen will grow up to be adults who don't have to rely on the processed-food chain.

You say you want a revolution? It starts at the stove.

* * * * *
Photo of my sister Pam at the sink of the apartment she and my brother Phillip came home to here in Morgantown, circa 1954.


Jaballah Moon said...

Hi Rose,

Now, after 5 kids, I'm trying to think when we've initiated them to the kitchen rites. I remember starting at about age 8. My mother taught me to make french toast. Daniel doesn't know how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but he does know how to make crepes, pancakes, and playdo!

I think all our kids started making their own lunches around 8 years old -- second grade.

Daniel does help a lot in the kitchen -- helping measure, pour, mix and cut. He also has made a fair number of pizzas, so he must have been playing shy with you.

But, why I have failed to teach him the basic of PB&J (or a simple ham sandwich), I have no idea. I guess there's no time like the present!

Erica said...

(Your son knows how to make crepes? that's impressive!)

I 100% AGREE kids should be in the kitchen as early as possible. To be fair to Ramsay, getting parents back into the kitchen is likely to get kids back in there as well. My daughter (five) is learning to help out both because she wants to hang around and do what I do, but also because it's useful to have another pair of hands at work -- even if I'm still skittish about giving her a knife or hot stovetops, which are the most useful cooking tools.

And my tip of the day -- After years of mis-boiling eggs, I eventually wrote down the instructions on a little piece of paper and taped it to the cupboard by the stove (as well as lots of other frequently-used recipes). Not the sexiest kitchen decor, scraps of paper hanging off the doors, but it's easier than cookbooks on counters.

Rosemary said...

Man, if I'd known Daniel could make crepes I'd have said screw the pizza, get that kid in here and let's have crepes! Clearly, he's hiding his culinary light under a bushel. :^)

And Erica, good idea about the you have one for boiled eggs that you could scan and send me? I truly seem to have a mental block about that particular task.

I should also have noted how much fun it is to watch six-year-olds make pizza when they get into it. The daughter of our friends, in particular, was very very determined to have the sauce and cheese distributed absolutely evenly. I never realized what a hopeless and time-consuming task that was until she tried.

Pam said...

You're right Rose. Mom taught us how to scramble eggs when I was about 5 I think. I think we should bring "Home Ec" back for both boys and girls. Call it Life Skills or something. I had a roommate in college who never learned how to cook. She so badly wanted to take her turn cooking dinner that I taught her some basic cooking skills just so we didn't have hot dogs and baked beans every Thursday.
Oh and BTW, you probably would have had a bit of a fight getting Justin to give up Pizza night (even if it was for yummy crepes)

Christy said...

My mother was a Home Ec teacher, so my sister and I were initiated fairly early. Funny thing is, we didn't really take to it. Now I absolutely love to cook (sometimes I think I'd be almost despondent without it), but my sister really doesn't care for it. Conveniently, she married a guy who loves to cook, while I married one happy with frozen pizzas and boxed macaroni and cheese.

Anyway, I agree with you, Rose, and it seems Jamie Oliver's doing his part to encourage the same in the UK.

Historiann said...

I agree, Rose. I'd happily turn my kitchen over to anyone 7+ and toddle away for a cocktail and a game of bridge!

Best hardboiled egg recipe ever, courtesy of Cook's Mag:

Put eggs into pot, cover with cold water, cover and put on to boil. When they boil, immediately remove them from the heat and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain and throw into ice water until cool enough to peel. Perfect every time--no greenish sulfur stains, just creamy and perfectly cooked-through yolks!

(At 5,000 feet we do a high-altitute adjustment of simmering at a low boil for 5 minutes before the 10-minute soak in the hot water.)

Erica said...

Historiann's recipe is pretty much the one I use, except in mine they're on full boil for 9 minutes... which simply sounds like a waste of electricity, doesn't it? I think my note is going to need a rewrite!

Michael said...

I think it may be an individual family thing rather than a generational thing. Though I loved leafing through cookbooks when I was a kid, I had no interest in helping out in the kitchen, and if I had been asked to make my own pizza at age 14, I would have called Zamarellis's for delivery.

Now I love cooking, and kind of wish I had been forced to help out more with meals. I was the clean-up man; washing dishes was my job from 6th grade through college.

Jane said...

I cooked for my family, b/c I was the oldest of 5 children, and my parents really needed our help with chores big and small. I probably liked it because it was better than some other chores, like scrubbing the tub. (I have *never* liked doing that.)

I do agree that, in order to get kids into the kitchen, parents must model the cooking, day after day. Kids probably learn more by imitating us as cooks than they do by getting our explicit instruction. No one taught me how to cook, really: I spied on my mother as she did it, and read cookbooks. I have always loved instructions.

My kids *can* cook, but do they? Not as much as I'd like them to. Or, they're more likely to cook for their friends than they are for their parents.

Peer motivation is more compelling than the parental type. :)

Pam said...

You inspired me. I'm making english muffin pizzas with my kids next week.