Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's the Real Thing, Baby

First blueberry pie. Almost certainly not the last. 
Whenever I am in the kitchen, there are four little words I love and dread hearing: "Mommy, can I help?"

I love that my kids want to help. I know that someday, it is possible that no bribe or threat I can dream up will get them within twenty feet of the kitchen, so I enjoy their enthusiasm now. Truthfully, however, there are times that their "help" adds an hour, an egg on the floor, and flour in crevices that will never come clean, and I just want to do it myself.

It is a constant pas-de-deux of cooking and trying to prevent salmonella when they climb up on their little stools and, faster than the speed of light, rub their little hands on raw meat. Powdery white substances are irresistible, both for eating by the handful and for smearing onto hair and eyes and siblings.

Despite this, I almost always let them help. I want them to have memories of being welcomed in the kitchen. My mother tells a story about baking cookies as a child for a 4-H competition and burning the first batch. Her mother helped her start over, remix and re-bake, and under my grandma's guidance, the second batch was perfect. This memory means a great deal to my mom; as one of seven children, she did not always have much individual time with her own mother. I am sure it meant a great deal to my grandma, who lost her mother before she was five and probably spent little time with her in the kitchen.

Besides the benefit of time -- which is precious with two working parents and three, soon to be four, children -- learning to cook is a lesson in self-sufficiency and persistence. And in our house, that lesson is built upon a foundation of do-it-yourself. We still buy boxed macaroni and cheese (because it is delicious), but otherwise, we cook, and we teach, from scratch.

I have not bought a box of pancake mix in almost two years. Through much satisfying and frustrating trial and error, I found a recipe and modified it until it was perfect. I have learned to be comfortable making slow-cooking oatmeal and slow-cooking grits. I take great pride in my pie crusts, which my mother showed me how to make. Sometimes they are still too sticky and shaped like footballs, but I persist, and every once in a while, they are flaky and light and beautiful and I want to send pictures of them to my mom.

This is what I want my kids to learn when they "help": it is not okay to eat raw eggs, and if you measure and mix all the ingredients yourself, it will take longer and taste better. We live in a post-Betty Crocker world where you can buy just about anything pre-made, and I am not going to lie, sometimes I would love to cook nothing but things that require me to add water or press "bake" on the oven. Sometimes a Stouffer's lasagna is the best-tasting thing on Earth.

But so much is lost in the instant-ness. A muffin mix doesn't allow a three-year-old to build a brown-sugar sandcastle. When my daughter made her first little pie, it was all she could do to not march around the house, hoisting the ramekin above her head like a trophy. I showed pictures of her pie to my mom, and felt the do-it-yourself implant in a fourth generation.

As long as they want to help, and as long as I can summon the patience, my kids will be allowed to "help" in the kitchen. Someday, when they are living in early-twenties poverty, they will buy ramen and instant oatmeal, but they will have memories of learning to saute garlic, roast squash, and bake homemade pies. They will remember that flour and baking powder just feels better than a pre-mix, and somewhere down the line, I will see pictures of their kids' baked goods: proud smiles alongside accidentally dropped eggs and sugar in their hair.

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