Tooling Around the Kitchen

                                                               Thanksgiving Cooks

Being the guardian of a helpless stranger who enters your life with his or her own agenda, idiosyncrasies, and personality requires a great flexibility and power of observation. For as soon as we parents adjust to the stage of development that our child has just mastered, we awaken the next day to find yet another set of behaviors to understand or cope with or shape or most importantly, just appreciate. And through all these changes our child’s particular culinary likes and dislikes might be quite different from our own. Patience, my fellow parents.

I have seen this recently as my grandson, Asher (aka "Biscuit") went from eating anything put in front of him to being much more selective and “picky” as a toddler. I don’t really like that word, but it does convey a level of discernment that is not all bad. As a grandmother, I have the luxury to watch and wait for clues to ways to interest him in trying new foods. One thing I have noticed is how much he likes to figure out how things work. You can almost see his little brain spinning as he repeatedly takes tops off bottles or the lid off a teapot and put them back on. The kitchen is heaven for him. Every morning he unloads a selection of whisks and bowls or pans from the drawers and we all step gingerly around them to fix breakfast.

At seventeen months he has made the connection between me, the pots and pans and food he likes to eat. If I carry Asher into the kitchen he will point to the pot rack on my wall, look back at me and say, "Mmmm." I look forward to the day when he and I can actually do some cooking together, showing him how to grate cheese, or roll out biscuits or make our own hand cranked ice cream. 

Max and Asher

 I am reminded of my own son, Asher’s Uncle Max, and his approach to the kitchen.  He         too had an innate interest in the process of making food.  Not unlike Asher’s current food  phase, he was bit of a picky least compared to the rest of us who would swoon over dim sum and Kung pao chicken and steamed fish while he would retreat under the table at Chinese restaurants. He found that making his own favorites gave him some control over what he ate and what it was going to taste like. 

Max, at only eight was big for his age, muscular and filled with a wonderfully enthusiastic spirit. He loved to cook or do anything physical for that matter. “Sports,” he said, “are what I was put on earth to do.” His athleticism and surprising clarity about his life’s purpose came as quite a shock to a family with a long line of professionals and academic leanings. So we learned to spend long hours at soccer, then baseball games as his passion for that sport superseded all others.

Back then, Max was a meat and potatoes kind of guy, consistent with his no-nonsense, go for the gusto life as a jock. But his mom’s obsession with “strange” foods like whole wheat bread, vegetables, herbs, and Asian noodles had exposed him to more opportunities to expand his palate than he would have ever freely chosen back then. So I learned that having Max cook something himself gave us both a respite from negotiating a common menu.

Watching him, I marveled at the way he handled the cooking tools. There was and still is a deep and comfortable physicality in his method, not unlike scores of dads hovering over the backyard grills or flipping the pancakes at breakfast. It is a different kind of cooking, unabashedly eager and experimental. It is not about finesse and taste so much as the sheer hands-on pleasure of doing the task..and getting the results. With such an approach, culinary aids like recipes or small measuring spoons were more of a hindrance than a help. But as every chef knows, the right tool can make all the difference.

One kitchen tool Max loved was the pizza cutter I bought him at the Central Grocery in New Orleans. The cutter was of a professional design, and I took a gamble that it would suit him. Max loved pizza and at one time wanted desperately to go to Italy because he heard that the Italians have been known to serve pizza for breakfast. I loved watching him lean into the perfectly shaped cutter to separate the slices. Sawing away, waiting for the first bite, he wheeled it through the pizza like one of his toy cars. A quick stop, then reverse, and it is only a few more turns before the dripping cheese stretched off the plate and slid down his throat.

The microwave, of course, was a big hit, especially for Max, who liked his food in a hurry; no long-simmering sauces for him. He rushed in to pop his popcorn after school, getting the time right to the second, or to zap some nachos for a quick snack for friends. Of course, the George Foreman Grill, which he requested as a birthday present, was another winner. 

Max liked iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing and announced, after enduring his sister’s vegetarian Bat Mitzvah luncheon, that he would like steak, baked potato, and a wedge of iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island Dressing served when it was his turn. So I showed him how to make his own dressing, and he delighted in pouring thick gobs of it all over his salad. He learned that homemade usually tastes better.

Once he went on a quesadilla binge, not unlike his previous preoccupation with Frosted Mini-Wheats and before that, hot dogs. He made them for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack. I finally recognized this obsession as another motherly opportunity and bought him a first-class cheese slicer so he could manufacture perfect little rows of yellow cheddar to put inside.  

When Max left for college, he began preparing steaks most Wednesday evenings outside his ground-floor dorm window on an electric grill. Friends gathered, knowing the food would be fresh and simple: a giant bottle of steak sauce and some salad on hand. I was told that the school security guards, having crashed the first cookout when they saw smoke pouring onto the campus walkway, knew where to find dinner each week. Later that first year, I was surprised to hear it was Max who led a group of baseball teammates on culinary adventures into NYC, finding Indian food or a great noodle house for his wary fellow athletes, who usually found themselves more at home at Applebee’s or McDonald’s.  Max in the Kitchen

And of course, I knew my culinary legacy was intact when he called me from the road on his way with friends for a weekend gathering to get my recipe for pasta and scallops. He would be the chef that night.  

So what I learned about all this is that giving a child the tools to master their own culinary quirks, along with some exposure to a lot of different foods, can “set the table”  for future cooking and enjoying all kinds of foods. I am reminded of young Max’s favorite cooking tool, an ice-cream scoop, another marvel of design in solid gray metal. Max wouldn’t use a spoon to dig out the creamy dessert from the carton. He’d hunt everywhere to find the scoop, just right for the job. “Isn’t life wonderful?” he’d smile, as he licked the last drop from his bowl. 






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