It wasn’t that hard, as it turns out. And the child gave me the entry point herself.
It usually occurs to 8-year old K to ask, as she somewhat grudgingly sets the table, what we are having for dinner. A few weeks ago, when she insufficiently masked her dismay, I put down the pot in my hand and looked squarely at her.
Me: I have an idea.
Her, rolling her eyes: Oh no.
Me: No, no. It’s a good one. I promise.
Her, scrunching her eyebrows: Yeeesss?
Me: How about, when you are nine, you can be in charge of dinner once a week. You pick the menu, you be the chef.
Her: Yes! (Jumps up and down.) Do we have to wait until I am nine? That’s still two months away!
Me: No. You can start now if you want. Next week. What are you going to make?
Thus was born a new experiment. I have to confess that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while now. Last year, Leslie Kaufman wrote a piece in the New York Times on this subject. Her sons were 10 and 14 at the time. I read it and started dreaming (it’s ok, I know it’s a dream, I don’t expect it to come true) of sitting on the couch with a book and a glass of wine while K makes us a simple but healthy and appetizing meal. The reality, of course, is much different. Especially with a child who is still quite young, and with her three-year old sister in the mix. Quite literally. The scene is a bit more like the one Sean Wilsey describes in his hilarious piece, also in the New York Times, in 2011. We might even end up with more items, and people, to wash at the end. In my case, I’m also trying to relinquish responsibility and transfer it to the mature and responsible 8-year old, while attempting to tame a wild toddler we refer to as “the creature.”
We’ve set a few ground rules:
- Each menu must include at least one form of protein, one starch, and one vegetable. (Later on we may include dessert. We are all big fans of dessert here.)
- She is responsible for making sure we have the necessary ingredients in the house in time. For the moment, this means reminding me in advance to pick up the items we need, and when possible, accompanying me to buy them.
- I must be present (for the moment) in the kitchen, and I must be watching when she does anything involving the stove/oven or knives.
She has crossed that invisible barrier, the one that stands between “help” that is in fact totally counter-productive (involving more of my time and patience, creating more work for me, and making a greater mess) and help that is truly helpful in advancing the cause of the meal. Her sister, however, is squarely on the first side, capable of creating a mess of unfathomable proportions in the time it takes me to turn on a pot to boil. When I nearly slipped and broke my back due to a fine layer of flour on the hardwood floor the other day, my husband reminded me: this is a long term investment. Meanwhile, he is steering clear of the whole situation, although wise enough to praise the results with vigor and engage K in a discussion of her techniques and the finer points of being Head Chef. Plus he’s also cultivated her interest in barbecue to the point that she looks forward to watching BBQ Pitmasters competitions and talks about the time when the two of them will enter as competitors.
I’m trying not to place too much weight on this experiment. Sure, it might end up being a wonderful mother-daughter(s) bonding moment (like when we’re both bonded to the floor by the honey her sister spilled), but for the moment K is talkative enough, and I am available enough to her, that there are other opportunities for such bonding. It might end up fostering in her a greater interest in nutrition and health and the environment and such, but she’s already fairly attuned to these. Mostly, I view it from a practical perspective: it’s good to be independent, to know how to manage, to go forth in the world as prepared as one can be. The French have a good word for this: to be “débrouillarde.”
The first menu consisted of spaghetti with “meat sauce” (i.e. a simplified bolognese) accompanied by broccoli sautéed with garlic and olive oil. A relatively involved project to begin with, as we made the sauce from scratch. But K was game. She had a friend over that afternoon, and at 4:00 pm I called them both down to the kitchen.
K: Let’s go! I have to make dinner.
Me: You’re welcome to hang out and help.
Friend: Why are you starting now? It’s only 4.
Me (thinking Aha! Teachable moment. Lesson 1.) Well, it’s one thing to make dinner, it’s another to get it all done by dinner time. One has to plan. For example, the sauce takes a while to simmer, and we have the added variable of S. A 3-year old can be very disruptive in the kitchen. We have to allow extra time. You can’t just wait until you are hungry to start thinking about dinner.
Friend: Oh? That’s what my mom does.
That first afternoon, there were many introductory lessons: how to turn a burner on and off, and to control the flame. (K already knew, apparently, to keep the handle of the pot or pan turned away from the edge.) The importance of keeping track of what utensils and surfaces have been in contact with raw meat. How to delegate tasks whose outcomes are irrelevant to the progress of the prep to the little sister while still making her think she’s being helpful. That type of thing.
There came a time when every utensil and container in the kitchen was dirty, when the sauce was burbling up out of the pot in explosive spurts, when K was sprawled on the floor moaning, and when S was rummaging untended in the fridge like a bear cub. But the experiment was a success for these three simple reasons:
- Dinner was on the table at something that approximated dinner time, and was quite tasty to boot.
- We’d had a few good laughs.
- Most importantly, K wanted to cook again.
Which she did last night: steaks (rib eye, broiled, first rubbed with garlic and fresh herbs), corn on the cob, and sesame semolina bread with an array of French cheeses. This time, our commune neighbor 8 year old L joined in, eager to help out. Lots of small fingers to pull the leaves off the thyme stems. He suggested they keep track of the recipes, create a book, and publish it. My kind of boy! I don’t see that really happening, but so far I’m quite pleased with this experiment.