As tradition holds, a couple of days ago a certain jolly old gentleman dressed in red encountered plates and plates of cookies during his annual rounds. Most of these confectionary delights were undoubtedly baked by parents and grandparents – and their tiny helpers.
Such was the preparation that took place when my friend, Jane Sidders, shared the kitchen with her four-year old granddaughter to whip up a batch of snickerdoodles. Her pint-sized sous chef assembled their utensils and chose just the right mixing spoon for the job. She relished the joyful messiness of flour, sugar and cinnamon. And ever the conscientious cook, she frequently inquired, “Can we eat yet?”
Jane’s description of their joint kitchen caper sent me on a mental journey to remember how I learned to cook. Actually, “cooking” is something of a relative term for me. My version of culinary prep involves throwing two or three reasonably-compatible foodstuffs onto a plate – or buying a package of dinner rolls as my contribution to Thanksgiving dinner.
Be that as it may, my childhood cooking lessons were of the demonstration kind only. The mere thought of four sets of grubby little fingers delving into eggs and powdered sugar, as the clock ticked down to suppertime – well, it was more than my mother could bear. For purely survival reasons, she subscribed to the it’s-easier-to-do-it-myself principle.
So, I observed how she sifted dry ingredients and packed down brown sugar, how she leveled off 1/8 teaspoon of salt with a straight-edged knife and held a Pyrex measuring cup at eye level to ensure an accurate amount of milk or oil, how she scooped every last bit of shortening out of a measuring cup with her ever-present rubber scraper.
I also stood right by the sink whenever she cleaned and cut up a freshly-killed chicken, waiting for the moment when she opened the gizzard to reveal entire kernels of corn. And I watched her knead yeast dough and form it into the loaf of homemade bread it would become.
My own kitchen adventures did not begin in earnest, however, until I signed up for a 4-H nutrition project. Only then did I have full use of utensils and ingredients to make peanut butter cookies, molasses crinkles, and spice cake with caramel icing.
My role in the kitchen expanded the summer my father needed Mother to help him more often in the field with plowing and hay baling. She left marching orders for the evening meal in the form of recipe cards on which we kids had copied the ingredients and instructions for such family staples as Texas Hash and Skillet Scalloped Potatoes. I frequently needed further information, which necessitated my waiting at the corner of the field until Mother stopped mid-round to answer my questions.
My siblings followed suit. My youngest sister recalls preparing entire meals and filling the cookie jar weekly – as a fifth grader. Perhaps it was all that early practice that led her to her career in food service. My other siblings, brother included, have always been the head cooks in their respective families.
One sister began sharing her kitchen expertise with her children when they were quite young. She eventually extended their training with cooking projects in the 4-H club she organized for them and their classmates. All three of her kids headed off to college and marriage and life knowing their way around a kitchen.
Now a grandmother, my sister continues the tradition with her granddaughter. Five-year-old Keegan knows to wash her hands, put on her apron, pull up her stool, and get to work. When Keegan and her younger sister cook on their own in their play kitchen, Keegan also wears her apron, while two-year-old Livy unfortunately must make do with her older sister’s tool belt to protect her clothing.
Miniature cooks and their mentors occasionally face kitchen setbacks and disasters. I offer this cautionary parenting tip from former student Michael Griest, now father and kitchen captain of a first-grade son and a preschool daughter: “If you choose a coffee cake recipe with an uneven number of ingredients and steps, know that your children will eventually fight to the death on the kitchen floor over who gets to add the baking powder.” Words to heed…
My own underdeveloped cooking skills and my lack of children and grandchildren notwithstanding, I remain firm in a few core beliefs. I think every young person should become familiar with, if not comfortable in, the kitchen and the world of cooking. Culinary experience, whether gained through demonstration or actual participation, is as key for life preparation as learning to drive or balancing a checkbook.
Even more important perhaps is the time junior cooks spend with parents and grandparents. Another friend, Peg Sells, happily reported a while back about a morning with her seven grandchildren. The entire crew worked together to produce several bags of dried noodles ready for the freezer, as well as a huge batch of goulash they devoured for lunch.
Grandma Peg is training the kids for the future, to be sure, but more importantly: ”I hope my grandkids have great memories of working with me to make something homemade just like my memories of making things with my grandma and mom.”
And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.