The Kid In The Kitchen

When my son Farrell spends the night at my house, he has to get up the next morning at 6:00 a.m. My work day begins at 7:00 a.m., so I drop him at his mom’s house on my way to the office. Then he has time to kill before he has to go to school.

I have no idea what most boys would do in that situation, but Farrell has turned it into a special occasion that celebrates his own independence and sense of responsibility: He makes himself pancakes for breakfast. And not out of the box, either. We’re talking buttermilk made-from-scratch almost-too-good-to-eat pancakes, from a recipe he found in The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).

Farrell knows a thing or two about cooking. We’ve made noodles together and loaves of bread, beef stews and big green salads, soups and breakfast goodies. I do most of the work, but he lends a hand—and when we sit down together and eat what we’ve just made, it is always somehow something more than just a father and son eating together. A shared sense of pleasure and nourishment has been brought to the table along with the food.

Marion Cunningham addresses this issue in the preface to her book, _Cooking with Children _(Alfred A. Knopf,1995). “We are losing those values we unconsciously learned…as we shared meals,” she writes. “Teaching children how to cook, I think, is our greatest hope for recapturing what we have lost.” She helps do this by offering 15 lessons for, as her subtitle says, “children, age 7 and up, who really want to learn to cook”, starting with vegetable soup and ending with birthday cake.

When I asked Farrell to help me review her book, he decided to skip the soups and salads and hamburgers and to cut straight to what he felt he knew best: pancakes and popovers. “I wanted to compare recipes,” he explained to me. (Farrell is big on your basic starches.)

“The popover recipe was easy to read and to follow,” he reported back to me after he’d tried it at his mom’s house. “And there was this great tip to put the popover batter in a pitcher to make it easier to pour into the pan.” And the final results? “Well, the popovers tasted fine,” he said, “but they seemed heavier than what I’m used to.” What he’s used to are popovers from The World of Breads by Dolores Casella (David White & Co., 1966). “This came up again when I made pancakes,” he continued. “The recipe was easy, the batter went right together, and the taste was fine. But that lady’s buttermilk pancakes are much better than her baking-powder ones.”

Farrell made Cunningham’s winter tomato sauce and loved it (the thought of adding sugar to tomatoes intrigued him), though he chose to cook it longer than the author suggested, to thicken it a bit more. The spaghetti to put it on stood right up and shouted at him when, as per Marion’s instruction, he added salt to the cooking water. All of these little tricks are carefully logged, never to be forgotten. My bet is this: that when Farrell finds himself teaching his own young cooks a thing or two about the kitchen, he will recall these very same lessons.

Together, we made biscuits and learned about flour, baking, and what happens on a wet morning: The flour doesn’t take up as much liquid. Dumping in that entire cup of milk was a mistake. “This is batter, Dad,” Farrell pointed out. “This is not dough.” Another lesson.

In the evening, Farrell made salad and then dressing, adding emulsion to his vocabulary. I thought the dressing was bland. Farrell agreed. “A little salt and some garlic,” he suggested. Then we made meat loaf, and learned not to handle the ingredients too much or the result would be a tough chew. We wondered about the size of the chopped-onion and ripped-bread pieces that went into the meat loaf, and sure enough, they were too big. Next time we’ll know better. Next time we’ll know that it’s okay to be intuitive in the kitchen and make adjustments accordingly.

Farrell was able to try out his next batch of biscuits on three ravenous young teenagers at breakfast only this morning. These were kids Farrell is just getting to know. They ate. They eyed him. They stopped talking for a time. Then one by one they told Farrell how great his biscuits were.

“How’d that feel?” I asked Farrell when they’d gone, and he allowed as how that had felt great. So he’s learning the most important thing of all about cooking, thanks to Marion Cunningham: that it can be pure pleasure.