AS I TOSSED together supper the other night, I tried to pass along some wisdom to one of my offspring. "Come here," I said to my older son. "I am going to show you how to bake a potato. This could come in handy when you go to college."
College life is still almost two years away for him, but like a lot of high-school juniors, the kid has been visiting distant campuses and forming ideas of what life will be like away from home.
It has occurred to him that while living away from his family can be liberating, it also can have a detrimental effect on the quality of his meals. So he has begun making a list of his favorite foods and vowed that he will learn to cook before departing the home front.
One night, after polishing off a roast chicken, he announced that this item had been added to his must-master list. His mother quickly informed him that it was relatively easy to prepare, but the key ingredient to success was olive oil. You rub the whole raw chicken with a good-quality olive oil before roasting it, she said.
The kid nodded, but didn't take notes. Instead, he began expanding the list of dishes he wants to be able to cook when he moves on to his new, exciting life.
"Meatballs," he said. He didn't want to go out into the world without being able to whip up the kind of homemade meatballs he regularly enjoyed at home, served on a plate of steaming spaghetti.
"Don't forget to put salt in the spaghetti water," I added. "It makes a major difference in the flavor of the pasta." The kid gave no indication that this bit of vital advice had sunk in.
Instead, he continued to recite dishes he was going to learn to cook. Bread, brownies, apple pie, chocolate-chip cookies and eclairs. It was an ambitious agenda.
Despite his announced intentions, the kid has not spent much time standing over the stove. This doesn't concern me. I figure he has motivation -- a taste for his favorite foods -- and will eventually move into action. More than likely, he won't get serious about cooking until he misses his favorite foods and has no one around to fix them. In other words, when he goes away to college.
In the meantime, I am taking advantage of his professed interest in cooking to inundate him with information. Parents love to give advice and, occasionally, their kids make the mistake of asking for some. When that happens, the advice comes faster than rain.
The other night, for instance, during the seminar on the baked potato, I showed the kid how to scrub the potatoes and how to make a slit in their tops. We arranged them in a baking dish and put them in a 350-degree oven to cook for one hour.
Then I took the kid out to the glowing back-yard grill to show him when a steak is done. You look at the juice bubbling out of the steak, I told him.
If the juice is red, the steak meat is almost raw; if it is pink, the steak is medium-rare; if it is clear, the steak is well-done. It was dark in the back yard, so we had to use a flashlight to read the juices. When we saw pink, we pulled the steak.
The meat was ready, but the potatoes weren't. We took the potatoes out of the oven and finished them in the microwave.
I thought of taking this opportunity to give the kid a lecture about the relationship between time and cooking. I thought of telling him how you try to get all the dishes ready to eat at the same moment but that often it is a difficult business. Time slips away from you, I wanted to tell him .
I didn't. Already in my rush to welcome the kid to the pleasures of cooking, I had talked too much.
Moreover, the kid already seemed to understand one of the primal appeals of cooking. Namely, that wherever he may roam, he can recall a recipe and a taste from the past.
Once he learns to cook, he can cheat the relentless march of time. That is no small potatoes.
Pub Date: 01/27/99