Kid's desire to cook leads to lesson for parents

May 29, 2002|By Rob Kasper

WE HAD spaghetti for supper the other night. The menu was not remarkable. What made the meal noteworthy was who cooked it.

The college boy, home for the summer, stood at the stove. Under the watchful eye of his mother, he prepared the meat sauce, dicing onions and carrots, adding crumbled meat to the sauteed vegetables. He boiled the pasta in salted water. Later, he accepted compliments for the happy union of sauce and pasta, and claimed that nutmeg was the secret of his success.

He was following a recipe that came from the venerable Italian cook Marcella Hazan. Marcella called for adding 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg to the meat sauce, right after you have boiled off the wine and as you add the milk.

The college boy's mother, who has fixed this meat sauce about a thousand times, has always ignored the nutmeg, figuring it wasn't needed. On the dozen occasions that I have cooked the sauce, I too skipped the nutmeg. But the household's new apprentice cook followed the directions explicitly. So, as the plaudits for his sauce rolled in, he couldn't resist giving his elders a good-natured lecture about the importance of following directions.

Similar scenes, I suspect, are being played out in homes around Maryland these days, as learned youth return from college and households adjust. This time of year, there are laundry-room issues, car-key issues and night-owl issues as the two generations cope once again with living under the same roof.

This summer, the second year we have enacted this getting-to-know-you routine, there has been an interesting addition. The college boy has announced that he wants to learn how to cook a specific list of favorite dishes. His mother has taken him up on the offer. In other words, he may not have missed us when he was away at college, but he missed the chow.

I was deeply suspicious about whether this kitchen tutorial project was going to get off the ground. In the drama of family life, we all play roles; mine is often that of the skeptic. When my wife, the college boy or his younger brother, the high schooler, announce grand plans, I shake my head and mutter, "Not gonna happen."

So shortly after extracting the kid from his college digs -- a process that tests the patience and the shock absorbers -- I was pleasantly surprised to come home one night to the aroma of fried chicken and biscuits. This was the first meal in the tutorial project, the initial attempt by the college kid and his mentor to fix his list of favorite foods.

The kitchen was clamorous. Pans clattered. Dirty dishes choked counter tops. There was some shouting over the chattering TV news as instructions were repeatedly issued to "Pay attention," and rejoinders were issued to "Chill." But, on the whole, the mood was harmonious, and the meal -- featuring fried chicken, homemade biscuits and gravy -- was a triumph.

At one point in the proceedings, the frenzied eating paused long enough to allow a comparison in the skin texture of two batches of chicken that had been fried in two different skillets. Mentor and student agreed that the chicken fried in the skillet with the thinner bottom had the best-looking, crunchiest skin.

Instead of merely shoveling food in, the kid was thinking about why this fried chicken tasted so good, and how down the road he could make the dish again. It was an initial step on the road to good cooking.

Since preparing fried chicken and biscuits, the kid has tackled polenta, tacos, pineapple upside-down cake and spaghetti. He doesn't claim to be a cook yet, just a mere apprentice. That too, I think, is a good sign. When you have a grasp of what you don't know, you are on your way to learning something. Real cooking requires repetition. One meal does not a master make.

Yet I am heartened to see that the kid has a passion for good food and that he is willing to tolerate great discomfort -- even spending a few weeks with his parents -- to pursue it.

I am also discovering that there are drawbacks to this teacher-student setup in the kitchen. First of all, when you become a teacher, you quickly expose the holes in your knowledge and the flaws in your techniques. The nutmeg in the spaghetti-sauce incident showed me that.

Moreover, now that the kid has finished with the portion of his "greatest hits" menu that was presided over by his mother, he is turning to me. He wants me to teach him how to bake bread and how to barbecue ribs.

While I think I can teach the kid how to make a decent loaf of bread before he heads back to college, the art of barbecuing the perfect rack of ribs is not something you learn in a few weeks. Instead it is a calling, a quest that lasts a lifetime.

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