Video game cooks up tasty dish of fun, learning

`Cooking Mama' lets players prepare a meal on screen

August 08, 2007|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,Sun reporter

I'm not much around the kitchen. Neither is my 12-year-old son, Austin, who'd be content with ham and cheese three times a day. But the other night, we whipped up an amazing spaghetti in squid sauce, a zesty shrimp paella and, for dessert, cream puffs from scratch.

And we didn't dirty a pan.

We "cooked" on a video game called Cooking Mama: Cook Off, recently released for the Nintendo Wii. Austin had checked it out from our local library - libraries aren't just for books anymore - although he admitted he did so because it was the only game left.

After playing it a few times, however, I concluded it should be required for any high school graduate about to move away from home. With so many video games aimed at eviscerating an opponent, a game whose outcome was based on how quickly one could prepare ratatouille - the tomato dish, not the movie - was refreshing.

Cooking Mama revolves around the title character, a kerchiefed woman drawn in Japanese anime-style with big eyes and an upturned crease of a smile - sort of Pokemon meets Iron Chef. Her thick accent must be meant to evoke a grandmother from the old country, although she looks to be about 16.

That incoherence aside, the game provided a

rich simulation of making food. Its designers in Japan consulted hundreds of recipes in making Cooking Mama, said Liz Buckley, marketing director for the video game's publisher, Majesco Entertainment.

A version of Cooking Mama for the Nintendo DS portable game system came out last fall. But the version that came out this past spring for the popular (though still scarce) Nintendo Wii machine, which incorporates movement by the players into the game, is more realistic.

Players chop, stir, pour, roll, even mimic cracking an egg in the Wii version. The graphics are sharp: Steam rises off the marbled beef as it simmers in a fry pan.

Although some gaming magazines and Web sites criticized the motion simulation in Cooking Mama as difficult and imprecise, as a learning tool it gives players a sense of how physical food preparation can be. Knives aren't a danger, though, because the game includes nothing sharper than the wireless game controller (so long as you don't fling it across the room). There's no flame either, although you may have to use the controller to fan the mock charcoal briquettes when making beef brochette.

Wired magazine last winter proclaimed the video game the best new one of the year. "The fun and realism here come not from fancy graphics, but from moving your body like you're really doing the activity," said another review on Nintendojo, a Nintendo fan Web site. A few other food-related video titles exist, including Cake Mania and Diner Dash, but they're more adventure-type, strategy games - not so instructive about cooking.

To see my son and his friends, whose food-preparation begins and ends at unearthing snack packs in the pantry, clustered around the game and laughing while "making" pizza from scratch was a treat in itself. The game features 250 kinds of foods that can be used to make dozens of dishes from around the world: from China, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain and the United States. You even earn points for food presentation, such as arranging the meatloaf just so with the parsley sprig and cherry tomatoes.

Preparing a dish successfully within the allotted time gains the player "access" to other dishes. The repetitive flute music and the voice of the animated "Mama" get tedious, but Mama is unfalteringly reassuring. "Wonderful, better than Mama," she says after a gold-medal preparation. "Getting bed-dah, a little more," she urges if the hand motions are too tentative. Even when we "burned" something, Mama would simply say, "Uh, not mine. ... I will help you."

It is, admittedly, still a video game. No one gets a meal out of it. But kids (and maybe even an adult) come away with a better sense of how dinner gets done.

Nora Moynihan recognized how mysterious food can be to children years ago while taking a class on a field trip to an apple orchard.

Moynihan, a former teacher who's now director of education and community enrichment at Port Discovery, the Baltimore children's museum, said a preschooler eyed the trees during their tour and tugged on her skirt with a question. "Miss Nora," he asked, "where are the bags?"

One of Port Discovery's most popular offerings in recent years is a "Cook and Tell" program for children and parents that is held the first Saturday of each month. Children make real dishes in a mock cooking show put on with Whole Foods Market and the American Heart Association. The 40 available slots for kids generally get snapped up fast, Moynihan said.

Diane Bukatman, a chef and caterer who has run a cooking camp for children, said the cooking shows on cable TV have made rock stars of culinary personalities that children can identify with - folks such as Baltimore pastry chef Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes.

"Kids are so used to seeing things bagged, bottled and boxed, they don't know they can make these things," said Bukatman, whose Reisterstown cooking school is called For the Love of Food. "The first day of camp, we made homemade ketchup and they're like, `You can't make ketchup,' and I say, `How do you think it got into the bottle?'"

Some campers from years ago, she said, have returned more recently for guidance in applying to culinary high school.

Whether Cooking Mama motivates any young players to do the same one day remains to be seen, but it's nonetheless a rare delicacy - a video game that's truly educational.

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