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Youthful inspiration

(article, Deborah Madison)

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The image of a little boy sitting on a counter, spooning cookie batter from the mixer onto a cookie sheet, always makes me smile. After all, it’s pretty cute. As a child, my nephew loved to be right up against the pots and pans when his mom was cooking. But beyond cute, he was soaking up information even if he didn’t know it, and today he is an adept and facile cook. 

He’s never taken a cooking class or gone to chef’s school, but he’s a good, adventurous home cook who recently managed to cook his way into a house where he hoped to rent a room. One dinner, and he and his dog were in.

I love to hear people’s stories about food, and recently I’ve been talking to young people and their parents about cooking. I am curious about how — and why — they learn to cook. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but guess what? Mothers (or fathers) who cook are probably the most important factor when it comes to young people cooking. Where kids might take their own tastes is always open-ended, but it’s usually home cooking that gets them started.

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Last month I shared a table with a young man and his mother at a writer’s conference. I asked the son if he cooked for himself. He did – and for his wife, too. He turned to his mother and gave her full credit for getting him started. 

When he was a teenager, his mother suggested that he cook one or two of the family meals each week. In exchange, he could cook pretty much anything he wanted, as long as it lay within the healthful boundaries of his mother’s kitchen. This had immediate appeal because it meant that he could modify the family’s recipes to suit himself — for example, extracting beef from a stir-fry before the sauce, which he didn’t like, was added. This was a powerful hook, but over time he discovered that he liked to cook, and it wasn’t always about cooking in self-defense. 

That he learned about cooking as a teen is something that holds him in good stead today. Although he adores anything with lime and chile — typically meals built around southwestern flavors and concepts — his wife, whose culinary interests steer more toward the Mediterranean, has guided his cooking explorations toward other shores, so that his repertoire is ever-expanding. He has the tools to go there, and he happily reports that, despite busy days that might end with frozen lasagna, he and his wife eat pretty well.

Another young man I spoke with recently has graduated from college and is living in an apartment and getting ready to go to medical school. It was after buying, for the umpteenth time, two giant subs to eat off of all week that he remembered how good his mother’s cooking was and how tired he was of eating take-out (not to mention how thin his wallet was getting from the same).  

He called his mom and said he was ready to learn to cook. Would she teach him? Now every weekend they shop and cook together. They make one dish to eat for dinner and another for him to take back to his apartment. Week by week, he's been building his kitchen vocabulary, and he's already given a dinner party for friends with a menu that included a risotto with artichokes and peas, a pretty sophisticated dish. 

What this young man especially likes about cooking is discovering that he has the freedom to add as much corn as he likes to his minestrone (plus sausage and ravioli!), and that the leftovers are great. And he fully intends to keep it up when he’s in medical school next year.

Story after story like this tells me that parents should take heart: You are important. Even if it seems as if your kids don’t notice what you cook or the efforts you went not only to cook but, say, set a beautiful table, go to the farmers' market, or maybe plant a little garden, something seems to rub off and get under their skin and into their palates, laying a foundation for the desire for good food and eventually the wish to be able to make it for oneself.

Why does it matter? Oh, let me count the ways! For one, I doubt the quality of pre-prepared or processed foods, even if they are stamped “organic.” Next to real foods, they don’t have such a satisfying taste, and we don’t really know if they're any good for us. Even a simple tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes will sing more than a store-bought jarred one, and your own salad dressing will do the same. These aren’t hard things to make. (A number of the young people I spoke with knew how to make their own dressings and had learned to do so as children.)  

There’s the cost of prepared food versus the cost of cooking your own. “My minestrone costs me less than $15 and I can get at least three big meals out of it,” says our young man who likes extra corn. “And that’s shopping at Whole Foods.”

There’s the thrill of being able to cook delicious foods for oneself and one’s friends, and the pleasure afforded by entering the world that opens when one is able to pick up a knife and a vegetable and cook something from scratch. This is a world that’s virtually without end.

A well-honed sense of self-reliance comes with being able to move comfortably around the kitchen in order to feed oneself, and there’s the independence one gains — no small matter — from relying entirely on fast food, take-out, and packaged foods to quell hunger. If young people learn only what brands they like, independence will elude them. They will be company-store eaters as long as the store is there. It’s important to have independence and flexibility in life, including the life of the table. 

My dentist told me her eight-year-old stepson was learning to cook through a school program called Cooking with Kids. He was now thrilled to help his mother cut up vegetables each night, and he especially liked that he could cut the broccoli in different ways, not just one way. 

“It’s given him a huge measure of self-confidence and self-respect,” his mom told me, “and he’s very proud that he can cook his own eggs or cereal for breakfast. He even makes breakfast for his younger sister! She demands it!”

We can all use measures of self-confidence, that’s for sure, but what was especially touching about this child was that he, like so many others, was shunted between sets of parents and step-parents each week. He didn’t seem to have a secure footing in his various households until he started to learn to cook. Now he has a baby skill that’s encouraged and admired by family members, one that will grow and eventually give him a valuable resource of self-reliance, no doubt, mingled with a measure of pride and joy.

These various benefits associated with cooking matter because they help prepare kids for the world they’ll eventually be occupying as adults. Along with being able to balance a checkbook and pay the rent, I would hope that our young people can learn, in fact, to feed themselves with a modicum (or more) of ability and delight. 

Cooking shouldn’t be framed as drudgery to be passed on to fast-food franchises. It has the possibility of being a great many more things to all of us.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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