Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Teaching Children Why We Do What We Do

Perhaps you've heard the old Jewish story of the woman who always cut off the end of her roast every time she cooked it. This really bothered her husband who questioned her on it  repeatedly. Her response was the same each time, "My mother always cut the end off," to which he complained that this was the best part and he didn't understand why it was necessary. Finally, she agreed to ask her mother why she cut the end off. Her mother laughed and replied, "Because it wouldn't fit in my roasting pan!"

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Silly? Perhaps, but I believe we do the same thing.

This has become very apparent to me as I've been learning new ways of cooking this past year. Keep in mind, I've been married 25 years and during all that time, I've basically cooked just like my mother. Not because she actually took me aside and taught me these things, but just because I watched her as I was growing up. I confess I wasn't that interested (and a bit stubborn!) at the time and she didn't seem to think she needed to be purposeful in training me in this area. Thus, I just picked up what she did by observation.

Fast forward to my own kitchen. Potatoes. I've always wrapped them in aluminum foil and was under the impression from my mother that you could only bake them this way. But with the recent concerns about using aluminum, I decided just to skip the foil wrapper and popped them in the oven naked.  Amazingly, they actually cooked and tasted great! I loved how the outer skin kind of became two layers - one crunchy and the other a bit chewy. And the inside seemed perfect! Now this might not appeal to everyone, but it did prove to me that there is more than one way to bake a potato!

And how about this one. When boiling a chicken, I observed that my mother just removed the neck, liver, and heart, placed the bird in water, and boiled it for about an hour till the meat was done. I don't recall that she saved the broth, but perhaps she did and I wasn't paying attention (very possible). It always tasted fine, but was never anything I thought of as delicious. The only point of doing this was to have chicken meat for some other dish that would be loaded with flavors of its own.

Imagine my surprise when I read in Nourishing Traditions that you could boil a chicken for at least 6 hours and up to 24! And that you could add an acid, vegetables, save the broth, and have it actually taste delicious!

Perhaps my mother cooked as she did because that's how she learned from her own mother. Or maybe cooking was just a necessity to feed a family and not a passion. Maybe my lack of interest caused her to think it would be futile. I really won't ever know. But having three daughters of my own is motivation enough for me that I've determined my own daughters will learn not only the how, but the why before they leave the home.

How To Purposefully Teach Your Children the WHY in Cooking

Let them work beside you often. Although my teenage daughter is an excellent cook and can make an entire meal with ease now, I regret that I didn't start earlier and let her work alongside me more when she was fairly young. She loves cooking and I could have utilized this time for both learning and making memories. Needless to say, I've tried to do better with the other two and do some catch up with her. Whether it's peeling carrots, grating cheese, or just stirring a batter, children can do a lot if we will just take an extra 15 minutes to prepare the meal and get over the fear of the mess it may make. (See Teaching Children To Cook)

Talk with your children as you work. If you are letting them in the kitchen with you, then you've created a natural opportunity to talk. Now you can easily make comments such as "You know why mommy adds the vegetables to the broth?" or "I like to let the flour soak in an acid overnight to release the enzymes". Sometimes it's fun to ask them to "teach" you! "What would you tell someone if they asked you how to boil a chicken?" and "Why do we do it that way?"

Create opportunities for them to invite friends over to cook. This has probably been one of the biggest motivators for my oldest daughter. She loves to share her culinary experiences with friends and whenever she has someone sleep over, I usually pass off the responsibility for dinner to her and her friend. Although I usually tell them what I want prepared, sometimes I let them choose. It's fun to hang around near the kitchen and hear the conversation as they discuss the cooking process. Occasionally, and very carefully, I'll interject a comment or thought that might help them out or tell them why they need to do something in particular. And when dinner is served and enjoyed, it's fun to praise such enthusiasm. (Smaller children can have similar experiences by baking cookies with friends.) 

A couple of friends having way too much fun! 
(Love those onion goggles!)

I'd love to hear your own funny stories about how you copied your mom's cooking!


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