Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wizards in the Kitchen

My mother turned us on to cooking by introducing my older sister and me to Betty Crocker in the 1970's. My sister first received the Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven that baked cookie and cake batter prepared from packaged mixes with heat generated from an electric light bulb inside the small toy oven. When we had used up the Easy Bake mixes, we improvised our own from scratch. We also prepared whimsical salads inspired by the technicolor photos illustrating our Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cookbook. A family favorite was the bunny salad, canned pear halves trussed up with cinnamon candy noses, cottage cheese tails, and almond slivers for ears. The appeal of these recipes was less their flavor and more the challenge of making ingredients (pears) look like other things (rabbits). Like many American girls and boys growing up in the 1970's, we fell in love with cooking by being encouraged to play with our food. Of course, we were also learning our way around a kitchen at a time when mothers were beginning to work outside the home in record numbers. This meant "real" meals slow-cooked from scratch were quickly replaced with processed, packaged foods reheated in microwaves not unlike the Easy Bake Oven.

Like the Betty Crocker cookbook of my childhood, Ruth Yaron's Super Baby Food features plenty of suggestions for making mealtimes special for kids. Recipes include Toddler Hors d'Oeuvres, Flying Saucers (sandwiches on round bread) and Teddy Bear Pancakes. But Yaron's book, which has become my baby food bible, provides tips for preparing fun and healthful meals for children and common sense advice for stretching your grocery budget. Yaron insists that her own kids, raised on the organic produce and vegetarian diet she promotes, have "super" immune systems and rarely get sick. That means they spend fewer days recuperating and have more time for play! Sections of her book are entitled "Feeding Your Super Baby", "Toddler (and Grown-up) Recipes", "Food Decorating", and "Let's Have a Party!". There are also chapters on environmentally safe cleaners, home-made baby products, starting a windowsill garden, and Arts and Crafts... everything new Moms and Dads need to know about making those first years with baby contended ones and more. Other kid's cookbooks available at our local library include those for children with special dietary needs (vegetarian, wheat-free, low calorie, etc.) and, for the more adventurous, international cuisine.

Teach Mama, a mother of three young children and an educator, writes an inspirational blog dedicated to sharing ideas for "learning through meaningful time and play". In her post "More Counting and Cooking with Cora", TM describes her toddler daughter's enthusiasm for helping in the kitchen and her own desire to capitalize on this impelling instructional opportunity. She enlists her daughter in counting pieces of potato as TM cuts them for dinner or sorting colorful vegetables (carrots, broccoli, grape tomatoes) by hue, sneaking learning into an every day activity. On "New for Us Friday", her older children participate in exciting new educational activities during the afternoons following half-days at school. One afternoon, they made Zip-loc Bag Ice-Cream at home, an enriching experiment in culinary science. The added benefit was getting to eat the ice cream that the children made themselves!

Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of "Gourmet" magazine, has a sophisticated relationship with food and writes about its correlation to her family life. She most recently wrote a memoir entitled Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. In the book, Reichl describes her mother, born in 1908, as an educated woman who sacrificed her career ambitions, even in the new era of women's emancipation, to fulfill her obligations as housewife. She also suffered from depression and taste "blindness". According to Reichl, her mother once served bad meat covered in chocolate, forgoing consumability for creativity. A career woman and mother, Reichl left her post as New York Times restaurant critic to be home earlier in the evenings to make dinner with her family. She encouraged her teenage son to help (he chopped while she cooked) and found this eased him into talking about his day at a time when teens often distance themselves from their parents. Reichl declares this was the best time in her life, a period when the members of her family "entered each other's lives in a really profound way." But to make it happen, she had to plan ahead. Every Sunday, she spent a few hours choosing easy-to-fix recipes, preparing a menu for the week in advance, and shopping for the ingredients.

"Gourmet" magazine, respected for its thought-provoking articles regarding the politics of food, recently folded, but the website still features content from the print publication, plenty of recipes, reviews of restaurants and cookbooks, and instructional videos. My favorite series are "Extreme Frugality", a food writer's experiment in zero spending, and "The Kid's Menu" which offers fresh perspectives for parents who cook.

Now that we must be careful in our spending, I have adjusted my shopping habits. For the first time in my life, I religiously use coupons and club cards for discounts and two-for-one deals at grocery stores. A vegetarian since the age of fifteen, I habitually read the list of food ingredients before buying; now I am also in the habit of comparing prices and purchasing items on sale. Many store brands, even of natural and organic products, cost less than name brands. Local, seasonal produce is often cheaper (and fresher) at both retail stores and farmers markets. I buy in bulk when it's practical, and bring my own reusable shopping bags to save a nickel for every bag. Warehouse stores (Shopper's Food Warehouse and Costco) and superstores (Wal-mart and Target Greatland) are meccas for thrifty shoppers, but the inconvenience of driving to their suburban locations prevents me from going. Instead, I walk a few blocks to shop for the best deals at retail grocers like Harris Teeter (with grocery carts fashioned like cars for the tots riding in them) or Safeway and pick up a few store brand or hard-to-find specialty items at Yes! Organic Market or Whole Foods Market. It's a good idea to check the stores' websites first for specials and on-line coupons.

Typically on weekends during Spring, Summer and Fall months, farmers markets located throughout the Washington area offer fresh produce, baked goods, cheeses and preserves at good prices. AS enjoys the adventure of these outdoor venues as there are sometimes free food samples, local musicians performing and good people-watching opportunities. A friend and his wife arranged regular home deliveries of seasonal produce from a farm discovered through our neighborhood farmers market in Adams Morgan. They save money buying organic this way but never know which fruit or vegetables or how much of each they will receive. Every monthly delivery presents a fun challenge in finding creative ways to cook new foods, from winter root vegetables to Chinese cabbage.

Whole Foods Market in Georgetown holds an indoor farmers' market every Tuesday from 4-7pm with products available from local farmers and artisans. WFM is perhaps best known for selling high quality natural and organic goods, including "Whole Baby Products" like baby formula, pureed baby food and chlorine-free diapers, but DC stores also offer free cooking classes and other programs, such as "Mommy and Me" and the "Mom's Tour". Check the website of your neighborhood store for the events calendar to learn more. On-line coupons are available on their website, as are money-saving meal plans and recipes and nutrition tips for kids and teens. The DC Chapter of the Holistic Moms Network has also invited whole food chefs and nutrition educators to speak to parents about cooking holistic meals for their families at their monthly meetings in the Cleveland Park Library.

If your youngster or teen insists on learning to cook from a "real" chef, rather than Mom or Dad, consider the Washington Post Cooking Class Listings for children's cooking classes and camps. They receive mostly good reviews from parents, but tuition can be high. The DC Department of Parks and Recreation occasionally offers FREE cooking classes, usually for teens, at community centers, but I have not heard parents recommend these. Please let me know if you have heard anything! An easy alternative is to enlist a relative or friend who is known for their culinary expertise to volunteer their time to teach your little Top Chef a thing or two. Read's ten "safe and easy ways for the family to cook together" before getting started. My mother is happy to break out her apron and mixer to bake special treats with the grandkids on holidays, like gingerbread houses for Christmas and Rice Crispy Treat "Eggs" at Easter. Aunt K and Uncle J are the family gourmets and are pleased to test new dishes on us, their enthusiastic patrons, whenever we visit.

When I was pregnant, acquaintances with children would see my extended belly and comment "Your life is never going to be the same!". Since the prospect of suddenly morphing into a different person was a frightening one, I chose to skirt these conversations. Now that I am a Mom, I understand that some of my interests, like motorcycling, need to be put on the back burner (at least until AS is old enough to ride in a side car), but cooking is not one of them. A recipe for red sauce with sweet caramelized onions remains tucked into my art school sketchbook. It has been there, rather than in my recipe box, for 20 years to serve as a reminder. Copies of the recipe were distributed to students in a kind, impromptu gesture by a photography professor known for discovering beauty in the seemingly ordinary events of day-to-day life. Years later, in an e-mail conversation, he and I talked about the care with which he customarily set his dinner table and how I had found myself, in a moment of contended observation, enamored with the color and shape of a bunch of grapes placed as the centerpiece on mine. My former professor has since become a dear friend and mentor and continues to share his knowledge of both art and food with me. In his life as in mine, they are entwined. Every meal is a simple aesthetic experience.

Food is magic, it has the power to charm and influence people. And creative cooks are like alchemists with the power to change a common substance into one of great value. Food nourishes our bodies and minds, appeals to our senses and need for creativity, and brings people together. If parents aspire to be wizards in the kitchen, children will become enchanted by cooking, too.


  1. My fondest early cooking memories are making "poison" -- mixing whatever nasty stuff I could find in a pot on the stove.

  2. Ah yes, poison! Sometimes my Dad would lead us in "experiments", mixing together condiments (jelly and sugar packets, ketchup, salt and pepper, Saltine crackers...), on our dinner plates after a meal out at a restaurant. It was a benign naughtiness, and we loved being in cahoots with our father in this way.

  3. Heinz 57 on Saltines, anyone?
    The best part of the Bunny Salad was the way it looked. Don't know if I actually ate the thing, but it sure was cute!
    Food is a challenge for some kids. I am caught between a more experimental child who eats more fruits and veggies, and likes a wider variety of foods versus one that eats like a typical 60s child, despite her young years. Cherub #2 even decided he wants his sunbutter and berry spread sandwiches on multigrain, not white, as of late. Cherub #1 is more challenging to get to experiment with "new" foods. I appreciate all that you offer in this post. Maybe I can apply some of this and get her to experiment more!

  4. Picky eaters sure are a challenge, aren't they? It's no wonder kids so easily fall into eating only foods from the "white" food group (bread, macaroni, potatoes). Our pediatrician has recommended reintroducing a food often, prepared a different way at each meal, if our son initially sticks his nose up at something. At the moment, he won't eat fresh tomatoes but likes tomato sauce. We've also discovered that he will eat almost anything if it's rolled in a whole wheat burrito wrapper! Something about the presentation especially appeals to him. There are also cookbooks like Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious that suggest ways to "hide" vegetables in recipes including carrots and spinach in brownies! Good luck!



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