I learned to love food in my mother’s kitchen.
It was a place of learning, excitement and respect. I used to wrangle with my sisters to crack the eggs when Mom was baking. We loved being up at the counter—right in the middle of the action.
Rolling pie dough, picking out cookie cutters and decorating the cookies right out of the oven. Somehow seeing the work involved and getting to participate taught me that cooking is an act of love and nurturing—not just a necessary chore. It’s an idea easier to believe if you’ve ever seen the flexing forearm muscles and flour-covered fingers of your loved one rolling out homemade pie dough.
However, over the past two years an interesting evolution has occurred in the kitchen thanks to the arrival of my daughter, Alena, about 19 months ago. I remember that at first I was apprehensive about my ability to get things done while watching an infant. It didn’t take long to discover that learning to cook with Alena created a much more engaging experience than cooking alone, and certainly different than cooking with anyone else I know. And the benefits to her, even at her young age, have been enormous.
For one thing, she eats everything. I taste things along the way while I’m cooking, and she likes to taste right along with me. Ninety percent of the time she likes it and asks for more. She eats beans, greens, mushrooms (her favorite), you name it.
She also has a blast. I’ve realized that the kitchen is an endless source of new experiences: words, tastes, textures, colors, sounds and opportunities to develop physical skills like stirring and kneading. She’s endlessly entertained. And it’s surprisingly fun and funny for me to introduce her to these things. One day after I demonstrated how the blender works she clapped in enthusiastic applause. Now she claps every time I operate a noisy appliance. I’ve never cooked with a personal cheerleader before, and I’m not sure I want to go back to cooking without one.
All of these wonderful results didn’t happen overnight. When Alena was very small I would simply plop her down on a play mat on the kitchen floor and get business done as quickly as possible. Then, as she became increasingly curious, I started giving her cooking tools to play with—a metal whisk, a wooden spoon—surprisingly as entertaining as any kids’ toy. Even fresh broccoli florets and whole carrots were fascinating—and actually very effective teethers for those first teeth.
As she’s gotten older, more mobile, more capable, I find that her own curiosity and desire to be involved has led her to new kitchen adventures. I hand her ingredients and explain what they are and what I’m doing with them. Seeing her pudgy little fingers hold a head of garlic and hearing her baby voice try to pronounce the word is beyond precious. She spins the salad spinner. She pushes buttons on the espresso machine. She loves to stir whatever is in the sauté pan, and even though she lacks the coordination to move things around very much I can tell she feels quite accomplished.
Sometimes this involvement takes a little extra time, but others it actually makes my work easier. I discovered one day, while cleaning apples in a vegetable wash, that Alena will literally spend an hour on a stool at the sink, positively enthralled with bobbing fl oating apples up and down in a bowl using wooden spoons and spatulas. An hour is a lot of time to get things done when you have a toddler, and those apples were very, very clean by the time she was done with them.
I hope that our time together in the kitchen is helping Alena develop a positive relationship with food, and I suspect that as she gets older she’ll stay interested. I still remember washing and drying berries that we’d picked earlier that day as a family. Th ey covered the counter as far as my little eyes could see. And later that day we would pile them into the pie crust we rolled out and bake them into the most delicious seasonal dessert. I hope that one day, when Alena refl ects on being in the kitchen with her mama, she gets the same feelings of love, comfort, excitement, and accomplishment that I get when I remember beginning to cook in my mom’s kitchen.