Why Watching My Parents Cook Means I Can't Share Soup Recipe—And How I'm Encouraging My Kids to Cook Too
"You're going to have to give me the recipe for this soup, too," my friend rambled, "because my husband likes it so much! We've had so much trouble finding keto recipes we like."
I stared at her for a moment. The recipe? Right, I remembered, most people used recipes to cook soup. "Sure, sure," I agreed. Of course I could share the recipe. Just as soon as I wrote it down. How much dried marjoram had I crumbled up, anyway? Had I dumped in two cups of leftover frozen peas, or four? Would she be annoyed if my recipe was a list of ingredients, no amounts, accompanied by the approximate time my slow cooker had been plugged in that day?
Watching cooking as a child
As a kid, I spent many hours swiveling a barstool at the kitchen counter, watching my parents cook. I was put to work for my trouble: I chopped onions for tomato sauce, grated cheese for pizza, sliced green onions for salad. My sisters and I fought over whose turn it was to stir cookie batter—and the family chocolate chip cookie recipe was the first one I memorized.
It wasn't until I was an adult, cooking my own food in my own kitchens, that I realized how much I had learned about cooking simply by being around it. For example, how to thicken a sauce: Scoop up some cornstarch in a quarter cup measure (not all the way full), add dribbles of water from the faucet, mix around with my index finger to get the lumps out, exactly as my dad used to do. That was the amount for one large saute pan of sauce. Stir, let simmer, etc.
I'm sure some of my interest in hanging out at the kitchen counter was a result of my mom's attitude: If we could help out, we did. My sisters and I packed our own lunches for park days and homeschool events as soon as we could spread peanut butter on our own bread. By the time I was ten, I regularly boiled water to make a box of macaroni and cheese for lunch at home. When I was a teenager, for a while, I was voluntarily in charge of starting the bread machine every morning.
Cooking was part of our homeschool activities, too. When studying world geography and world history, for example, we made recipes from Greece, Italy, India, Mexico, colonial America… One year, we worked our way through a whole cookbook of breads from around the world.
Apprenticeship to mastery
Humans learn by watching. The fact that we can observe and mirror means we can pick up so much about process and action simply by being around an activity, even without directly participating in it.
The human ability to learn through observation is why apprenticeship models of learning work so well. As an apprentice, you start with the lower-skilled, mundane tasks. In carpentry, for example, you start by sanding wood; fetching tools; sweeping and vacuuming the shop; painting on stains or varnish. In cooking, you begin by cleaning, chopping, and stirring. You learn the basic skills while observing the methodology and movements for more advanced skills.
I enjoy cooking because it is a creative activity. When you don't use a recipe, it is a process of tweaking, deciding, tasting, testing, exploring. I use recipes for inspiration. We have a pork sirloin tip roast in the fridge: how do other people cook them? What spices? What sides? I mix and match.
Exploring combinations of spices—from a recipe or not—is how to learn what goes together, what tastes better or worse, and the order of adding ingredients. Sometimes it means we have a less-than-perfect meal. The spices don't pair perfectly, the texture is off, one vegetable is a little over cooked while another is a little undercooked. That's okay; we'll eat it anyway; that's part of the experience.
Two of my favorite cookbooks are Cooking For Geeks and The Food Lab. Both are filled not only with recipes, but also with explanations of why certain cooking methods are used. The recipes are secondary. I'd rather understand why preheating a stainless steel pan before searing fish is necessary (short answer: it sticks less), or what the effects of salting meat just before grilling are, versus an hour before versus a day before, and which method leads to the desired result.
Internalizing the steps of cooking, the methodologies used, the whys, means you can cook freely, without need for a recipe. That's why I can't easily share all my soup recipes. Soup doesn't turn out exactly the same way twice.
Cooking with children
When my oldest son was 3 years old, he methodically pushed our big step stool over to a cupboard, opened the latch, and pulled out several large russet potatoes. He needed them to make soup. The other ingredients included a toy frog, some tinkertoys he insisted were beets, and a handful of plastic balls.
Children play what they see and what they want to understand. They love playing at what adults do because they somehow know that they need to imitate and understand the activities of their society. My kids see Randy and I in the kitchen a lot. (Our life doesn't entirely revolve around food, but some days it certainly feels like it.) So, my kids love cooking in their indoor play kitchen; they love making soups and stews from mud, rocks, and weeds outside, too.
They also spend a lot of time in the real kitchen. I make a point of involving them, even if it means a bigger mess or a slower process of getting food to the table. They pull chairs and stepstools over to our makeshift kitchen island—a pair of folding tables that we'll upgrade someday—and watch or help, just like I used to. When I made quiche last week, my 2-year-old enthusiastically cracked each of the 10 eggs in a small bowl, one by one, carefully dumping each into the big mixing bowl. My 4-year-old measures flour and sugar for cookies. They both use pumpkin carving knives to help cut watermelon into chunks, slice their own apples, or chop vegetables for salads.
I want them to learn cooking skills because, yes, it's a basic life skill, but more than that, it's fun. Food connects people. The kids see us preparing food for weekend gatherings, potluck picnics, and our own family meals. They help. And they'll be packing their own lunches for park days as soon as they can spread peanut butter on their own sandwiches.