To Learn To Cook – Or – To Cook To Learn?

(Note to my mother: this post is not for you. We all know you don’t like to cook; I will gladly do it for you. )

Culinate (one of the food sites / blogs that I follow) posted this article: A child’s place is in the kitchen – how cooking advances learning

Mac and I are making "mush" after a bike ride together: oatmeal with cranberries, almonds, and some cinnamon.

I contend that the learning benefits of cooking apply to adults as well.  In the same way that children learn from cooking with us, we keep learning when we cook too (or at least this adult does, which is perhaps why I like to cook). Our brains engage, we make meaning of what we’re doing, we take responsibility (ooops! I added too much salt that time), we see amazing scientific principles at work, we can employ our creativity, our senses engage, we’re actively learning, building skill, and (hopefully) enjoying the outcomes of our work. And often, we get feedback from others, which, if we’re open to it, can help us improve.

Mac performing quality-control on a batch of hummus.

Each time I cook — and every time I cook with Mac, which I try to do as often as possible — I think about the process, the end product, what we are doing and what the result is, and what we might do differently next time. And I think about our work together, as a cooking team. And when I cook with Mac, I take the time to let him be helpful (in opposition to his grandma’s adage that “watching is helping”).  He’s now quite adept at peeling (garlic, potatoes, cucumbers — you name it, he’ll peel it), he is really good at stirring, and he likes to taste along the way and let me know if something needs more lemon, more cumin, less paprika.

As he pointed out to me just two nights ago, our Asian stir fry would be a lot better with some ice cream in it. Now *that’s* what I mean by feedback!


I am cooking to learn.


Vacations To Learn By

Around these parts, Summer term is coming to a close (next week!) and Fall term is about a month away. While my work doesn’t end when the term ends (in fact, it usually gets a bit busier), it seems like a good time to take some time off and time away from the office. It’s a time of the year that seems like a threshold.

Main Entry: thresh·old
Pronunciation: \ˈthresh-ˌhōld, ˈthre-ˌshōld\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English thresshold, from Old English threscwald; akin to Old Norse threskjǫldr threshold, Old English threscan to thresh
Date: before 12th century

1 : the plank, stone, or piece of timber that lies under a door : sill
2 a : gate, door b (1) : end, boundary; specifically : the end of a runway (2) : the place or point of entering or beginning : outset <on the threshold of a new age>
3 a : the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced <has a high threshold for pain> b : a level, point, or value above which something is true or will take place and below which it is not or will not

That’s it: the end of a runway, and the place or point of beginning. Thus, a good place to pause and take a break!

At the end of last summer, we spent the threshold at the beach.

Mac and Mom's Beach Walk

At the end of this summer, we will spend the threshold celebrating my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary and my husband will be riding his bike uphill, 100 miles, around a lake. (Fun!?!?) Mac, the Toddler of the House, has informed us that he is not only taking his Elmo suitcase and his own bike, but also his lawnmower. He likes to travel light, apparently.

The Bike

The Elmo Suitcase

The Mower

While I am one who actually hates packing suitcases and leaving the dog and cats and house in the care of others, I also like to plan vacations, and it should come as no surprise that mine involve learning to do something new.  So, here are my Top 3 (Dream) Learning Vacations for this Summer/Fall threshold, none of which I will go on, but each of which will inspire me to keep learning somehow.

1) Learn to Build a Table From Scratch. Here’s the class description – don’t you want to come along?

How would you like to take a weekend away in Vermont, build an authentically local wood table from scratch with 15 other people, and then finish off the weekend enjoying a bountiful dinner on it prepared by local chefs?

2) Learn to cook Mexican cuisine – specifically HERE, and then I could make these chiles en nogada. (I need to brush up on my Spanish, first.)

3) Learn to bake bread at King Arthur Flour. My friend Doug took this class and posted pictures and updates about his adventures to his Facebook page and everyday I said, “I want to do that, too.” Perhaps I can teach myself to make this Braided Lemon Bread.

Braided Lemon Bread from King Arthur Flour

So these are my Top 3 (Dream) Learning Vacations for Summer/Fall Threshold 2010.

What are yours?

Installment #13: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

In today’s installment of What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning, let’s talk about food. Actually, let’s talk about fuel. Mac needs fuel — good fuel — on a regular basis (like every few hours) to keep going and to keep learning. When he doesn’t get good food on a regular basis, just as when he doesn’t get good sleep on a regular basis, we’re in for trouble!

Snack Time

I know from my own experience that when I am hungry, I am not very effective at thinking, acting, or behaving very well. My mom tells stories of me as a baby needing to eat RIGHT!!! AWAY!!! upon waking up in the morning or from a nap. Forget dry or clean diapers or hugs and kisses: GIVE ME MY DAMN CHEERIOS NOW, WOMAN!

That's me, eating, as much and as fast as possible.

This hasn’t changed much for me as I’ve gotten older, the same holds true for Mac, and I am pretty certain it’s the case for most of us. Food — especially good food — fuels us. We need it to run our bodies and our brains.

In his book How We Decide (which I started reading after I had to make a difficult decision), Jonah Lehrer cites an experiment led by a psychologist at Florida State in which students who received lemonade made with real sugar made better decisions than the experimental group who received lemonade with a sugar substitute (if you’re interested, read the whole description of this study on page 152). The reason, as Lehrer explains it, is this:

The rational brains of these students [who received the substitute] were simply too exhausted to think. They’d needed a restorative sugar fix … This research can also help explain why we get cranky when we’re hungry and tired: the brain is less able to suppress the negative emotions sparked by small annoyances. (p. 152)

Too exhausted — too hungry — to think… Right?!?! I know that feeling!

So … what is good food? (It’s probably not sugary lemonade.)

The more I read about this subject, the more I am coming to appreciate Michael Pollen’s Food Rules, and I highly recommend his “Eater’s Manual” for an easily-digestible (pardon the pun) version of his work. Pollen’s three basic rules are:

  1. Eat food.
  2. Not too much.
  3. Mostly plants.

Mac and Bapa shucking fresh corn for dinner.

With all my might (and it takes a lot of might), I am focusing on this for Mac’s diet — and the fourth line I’d add is this:

  1. Eat food.
  2. Not too much.
  3. Mostly plants.
  4. On a regular basis (every few hours) to keep blood sugar levels stable.

I know there will come a day when Mac will be exposed to the addictive nature of McDonald’s french fries, and already he constantly lobbies for “yogurt stars,” which are basically cookies made to look healthy (thanks a lot, Trader Joe’s). For now, as long as we can hold back the temptations, we’ll do our best to follow Pollen’s rules, such as these:

  • #19:  If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
  • #57:  Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
  • #60:  Treat treats as treats.

Alas, there are already times that we need to call on Rule #64: Break the rules once in a while.

I know, I know: It's an Otter Pop! Long Live Rule #64!


An Aubergine Assessment (or What I Learned In Botany Class)

EggplantSome of you who know me likely know that there is one thing in the world I do not like: EGGPLANT.  Here is how my relationship with eggplant came to be so troubled.

When I was in elementary school, my mom cut off some fingers and was in the hospital for a while. Grandma came to stay with me and my dad during this time, and Grandma liked eggplant. She thought we should like it too, and she fixed it for us — often. A bit too often for my taste, and I tried to convince her that I was sure it caused brain damage. No such luck though; dad and I kept getting eggplant for dinner. (Grandma breaded it, fried it, and served it with mayo. This is a recipe I didn’t need to inherit!) It was in that 6-week period that I came to understand — intimately — that eggplant tastes like slugs. I saw no reason to have it in my life.

Fast Forward 10 Years

When I was in college ohsomanyyearsago, I took a wonderful botany course called Plants & Civilization (the course has changed a bit since then, and this was not my professor, but nonetheless, it’s neat to see the syllabus). It was a semester-long alphabetical tour of plants that have had a significant impact on people and societies. For example, I learned about how the lovely foxglove plant (digitalis) is a) poisonous, and b) used for heart medication. I also learned that women used belladonna (a deadly nightshade) to dilate their eyes to make them look more “dark” and alluring; belladonna was then manufactured into Atropine, and optometrists use it in a different form to dilate patients’ pupils.

The week we got to the letter “E,” the professor put up a slide of an eggplant, and he said, “This is a plant that we will not discuss. I do not like eggplant, and I see no reason to go into any detail about it. In my expert opinion, it has served no purpose to society. End of story.”  He moved to the next slide (Elder), and that was that. I never felt so confirmed in my life! This professor of botany — this expert in this field — agreed with my assessment about eggplant. WOW!

So what I am saying is that I learned quite a bit in this botany class. And to substantiate the claim, here is one piece of history from The World’s Healthiest Foods that aligns with my thinking:

Although it has a long and rich history, eggplant did not always hold the revered place in food culture that it does today, especially in European cuisines. As a result of the overly bitter taste of the early varieties, it seems that people also felt that it had a bitter disposition—eggplant held the undeserved and inauspicious reputation of being able to cause insanity, leprosy and cancer.

Fast Forward 20 Years

Given that I am ok with having my assumptions challenged, I have since tried eggplant pureed in soup, baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella (two ingredients that would otherwise make anything taste yummy), roasted in salads, and countless other ways in order to attempt to reconcile our differences. And still — no matter how it is prepared or disguised — it tastes like slugs.

And then today, this recipe found its way into my email: Eggplant Cheesecake (with chocolate, no less!)

eggplant cheesecake

Seriously? I mean, why would you do that to a perfectly defenseless cheesecake, to chocolate, to walnuts, to eggs? If I could find that long-retired professor of botany — the one who CHANGED. MY. LIFE. by confirming my own expert knowledge about eggplant — I would send this recipe to him and let him know that I still remember his course, for in it he taught me one of my most memorable lessons ever:  Eggplant has served no purpose to society. End of story.

On Writing: The Risk of Recipes

I have come up with some ideas about writing that are based on my experience learning to cook. I share a few of these here – food for thought, if you will.

I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation.
~Madam Benoit

As I have come to develop my cooking skills and my writing skills, I have realized that there is no recipe for good writing. There are lots of recipe books and recipe websites out there for writers, as there are master chefs who would like to sell you their method, a set of special tools they created, and a pre-made spice blend sure to add a nice “Bam!” to your essays, but, in fact, these are all gimmicks.

Someone can tell you to add 1 solid thesis statement, 5 paragraphs, a dash of academic formatting, and a pinch of reflection or humor and you’ll have a good essay. Not true. As Mdm. Benoit points out, a recipe can provide a sense of flavor (this will be a Mexican dish) and an idea of structure (it will be a soufflé), and perhaps a few must-have ingredients (curry required), but as the cook, you are the creator. You make the recipe as you write, and each essay will be a different combination of ingredients, flavors, smells, textures, colors, and outcomes.

I’ve learned a few other things about writing and cooking, as well:

• A good essay, like a good meal, takes time to prepare. Rarely can either come together a few hours before people sit down at your table to eat.

• As with mushrooms, essays are always better when the ideas can marinate in your head for a while. Your first draft may be the result of you dumping all the ingredients in the pot (what is often called a brain dump). While they are out there, think about them – let them rest for a few hours, a few days – and let them marinate, mix with other ideas, other flavors. Let them become saturated, and then wring them out. The ultimate result will be more flavorful.

• Get someone to do a taste test before you “plate it up.” Feedback is a gift; having a second set of eyes is time well-spent.

Finally, the last piece of cooking/writing advice I give is to avoid eggplant at all costs. Nothing good can come from it unless you like the taste of slugs.