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!

See?

I am cooking to learn.

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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?

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.