Deborah Paul and Her Master Chef Jr.
I learned to cook from Mom, but not through formal instruction. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then whatever skills I obtained by observation are a tribute to her. She offered more precise training, but as a teenager, I was too busy hiding in my closet, the long black phone cord tangled in the door, gabbing with my girlfriends. I regret that now, since I don’t know how to replicate her light and airy mile-high angel food cake. All I remember is seeing her whip egg whites in a copper bowl cradled in the crook of her arm. I have owned the bowl for 14 years and have yet to use it.
Now I yearn to make the exquisite pastries she lovingly crafted from yeast dough, especially her thick pecan rolls with warm caramel sauce oozing from between the puffy coils. She adored kneading the soft, pliant dough; the satisfaction was as much in the process as in the result. We did make an apple pie together, so I know how to smooth the dough with a floured rolling pin, mound the sugared fruit with chunks of butter into a tower, and prick the top crust with a fork. It’s a traditional dessert, but I’m pleased to have mastered it.
And so it was that I decided to launch a cooking class of my own with my beloved—and eager—8-year-old granddaughter. She is slight of frame but likes to eat, and I allow her to choose the recipes we tackle together in my kitchen, where she stands on a stool cracking eggs—and fishing out the errant shells—whipping, stirring, and folding, delighting in each new experience.
Our first projects are from-scratch chocolate-chip cookies and silken fudge brownies. Watching chocolate lusciously melt with butter in a saucepan proves to her that these delicacies don’t necessarily come from a mix and, when we decide to halve the recipe, that the math she learns at school is not in vain. “What is one-half of one-third, do you think?” I probe, after which I catch her on my phone, asking Siri. This generation may accomplish things the easy way, but not my student.
The finished products are as nearly perfect as they could get, and even though she merely assists, I award her full credit. Whatever we make together, I allow her to take home to show off and enjoy again.
We advance to sweet-and-sour meatballs, which require a young girl to dig hands-first into a bowl of raw ground beef—ick! Lemon squeezing and onion chopping are more fun, even if the latter produces a crying match she wins. We have made peanut-butter cookies, the chocolate kisses delicately smooshed into each warm center, and chicken soup—with matzo balls! “What do you think soup starts with?” I ask, and she does not know. Water, I explain, filling the stockpot before the raw chicken—ick! again—is placed atop. She drops in vegetables, learning the difference between a turnip and parsnip, and I delight in the fact that we cover both math and science without her even knowing it. At dinner, she slurps spoon after spoon, and enjoys a second helping of matzo balls that contain—of all things!—schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat. She decides not to think about that.
Could her heart possibly be as full as mine? Does she appreciate the meaning of these moments, that they will endure long after the cooking aromas subside?
Our most recent project, again her selection, is lemon chicken; her job is to season the pounded cutlets and dredge them in flour, mine to sizzle them in olive oil and butter. By the time we reach the sauce stage, adding lemon juice and chicken broth to the pan drippings, the kitchen is filled with tempting aromas. I’ve never seen her hungrier, and she gobbles two pieces before the rest of us even fill our plates. We agree that food tastes better when you make it yourself and, after every outcome, high-five each other to celebrate our success. As partners, we wear matching aprons, and I call her my sous chef, which would be a funnier moniker, we consider, were her name “Sue.”
The cleanup is never as enjoyable, but she tolerates the task, heaving exaggerated sighs as she wipes the wire whisks and dries each bowl and pot. The start is more exciting than the finish, yet the activity is not complete until it is.
Each time she leaves, proudly carting away the leftovers, I want to cry. Could her heart possibly be as full as mine? Does she appreciate the meaning of these moments, that they will endure long after the cooking aromas subside? There is, after all, texting to do, as well as friends with whom to giggle, and bedtime stories that mommies and daddies will read. Yet she makes time for me: This will be our thing, for years to come, I hope.
When I am alone, I shuffle through my mother’s recipe cards, tattered and yellowed, with handwritten notes in the margins, wishing I had stood closer by her side. But at least I am passing along such lessons to her distant progeny, which would have made her proud.
Illustration by Elvis Swift