Eating Our Way Through the Learning Process

I recently had the opportunity to be a guest teacher for a few of the local high school’s culinary classes.  Their teacher left instructions for them to make plans for a Cooking Challenge that was to happen later in the week; a competition between kitchen groups to see who could create the best cookie.  Being high school, and being an unknown quantity, my presence obviously brought out interesting behavior in these teenagers, particularly one young man who made it his goal to either unnerve me or leave me speechless with his constant attempts at humor and ridiculous comments about everything under the sun.  He was extremely unsuccessful at both.

He announced to me, between other grandiose proclamations, that he was Cookie Master of the Universe.  When I asked for his group’s recipe plan, he exclaimed, giggling, that they were going to make a bacon cookie.  He looked at me with obvious anticipation, expecting some sort of negative retort, which of course he didn’t get.  Through his disappointment at my lack of disgust he stared and asked why I wasn’t barfing on the table, and I calmly told him he may want to think about replacing some of the butter or shortening in the recipe with rendered bacon fat, and I silently walked back to my desk.

He was completely dumbfounded, the only time during the period when he didn’t speak.  Eventually he got up and sheepishly came to my desk and quietly asked questions about what else I thought he should add to his cookie.  I joined the table and they listened very intently to my thoughts on altering the salt level in their basic recipe to compensate for the saltiness of the bacon.  He asked about caramel and the difference between butter and shortening.  I was no longer a threat or a target.  I’d won.

The experience made me think about what the actual process of baking provides for kids.  In both my own house and in this classroom, various forms of cooking give kids a chance to admit their own ignorance, learn a new skill, practice, personalize it, show off a bit when they master something, teach others what they’ve learned, and walk away with a quick, tangible reward; all valuable lessons and opportunities that many adults sadly do not appreciate.

In this case, his reward was a bacon caramel cookie.  It doesn’t even matter how it eventually turned out (my imagination is full of smoke detectors going off when he tried to fry two pounds of bacon at once); the point is that, to him, it was probably seeped in ultimate awesomeness with a drizzle of kick-ass coolness sauce.  What’s important is that he got over his visible teenage insecurity that forced him to constantly test his limits, and he faced his lack of knowledge in front of a) someone he didn’t know and felt the need to freak out, and b) his peers whom he felt the need to impress.

Last week we experienced the very same thing here at home.  To celebrate kid #1’s acceptance into college (not his first choice, but my first choice for him, which doesn’t really matter now but hopefully someday he’ll agree that in this case mom really did know best), we decided to have a sushi party.  We make our own sushi regularly, but until that night I didn’t realize that in the past I’d done all the creating and they’d done all the eating.  So tonight we decided that everyone would learn to make several types of sushi, regardless of how they turned out or whether or not they actually chose to eat said sushi.

Before we began, I did a full mis en place so that they didn’t get bored chopping or cutting or organizing.  I also don’t have room in my kitchen for all those teenage legs, so my prep work allowed those legs to remain in another room.  I also put out a couple bowls of edamame and I made a few dozen wontons out of leftover pork tenderloin, caramelized onions and mushrooms so that they had something to munch on other than our precious (“precious” because I spent two hours painstakingly cutting them, thank you very much) sushi-making supplies.  When everything was assembled, each kid got to choose what went into each type of sushi he or she decided to make — but everyone would get to taste everyone else’s creations, which I think helped keep them focused and intent on not getting sloppy (the whole show-off part of the learning and mastery process, you know).

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We had unagi (eel), shrimp, crabmeat, tons of vegetables, tomiko (tiny fish roe), fried quail eggs, inari (deep fried tofu pouches), nori…we even had a few trendy soybean wrappers, brightly colored sheets of paper-thin pasta-like stuff.  Fortunately our bursting-at-the-seams cupboards also provided us with roasted sesame seeds, black sesame seeds, wasabi sesame seeds (yes, I know…it’s a sickness), several different sauces and oils, wasabi, pickled ginger, garlic paste…plus two giant bowls of cooked sushi rice.

The kids learned how to make hand rolls, nigiri (hand formed sushi, the kind you see with maybe unagi on top of a small ball of rice, bundled together with a thin strip of nori), rolled sushi, inari, inside out rolls (with the rice on the outside, rolled in tomiko)…you name it.  We had a blast — we even made square sushi with the latest contraption I picked up at the asian market.  Each kid developed his or her own way of doing things, too — kid #3 swore his ability to turn his sushi roller into a hanging bassinet of sorts, with his newly-formed and uncut roll inside, made his sushi better than everyone else’s.  I frankly think he did it just because his brothers told him not to, but it didn’t matter.  He was thrilled with his creation, as was every other sushi-chef in the house that night.

In the end, we ate sushi for three days.  Seriously.  Though I imagined we’d end up with a couple plates, when one kid learned how make one type, he’d teach the next kid, who, in turn, taught the first kid what he’d already mastered.  As a result, we filled six platters with the fruits of their labors.  Kid #1 isn’t a huge sushi lover, but he did like eating the soybean-wrapped variety with crab, and he greatly enjoyed the process of making the sushi, so that ‘s why sushi has officially made The List.

More important, at least in this endeavor, they’ve all moved through admitting ignorance, practicing, personalizing, showing off, and teaching, and now we’re all sitting happily at the enjoying stage.  Maybe next time we’ll work on bacon cookies.

The List now sits at 20…

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One thought on “Eating Our Way Through the Learning Process

  1. I’ve never had much luck making sushi; the first time I ever tried was in foods class in high school (my favorite class senior year!), and the knives we had to work with were so abysmally dull that they mutilated the neatly-wrapped sushi rolls that my group made (read: me and one of my best friends, since the other kid at our table never showed up). I tried making sushi once at home too, and while my home knives are relatively sharp and did a better job cutting, the result was somehow still lacking. Maybe I just need more exciting ingredients like you have; I think we had carrots, cucumber, and avocado. A good start for veggie sushi, but maybe next time I’ll try adding sweet potato or asparagus. And wasabi sesame seeds?? Sounds yummy. 🙂

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