Ready ... aim ... cook!

There are plenty of culinary ups and downs as a boy learns to cook.

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When my son Anton turned 6, I discovered that it was no longer necessary for me to serve as short-order cook, preparing his every meal.

He was a capable and energetic child and I decided to teach him to help himself when he could. What boy that age can't pour milk and cereal into a bowl, or toast a bagel?

On the whole, I think it was a good decision, although not without its moments of minor regret.

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I'd like to start off by saying that I am not proprietary or territorial when it comes to my kitchen. In fact, I have trouble even saying "my" kitchen, because the pronoun implies that I am somehow, er, proprietary or territorial. The thing is, I'm such a middling cook that I look on in gratitude whenever somebody else wants to take a shift by the stove and throw together a dish.

Was this why I was so anxious to help my son help himself? Was I looking toward a future where things were just that much easier for me? Perhaps self-interest was a small part of it, but in the main I believe I just wanted to help him develop a skill and pattern of self-reliance that I thought would serve him well his whole life long.

The beauty of a first-grader is that he is game for anything. Floating a stick down a stream, catching fireflies in a jelly jar, jumping in mud. Anton, like most kids his age, never said no to the new. The moment I framed cooking in the same way – as an adventure – he was all aboard.

After mastering the basics of cereals and bagels with little fuss, he was ready for something with a few more details. I bought a box of brownie mix at the supermarket. That evening I laid out all the ingredients and utensils: mix, oil, water, a bowl, and a wooden spoon. Simple enough. Or so I thought.

Anton mounted a stool and watched intently as I gave him instructions. "We're going to pour the mix in the bowl and then add this little cup of oil," I directed. "Then take the wooden spoon and mix it up."

The phone rang. "I'll be right back, Anton," I said. "Please wait for me."

The call took about five minutes. When I turned back to the counter, well, recall what I said about my son's attraction to mud? That's the same spirit with which Anton attacked the brownie project. He had added the oil to the mix, all right, but had apparently decided that it didn't make it wet enough and so had added a few cups of water as well.

Then it was party time. Did you know that a wooden spoon, if wielded aggressively, can fling brownie glop against a window? The result of our inaugural foray into cooking was that the rather runny batter was all over the counter, the floor, the window, and my son.

"It's all gone," he said as he threw up his chocolate-covered hands.

Undaunted, we made pancakes instead, but my heavy hand guided every step, and although we wound up with five pancakes and a clean kitchen, I sensed that my son was subtly pained by my shouldering so much of the work.

In the six years since those days, I have stuck with the cooking program through spillage, overcooking and undercooking, and his chronically mistaking the notation "tsp" for "tablespoon," which has made some of his meals an acquired taste. In sum, his progress has been akin to ascending the stairs while playing with a yo-yo: the general trend is positive, but with ups and downs.

There was, for example, the forgotten egg which bounced around in the saucepan for 30 minutes instead of eight. By the time I arrived on the scene the product could best be described as a HARD!-boiled egg with the consistency of a racquetball.

Then there was the little tray of Bagel Bites. I was upstairs when the first plumes of smoke ascended and the smoke alarm began to wail. I rushed downstairs to find the microwave billowing like a locomotive. My son had punched in 50 minutes instead of five.

The bread that never rose, the cake that collapsed, the half-baked potatoes – all of these were growing pains which asked little more of me than forbearance until Anton began to get things consistently right.

Well, almost so. When I came home from work recently, he presented me with something he called a "snack time quickie." He told me it contained yogurt, vanilla, honey, walnuts, and apples. But when I tasted it, something didn't seem quite right.

"Anton," I said, "what kind of yogurt did you use?"

"I think it was plain," he said. And then he showed me the container.

"Anton," I said with a sigh. "This is sour cream."

He looked puzzled. "Isn't that the same thing as plain yogurt?"

Neither Rome, nor snack time quickies, were built in a day.

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