The Child In My Kitchen Isn't Julia

Lately I've been wondering why more of us don't teach our sons to cook while they're young. The culinary arts, I've discovered, have all the right ingredients for little boys. For starters, there's a wide array of fascinating gadgets to play with, not to mention the delicious alchemy of making a mess.

Now a full-fledged Webelo Cub Scout, my son has learned several new kitchen skills. To earn his "Family Member" badge, specifically, he had to complete the following requirements as described in the official Webelo handbook: "Help plan the meals for your family for at least one week. Help buy the food. Prepare at least three meals for the family."

At first I shuddered at the mere thought. We had just remodeled our kitchen, so I wasn't ready to watch an energetic nine-year-old take over my brand-new range. But deep down, I knew it was time I learned another lesson in letting go.

Fortifying my appetite for adventure, I bought my boy a cookbook that promised to "simplify workday meal preparation."

After choosing a week's worth of menus, including one for pan-broiled flank steak, however, my son and I discovered that we didn't own most of the book's required "pantry staples." Immediately we drove to the grocery - a store with aisles wide enough to accommodate a Cub Scout on a mission with a runaway grocery cart.

I would have preferred a more leisurely pace, but my son zoomed ahead of me like a contestant in a three-minute shopping spree.

At the produce aisle, I showed him how to select a healthy looking head of garlic. Then we whirled through the canned-goods sections, then on to the spices. As I recited our list of herbs and spices, he pulled each item from the shelf and hurled it like a missile into the cart. In all the excitement, a bottle of curry powder bounced off my bag of lemons, denting a can of stewed tomatoes on the rebound.

Our next stop: the meat counter. After giving the boy a quick lecture on how to evaluate meat quality, I asked him which of two flank steaks looked better to him. My frugal gourmet opted for the cheapest one.

It wasn't until I unloaded our cart at the checkout line that I noticed he had chosen a package of gooey Hostess Choco-licious Cupcakes for dessert. (It was his menu, after all, so I let it pass.)

Back in the kitchen, I held my breath and let my son do most of the work. With gusto, he pounded a few cloves of garlic - only one flew across the room - then tossed them into the skillet. The hardest part was watching him attack a ripe tomato with a butcher knife, though I reminded myself that my freshly painted walls could be hosed down later.

"Cooking is work, but it's so much fun!" he shouted as he seized a spatula and swirled the rice in another saucepan. I grinned, enjoying his enthusiasm, despite the mess he'd made.

Served by candlelight with sauted corn and a pre-meal prayer, the pan-broiled steak was a remarkable success - amazingly tender for such a bargain. And I couldn't help thinking that, in the long run, the Boy Scouts of America had devised a miraculous service for the families of tomorrow.

I agree with Laurie Colwin, the late gourmet columnist and author of "More Home Cooking" (HarperCollins, 1993), who wrote: "We have to get our sons into the kitchen with us and teach them how to cook so that, as adults, our daughters do not end up working to a frazzle while our sons sit around reading the newspaper."

My son completed every requirement for his Family Member badge, which was awarded to him at a Scout banquet later in the year. And since then, he hasn't lost interest in kitchen work. Any time I'm too tired to make dinner, he graciously offers to help.

"Why don't you rest while I make us some peanut-butter sandwiches?" he said last week.

Bon apptit!

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