It started in the sandbox. The customary mud pies with sand frosting, leaf sandwiches, and twigs rolled in dirt were not adequate for my son's palate. Instead, Spencer made asparagus quiche, deep-dish pizza, flourless chocolate cake, and exotic fruit smoothies. Of course, the ingredients were still sand, dirt, leaves, and twigs; he just had "downtown" designs on the final product and its presentation. It was about presentation when he "plated" his twigs and sand.
The next phase I call "chemistry." That is, Spencer determined that cooking is just edible chemistry. Entertaining conglomerations from the cupboard (a chemistry experiment) had the added benefit of a snack if he followed a recipe and used non-lethal ingredients. It wasn't a great leap from making baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes to bread dough rising or the biochemical marvel of strawberry Jell-O with bananas.
Like any good scientist, Spencer allowed inspiration and innovation to determine the ultimate ingredient list of any recipe, not the limitations of the published formula in a mere cookbook by the likes of, say, Martha Stewart.
Now that he is in seventh grade, his ambitions have turned nouvelle: larger, sweeter, grander confections. He will gladly spend his own allowance on Ghirardelli chocolate (Hershey's no longer has the right cachet) to enhance cookies, or purchase fancy candy boxes and wrappers to present beloved desserts. He has even found paying customers.
The principal at his school commissioned chocolate mousse cake for a faculty meeting and was very satisfied with the product. Unfortunately, Spencer does not yet have a kitchen of sous- chefs to help with cleanup. Following such a cook-off, the countertops are strewn with utensils, measuring cups, sticky ingredients. We have learned to tolerate such environmental disasters in exchange for a pan of his baklava.
SUMMER is grill time. Out comes the famous barbecue sauce. It comprises alternating ingredients, dependent on the kitchen cupboard stocks: a little ketchup, some chili pepper, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic. We have never been dissatisfied, no matter how charred the result. His work rivals Hecky's, the local barbecue professional down the street. Hecky claims his fame with the slogan, "It's the sauce." And, as Spencer knows the value of a good sound bite, he calls his jar of ruby-colored thunder "Spencer's Rib Relaxer."
My son is the only seventh- grader I know who ventures to the library in pursuit of books on Mayan math but returns with "Oh, Fudge!" or "Dessert in Half the Time" or "The Romance of Candy," having "strayed" into the cookbook section. He is even beginning to find cooking camaraderie with a couple of peers, who use their Internet access at school to search for a better chocolate-chip-cookie recipe.
But it's hard being a gourmand at an early age. Recess predilections among most seventh-grade boys run to half-court basketball games. Now that his uncle - who does not have to deal with the countertop aftermath - has given him a subscription to a gourmet food magazine, Spencer awaits each issue with the anticipation his peers reserve for Skateboarder or Sports Illustrated, looking forward to the next recipe from Jacques Pepin.
I tend to view his skills as evidence of a gift not yet assessed on academic rubrics or report cards. We've heard tales of student evaluation via portfolios, in place of grades and standardized test scores; even of college admissions committees enjoying fresh loaves of bread as evidence of an applicant's skill and learning accomplishments. As higher education looms, I anticipate Spencer's baked application serving as both qualification for admission and (we hope) the means to an end: paying the bill - unless he goes straight to work at the pastry table.
One's muse is where one finds it, not necessarily where one hopes to find it. And the process of finding a muse is delightfully unpredictable. A muse must be obeyed, since any self-respecting muse ignores intervention or parental coercion!
That's just fine with me. I contentedly anticipate a steady, lifetime supply of baklava. And I'll even clean up the counters every once in a while, though as maitre d' I'm obliged to grouse a bit.