“We’re out of flour, Mom,” the barefoot girl calls from atop the kitchen counter.
“How can that be?” I ask and peer into the canister for myself. Good thing she just finished the dinner rolls. Less than a quarter cup remains. “How many batches of yeasted dough have we made since you got the new cookbook for Christmas?”
“I don’t know—six maybe?” Hmmm. Each day she asks to bake I remind myself, she may not always have this desire, and it’s a good desire. If I can make it happen for her, I will, despite the supervision required. Her cookbook insists “the adult” melts the butter for the dough, then again for the sticky bun topping. “The adult” boils the water for pretzels and lifts them in and out as the timer rings. “The adult” puts the pan in the oven. Six batches, usually divided into half for two baking projects. A whole lot of white flour, which doesn’t hurt her as much as it does me. I encourage her to use the whole-grain flour she ground by hand at her friend’s house, mixed with the white flour.
My grandmother was a talented cook and a caterer, known as “the finest cook in the county” for her fresh dinner rolls and her pies, her mashed potatoes and hand-rolled noodles. I worked with her because she paid me well, but I gave little attention to the food, and more to serving and cleanup. My brothers both absorbed her cooking style and remembered everything. I was dreamy and distracted. I taught myself to cook a decade later, but I wonder what else I’d know if I started earlier, and with a guide.
I do remember how to squeeze the yeasted dough into small rounded balls, three per dinner roll, into the buttered muffin pan. We butter our hands and do it just the same way, setting the pan aside for the rolls to rise one more time.
Madeleine’s fancies come and go, and I don’t know if she will stick with baking. She shows a level of confidence in the kitchen that I learned in my thirties, mixing the yeast and watching to make sure it’s “alive.” When I tell her I’m making spinach lasagna, she says “I don’t even like eating it, but can I help?” Yep. I pull the chair over for her to stand at the counter with me. I chop spinach and carrots in the food processor, then mix with cheeses and an egg. She layers the noodles. I pour the sauce over the layers.
“The art of teaching is to make the enjoyed moment serve the whole life,” I read earlier today, a quote attributed to A. C. Harwood. “The enjoyed moment” is what my fourth-grade daughter brings home from school. Joy. I envy her pure joy of learning. She sings as she works, not some sweet song but some song about pirates losing limbs merrily. She dances as she works, too, and stops to repeat “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog” so I can see that it’s a PALINDROME. (Spelled the same, backwards and forwards.) “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” Another palindrome. She asks excitedly if I know how many words can be spelled from the letters of PALINDROME and we laugh that someone Googled to find 531 words, while her class could only come up with 149. The enjoyed moment lasted 149 words!
The article continues “if math and painting are taught with humor or warmth… and through a process of beauty, then the ‘memory’ of math and painting lives far more deeply in the person than just the memory of ‘how to do it.’ …Then even if specific information may retreat from the conscious memory… appreciation for all subjects remain with the person for life.”
I consider how to make the enjoyed moment serve the whole life, as a parent, when it’s mid-winter and I am grouchy and struggling to make headway on my projects. Warmth, humor. Specific information retreated long ago. I remember my Grandmother and I feeding kitchen mice little scraps when we catered one cold winter evening in a rented kitchen at the Lions Club, how surprised I was to see her eyes brighten as we watched.
Madeleine asks if she can go play after I pop everything into the oven, and I turn to survey the flour on the kitchen table and counters, the sink filled with measuring cups and spoons and bowls, caked with flour and butter. “Please?” she says. “Brendan is playing a game I want to play.” Okay. I’d like her to learn to clean up for herself, but I’d like her to feel like cooking is more “play” than a chore. This enjoyed moment has passed and dinner will be a little later than usual, but it’s a little more special than usual, too. She leaves her apron on the back of the chair and I push up my sleeves and start the hot water running in the sink.
“Pssst.” She calls to me and stands by me at the sink.
“Yeah?” She crooks her finger to draw me closer to her whisper.
“Go hang a salami!” she quips. My educator.
“I’m a lasagna hog,” I reply, and we wink at each other. “Let’s try it the other way: Go hang a salami.”
“I’m a lasagna hog. But not really. I don’t like it much.”
“Do you think you’ll eat a little?” She nods.
Does it serve her whole life? It’s hard to say. Maybe. Does the enjoyed moment serve my whole life? Definitely.
“Have a fun game. I’ll call you when dinner is ready.”