For years, my mother and father have insisted on no presents for Christmas. I try to abide by this, and for the most part I am successful (every once in a while, I sneak in a small gift when I see something that resonates – a photo, or book – when I simply can’t resist). Instead, I donate money in their name to a cause that I believe reflects their values. For many years, I donated to the Oregon Humane Society in my old dog’s name since that’s where we found each other. My parents also met their most recent dog when he was found wandering the roads by their former country vet. My brother and sister-in-law found their dog at the pound. We are a family of rescuers.
Lately, however, I’ve been donating to local classrooms through Donors Choose; my parents have always encouraged educational pursuits, so it only seems fitting. Oregon has some of the worst educational outcomes in the country, despite high levels of spending, so perhaps giving money to classrooms here seems like a somewhat a foolish decision. Still, I comb over the wish lists of 100s of teachers across the state – most asks revolve around technology. While I agree that classroom tech can result in better learning and better preparation for the workforce, I find I am not really drawn to those requests. I instead give to those asking in order to provide materials for less fundamental educational needs: Not math, but art; not tablets, but science equipment that allows students to mimic the analyses they see on countless crime shows. I want to support student learning in ways that foster connection in themselves and the world around them.
Last year, I gave money to a rural classroom teacher so she could buy cooking supplies for her middle-school students. In her request, she stated how her kids lack the basic skills needed to make a meal, and how the school no longer supports this sort of learning (does any school now, I wonder?). While I never learned how to cook in school – pretty much figuring it out through reading, watching, and trial and (lots of) error – I see cooking as a skill that should be taught. Cooking meals improves nutrition and eating habits and therefore overall health. It can even help with math skills when the need for doubling or halving a recipe arises; I’ve never seen a recipe without fractions.
Cooking slows a person down and allows them to focus on the now, and the people they are with. Preparing a meal can bring a young person closer to their family or culture, or help them learn about others. When people cook together, it requires communication and coordination. A home-cooked meal shows love, whether it is made for a large family or just one. When I sit with a meal I have made, I feel less alone.
When I was younger, I had the reputation for being a horrible cook. I’m not sure where that came from – possibly because I was such a tomboy, or perhaps I went to great lengths to place that label on myself, finding it a source of pride for whatever rebellious adolescent reason. Maybe I didn’t want to try to cook because I was afraid of failure. It’s taken a while, but I am less concerned with the idea of something not turning out right now. Yes, there are some great cooking and (especially) baking disasters, but I’ve learned that oftentimes a culinary mishap can be salvaged. And, even if it can’t, the process itself proves to be relaxing and enjoyable to the point where I can actually say, “I like to cook.”
A few days ago, Dave and I tried our hand at jackfruit carnitas. A friend of his had made them a couple of weeks ago, and he thought they were great; websites touted that this vegan option was indistinguishable from the “real thing.” For some reason, he advertised our experimentation on social media and a friend, who is an excellent cook, wanted to taste the results; the invite was given.
I followed the recipe almost exactly, and even consulted with a friend who is known to put together excellent meals to make sure the spice combination sounded right. Seven hours in the slow cooker, and the result was bland. In a knee-jerk reaction to fix things, I added too much chili powder, which created a paradoxical spicy-boredom. We warned our soon-to-arrive guests of the preliminary results. They didn’t care and I believed them. When they got to our house, the cook came in, tasted the concoction, and simply stated “needs salt.” One quick fix and things turned out well (his amazing contributions of ceviche and caipirinhas made for an amazing meal).
I wonder if school cooking classes can incorporate lessons on failure. The practice of trying, the experience of things not working out, and the trouble-shooting of solutions; learning to adapt to an unexpected outcome. When we teach a young person how to cook, we teach them more life skills than simply providing sustenance.