Recipe for Independence: How My Son Taught Himself to Cook (and How I Let Him)

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Like his young peers, my second son wasn’t a terribly adventurous eater. He wanted crusts and skins off. Different foods should not touch one another on his plate. He did love sushi, and dried seaweed, and preferred the white Rainier cherries to the usual red ones. His not-so-adventurous palate suited him. He wasn’t gregarious. Just shy of timid, I did try to encourage more independence. It wasn’t something he sought on his own much.

When he was very small, we did some kids’ cooking projects, the ones from books with illustrated step-by-step instructions: smoothies and fruit salad, basic muffins. We baked banana bread together.

Not long after he began elementary school, he left the kids’ cookbooks behind. I’m not sure how—while my husband is a bit of a foodie, I am most certainly not—my kid started to watch the Food Network contests and then he fell into cookbooks the way other kids read comic books or Harry Potter, voraciously and repeatedly. He started to want to cook, like really cook. While his peers counted macaroni and cheese from the box as a cooking project, he decided to make pesto with basil we picked from the CSA.

“Do you have a recipe?” I asked.

“It’s basil and olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan,” he explained. He spoke slowly, as if incredulous that I did not know what went into pesto.

“Right,” I replied. “But how much of each ingredient?”

“I know how much to put in,” he declared. Did he know how expensive pine nuts were? He did not. I bought some pine nuts. His plan was to make enough pesto to eat some and freeze some.

Once the ingredients were laid out on the countertop, it seemed very sudden the new culinary territory we’d reached. Pulling basil leaves from the stems was easy—and safe. However, there’s more than that to pesto. We began to negotiate knife use and handling the Cuisinart blades, cheese graters, lemon zesters, and the stovetop. I felt unprepared for all of this. We had leapt far from the assemblage of a face on an English muffin pizza. What steps had I missed?

I talked him through the sharp knives and the Cuisinart blades. I tried to be patient and calm, although I was afraid of mishaps, and although he was impatient with me. He thought he knew exactly what he was doing, after all. It’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that his first eye roll in my direction ever meant, “Oh, mo-oom” and happened in the kitchen during that pesto making session.

His first batch of pesto turned out beautifully. He beamed, proudly—and rightly so. I cleaned the kitchen, and pondered what might happen next.

Partly, I was in new territory because the other brothers—two years older, four years younger—exhibited this kind of interest in the culinary arts, the basics maybe but expansive ideas, not so much. The little sister remained in Cheerio and Cheddar Bunny territory back then. My husband can cook, and so can I, but neither of us aspire to make the kind of dishes this guy did.

Suffice to say that sometimes he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. There were burnt pots and undercooked cakes, exceedingly spicy beans and overly garlicky pesto. There were a couple of small cuts and one tender forearm that had met a hot pan. There was an inordinate amount of oil splattered and more than one failed attempt at pasta dough. I should have realized that one thing his cooking would mean, even if I begged, threatened and cajoled otherwise, was that I’d do a lot of cleanup from messy projects.

The rewards, though, aren’t just delicious to the taste buds. He does bake tarts that rival his grandmother’s and knows just how much cumin to put in the refried beans to make them absolutely addictive. He quick-pickles and braises, grills and fries. Beyond the flavors he’s able to combine and create is the fact that he’s developed both competence and confidence. Much as there are moments we are mutually annoyed or perplexed, the kitchen has become territory in which to he forges independence. I would have imagined that occurring away from home, but it has begun in the house’s coziest spot. It hasn’t stopped there, though. He’s taken his interest and skills to help at catering jobs and as a teenager he’s navigated New York’s subways, having memorized the map, and outer boroughs in search of authentic, affordable food. He knows his way around Flushing Avenue, and has sampled goat, boar, and more spices than I can name. He’s interested in the most authentic food, and the culture of street food. He’s a known entity for his observations and enthusiasm with the Serious Eats folks. For this shy homebody, food has been a passport to so much more than flavors and a full belly.

As I’ve dropped him off at a job or the bus station, I’ve begun to appreciate the bigger point: parents don’t dictate how their children seek—and find—independence; we have to be willing to trust their leads and honor their forays and newfound wishes and competency. The leaps aren’t just theirs; they are ours, in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. That is the recipe.

Sarah Buttenwieser is a writer whose work appears in the New York Times, Salon, Brain Child Magazine, Washington Post, Dame, as well as for American Craft, Ceramics Monthly, Berkshires Magazine and Preview, Massachusetts Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @standshadows. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and four children.