Getting An Education Through Food
There is no #FoodEDU yet, but there should be. You could make many analogies between classroom learning, and learning how to cook. In this post, Chris Cluff and myself explore our paths to learning to cook (he is a much better chef than I!)
The tweet above is a deliberate provocation, but is likely true. We need to eat every single day. We need nourishment for our bodies. Preparing our own food is a life skill, one for which many of us came into adulthood grossly unprepared for. All adult humans should know how to prepare basic meals for themselves. This, I strongly believe. As a much younger man, learning how to cook was survival, or rather, it was the difference between eating Baconators every day, and staying healthy. Indeed-that stressful first year of teaching as a single man was all Baconators Big Macs Beer (and chicken wings).
As a necessity, I learned to cook a few past dishes, and a chili, and to make a few other basic things. Over time, my knowledge of ingredients and types of food expanded. I developed heuristics for cooking certain things (rules for how things should be done in the kitchen-like salting pasta water), and learned which flavours go together, and which do not. (You can’t go wrong with pork and apples, e.g., but who is born knowing that? You need to learn that-you need to TASTE that!)
There is often a kind of trial and error at play: try and put together two things that don’t “fit”, or treat an ingredient in the wrong way so as to ruin it, and you likely won’t do that again. Mistakes are great teachers, especially when the stakes are relatively low, as in preparing a dish (provided you are not trying something new for 10 hungry guests).
Schools used to, as part of their mandate, teach what was once called “home economics”. I remember being taught to cook a few things (although it was probably more like just baking cookies), and sewing shorts for a project. At the time, “shop” class was the partner class, and we alternated between them. Those basic skills, measuring, cutting, screwing and nailing things together, are important too, but are a topic for another day.
In times of austerity, “frills” like teaching cooking skills are the first thing to go. You see cooking in curricula as either an add-on, or a thing you can specialize in boutique skills, or in chef or life skills training programs in high skills.
A true “back to basics” movement in schools would put human needs first.
Schools have traditionally cooked up a set menu, as it were, of knowledge, of facts and things about the world to be learned. These things are generally important, although most of us don’t use abstractions like calculus, or call up from memory the causes of World War I on a daily basis. If we are lucky, we are powerfully changed forever by an inspiring writing or math teacher, or a book we read and studied.
We do, however, eat. We eat every single day. It is easier than ever before to have an unhealthy relationship to food, and judging by radio ads, there is a huge demand for pre-cooked, or easy to assemble meals for “busy”* people.
(*if you are not saying “I’m too busy to cook”, apparently, you are not really living, or maybe you don’t work hard enough, according to the cold hard logic of the world today, and if indeed you have people around you complaining about how “busy” they are, ask them how much time they are spending on social media, television, and email.)
(Adding egg to a BLT is a chef’s trick I learned from Thomas Keller after cooking many dry BLTs)
Over time, you start to see how ingredients just fit together. You start to know techniques, and flavour profiles. Cooking just *gets easier*. This is the process of learning itself- do something enough times, and things just start to get easier.
I often say, “you need to do enough math to be good enough at math”. You can call this deliberate practice. Practice deliberately, in your kitchen, and notice improvements, nearly immediately.
Here are some basic dishes and techniques I think we could teach all kids, in a #FoodEdu curriculum:
- how to make a grilled cheese sandwich
- how to scramble eggs
- how to make a basic pasta, or stovetop macaroni and cheese
- how to cook various pieces of meat properly, like a breast of chicken
- how to saute vegetables
- how to make a few other “classic” sandwiches, like BLTs, or tuna or egg or chicken salad
- how to bake cookies
The best part of this kind of learning is: you can eat the results! (You can’t do that in, say, science class…)
I started cooking for a living when I was 13 years old.
Up to that point I had learned very little about the culinary arts. I was not allowed in our home kitchen (I was messy), I did not shop for groceries (I was lazy), and none of the elder family members invested pot stirring time with me — my only contribution was the occasional chore of drying the dishes (I was 13). No joke, the entirety of my skills have come from the grind found in professional kitchens under the watchful eyes of die hard professionals. Neither my parents or my school teachers taught me to cook.
There are landing moments of ‘aha’ and ‘wow’ in my culinary career. Some as shiny as meeting celebrity chefs, and travelling to a source for the original dish, and the beautifully common task of everyday assembly of food for my family. But that is not the foundation of my origins. Those moments occur on the fringes of a life lived in kitchens where, in my time, social media and the Food Network had not taken hold.
When I recount my life in the hospitality biz I make sure to drop my backstory. Especially to students. It is a good reminder that life sometimes drops wee breadcrumb glimpses of ‘future you’ whether you are ready or not. And when that abstract tidbit misses the mark I usually follow with a platitude like ‘…work brings rewards’ or ‘motivation needs to be cast into the right stream of learning’ or ‘I called it a classroom you’d call it a salad station.’ And the events that lead me to making a living are firmly grounded between these tensions.
In December of grade 9, I asked my parents for a new bicycle. My parents bumped the conversation into the new year, saying that they would have a better idea of whether there would be enough money for a bike in late January.
To me this read as delay tactics. They’d done that before. Questions like ‘Can I have more allowance? Can I stay out later that 10:00 PM? Do I have to shovel the driveway?’ Were all answered in parental quickstep efficiency. What could they possibly know then, that they did not know now?
My 13 year old brain wouldn’t stitch together the complexity of the big picture in which I was standing. For me this was a simple request. Either support it or deny it and let’s move on with it. And it seemed strange that the answer would be dependent upon an event a month away. My pitch was crashing so I got it in my head that I might need to find an alternative path for financing. But with Christmas cash all spent and few options for a quick infusion, I decided to wait them out.
January rolled around, then it was February, and finally sometime around Valentines Day my dad called me into the kitchen. The table was covered in stacks of pastel toned forms. One chair was empty and I was directed to sit in it.
With a slight flourish and a sigh my dad pushed a baby blue hued sheet in front of me and pointed to the bottom line of the page. My eyes scanned slowly from top to bottom several times trying to make sense of each box and entry. So many boxes, so many numbers. He pointed to the bottom right corner. In the corner was a number, a big number, and it was negative.
The full meaning of that number was lost on me and my face must have showed my confusion. ‘We owe money for our taxes.’ He said. ‘A lot of money.’ I kept staring at the page, something clicked. ‘So … no bike this year bud. Sorry.’
Up to this point I had sporadically noticed an unfolding reality outside of my first person POV on life. Things like my parents working late, few dinners out, more canned and less fresh food — started to stand out. And as I focused more and more on the family fabric that was woven around me a pattern emerged. It became clear that my nose to the page focus had kept me from seeing what life was like, just out of focus, in the adult world.
Call it coming of age or rite of passage, regardless, I had stepped through a door into a mindset from which I still have not emerged.
As a dad and a teacher I have tried to orchestrate learning moments like this. I believe that many teachers do. And as far as ‘teachable moments’ go, this was textbook efficiency. I can probably count on one hand where opportunity, equity, happenstance, and motivation collided with such positive results in my classroom.
But there it was, he glowering at the net total owed. Me glazed and wondering how to generate money of my own.
Now, looking back on the moment I would concede that I may have looked like a willing student, but in fact my brain was chasing bigger squirrels than fiscal responsibility. I got it in my head that I needed a job.
My father would recount the moment with pride for years thereafter as one of the key responsibilities that every citizen needs to learn — to do taxes. For me, I was stuck in a paradigm shift. And in that eddy of thoughts and emotions my reality changed.
So I got a job, at the Golden Griddle, as a busboy. It took me until late November to buy a bike. I worked weekends and holidays. Got up early and stayed late. Took the bus and begged for rainy day rides from my parents. Saved some, spent lots. And by the time I got the two wheeled rubber on the road, snow was starting to fall.
I remember thinking one morning that I could ride my bike to work, but almost instantly real life complexities crashed the epiphany into unmanageable pieces. Bike lock? Nope. Fenders. Nope. A place to store my bike at work? Ya right. The inconvenience bruised me. And I felt like I couldn’t really talk it out with my parents. It wasn’t that I feared an ‘I told you so’ would be forthcoming, it was just that I did not want the next life lesson. Not yet.
This is how I learned to cook for a living.