Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Conversation with the Chef: Multi-Tasking

     I've come to realize I am no multi-tasker, no matter what conventional wisdom about women decrees.  I've inherited it from my mother.  I've laughed at her for years because she seemed incapable of making garlic bread under the broiler without burning the bread.  When I was still home there were many hurried scraping sessions over the kitchen sink, scraping charcoal edges off what was meant to be golden bread.  Now that I'm the chief chef, I can't really be trusted to use the broiler either.  I can't "constantly stir" the white sauce with one hand and grate cheese with the other, it seemed do-able, but it's not.  I'm learning to slow down a little.  I'm portioning out dinner preparation so I can work on one task at a time.  I see now the beauty of mise en place, rather than flying by the seat of my pants, apron strings trailing in the wind behind me.  Except I often don't have my apron on, no time, no time, only to cry out in dismay.  Now my good man just takes my apron off the hook and slips it over my head.  Julia Child in her introduction to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 says:
"Pay close attention to what you are doing while you work, for precision in small details can make the difference between passable cooking and fine food."
     Ah, yes.   Next, bearing bowls of half-decent cooking (because I won't dare to call it "fine food"), I throw dinner on the table.  Or if it's a good night there's a candle or a tablecloth, and the kids have set the table.  We all sit down, a willing volunteer thanks God for our food and in fifteen minutes or less my hour in the kitchen has been negated.  I've nothing to show for it but a pile of dirty dishes and a few crumbs on the floor the dog snuffles up in gratitude.  Oh, I know, there's much to be said for the power of the table, and nourishing growing bodies with good food, and nourishing minds and souls with thoughtful conversation.  But don't you ever feel that hint of discouragement, all that work, for what?  What's needed is multi-tasking, accomplishing more than just dinner in my hour, yet I know I can't walk and chew gum at the same time.  (Yes, my college swim teacher told me so.  I know it's true.)
     What is needed is a child.  One set of willing hands, anxious to learn and spend some quiet minutes with mom.  I know I need to allow a little extra time, small sized fingers fumble at the newness of the tasks.  Even the five year old slices olives, or cuts pepper slices into bites, I only need to allow some irregularity.  I thought this through the other night while the seven year old tore apart broccoli florets.  When we placed the bowl of steamed broccoli on the table, I had done more than just prepare a side dish.  I had prepared a daughter, for real life and cooking adventures.  She does love spices, so I have no doubt her life will be full of cooking adventures.  She's the one who thinks Ethiopian berbere in guacamole is the flavor of all things good.
     This mind set, of teaching while doing, pays rich dividends.  Here's a little peek into my Valentine's surprise.  Ally, 13, made chicken pot pie (no Pillsbury crust, flour and butter and water) and a batch of scratch frosting.  Sam, 10, made a salad.  Kara, 7, baked brownies.  They set dinner on the table and all disappeared, up the stairs with sandwiches in hand, to play games and watch a movie.  Bryan and I had a date, at the dining room table.  And we didn't have to force them, the kids were anxious to surprise us.
     We've never taken a cooking class, we make dinner with the cookbook open or the computer on the counter (far from spills).   I've never bored my kids with a textbook titled "Nutrition," we talk as we work about why veggies are different colors and the nutritional value of a tortilla.  We cook together, and we also love to eat together, which doesn't hurt either. 

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