“Cooking with kids is not just about ingredients, recipes and cooking. It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment and creativity.” Guy Fieri
Every family has at least one indulgence, ritual or exercise that is savoured by all members. I’ve seen families bond over reading, gardening, sewing, hiking and many other things. In our case, its food. We love cooking, and we love eating. When one of us is feeling adventurous with a little coaxing, the others are willing to try new foods as well.
Ever since our daughter started walking, the kitchen is where we dwell most of the time. For us, it is the most natural thing to do. We turn to the kitchen for inspiration ever so often, especially when we find ourselves running out of ideas.
My love for cooking is all thanks to my grandmother, whom I called Nan. She was an incredible teacher and never knew it; it was thanks to her that I cooked my first full meal at the age of ten. The icing on the cake was that I did it my self, while she sat reading in a deck chair. Nan’s input was limited to the contribution of a recipe and emphasising what was essential. The rest she said was flexible and answered any questions I had during the process. Once the meal was ready, the feedback was authentic, and she ensured I cleaned up after myself.
I read somewhere that a recipe has no soul, and the cook must bring soul to it. Nan had helped me experience this all those years ago. As a guide, cooking this way where the individual adds soul, sounded perfect, especially when it came to collaborating with children in my environment.
Our daughter has inspired several little experiments around cooking at home. On one occasion, when she was passing through a sensitive period for the smell, we made up a game to try and identify what ingredients were used in a dish. What started as a simple language and sensory exercise, morphed into something else with age. We’ve named, tasted, planted and cooked with several ingredients over the years. We know what we love on our plate; we understand that many ingredients do the same job in terms of flavours.
The act of cooking itself entails copious amounts of procedure, and without process in place, the product is of little consequence. At home, I find, that when done collectively, it relieves the anxiety that comes from making mistakes, alleviates stress and diffuses the fear of encountering new things and failure. Cooking offers qualitative experiences to all, irrespective of age. It is also the perfect setting to learn the art of collaborating with children and each other.
The only natural thing then, was to take this into my environment at school. I remember a time when the practical life shelf started bursting with a variety of food prep exercises. Our shelves had everything from cleaning corn, peeling potatoes, juicing, and grating, to name a few. We even joked about how much was consumed by the kids in my class (This did lead to other interesting observations, but that’s a story I will share separately.) I noticed that food preparation brought with it physical effort, practising process, gaining skill and experiencing complete involvement, it could be tailored to meet the needs of individual children. One activity that was brought in like this was grating coconuts using a traditional South Indian coconut grater https://in.pinterest.com/pin/678143656360529705/. This tool can prove to be downright dangerous even for adults if you lack technique or strength.
The child for whom I was bringing this in stood no higher than my knee. She engaged best when the “purposeful movement” was married to a higher degree of physical effort. She breezed through most e.p.l as she was quite dexterous; she had gained quite a bit of fine-motor refinement and was ready for more. I decided to trust what this child was showing me and with hesitation that stemmed from a need to protect her physically, I put this material on the shelf.
Not only did this bright-eyed child zero in on this activity from the time it arrived in class, she couldn’t wait to get her hands on it. To keep this three something year old from growing impatient, I told her that I brought this in just for her and that she will get this present(that’s what she called presentations). I also told her that she would have to be a little patient and work on a few other things that would prepare her better. I wasn’t surprised to see her follow-through; the authenticity of it all wasn’t in question. My priority as a guide was to ensure we were not interrupted during this work. I had also decided to sit with her after the presentation and the first few times she chose this work to ensure she didn’t hurt herself.
First thing in the morning, before the others, arrived proved to be the best time. The look on her face during the presentation, the reverence with which she received it and the responsibility she demonstrated during work are things I will never forget. I also had the privilege of seeing patience and understanding in action when others observed her work longingly. After the first few times of working, she spontaneously carried the sweet grated coconut in her bowl and shared it with her peers.
This is one of the many experiences that has helped me cement my faith in the process of childhood. It also demonstrates all that Montessori speaks of in terms of serving the whole. It this case it was through food preparation. This experience could very easily have occurred at home. In contrast, we may not have witnessed this spontaneous act of kindness that happened because there were other children in the environment. However, the satisfaction, joy and fulfilment that this little girl experienced needn’t be limited to a specific environment.
With a ten-year-old, it isn’t so much about the actual process of cooking anymore. The focus is on understanding the connection and interaction between ingredients. The appeal lies in understanding relationships between what’s on the plate and the world we live in. The motivation comes from hearing the stories that accompany a recipe. The conversations aren’t planned, but when they are sparked, we enjoy them thoroughly. We do not usually know where these conversations will lead. What does happen each time is that learning comes alive.
With every conversation, we connect with our ancestors and countless others that have been part of a larger story. Our most recent chat took us through the spice routes, the silk road, colonialism and slavery. Interest, fascination, disbelief and other emotions raced across our daughters face—all of this in the safety and privacy of our home. Free expression could be fully indulged in, and feelings that accompanied these topics be communicated and discussed. It was a testament to learning being the emotional process it is and was all thanks to the food on our plates.