I glanced at the stove and saw a chocolate cake sitting in a quiche pan. It looked fine, except it had a rather large divot in the middle.
“Looks fine to me,” I lied. “Just needs some frosting.”
Elizabeth grinned, walked to the kitchen and slapped a spoonful of frosting into the divot. A few minutes later we were laughing together as we stuffed gobs of German chocolate into our mouths.
I wasn’t always so cavalier about cooking mistakes. Most of my friends let their children cook and bake with them, but I cringed to let my kids measure, stir and pour. This is still an enigma to me. When I was growing up, my mother encouraged us to experiment with gastronomy. If we asked for cookies, she would hand us a stained copy of Betty Crocker, point us to the kitchen and remind us to clean up after ourselves. As a result, I could cook dinner for ten people by the time I was in fifth grade. I thought nothing of whipping up a white sauce, or baking a three-egg cake, or turning out popovers for the family’s supper.
Unlike the stainless steel and granite kitchens of HGTV, the kitchen I grew up with had no counters. A free standing double sink and the top of the clothes washer were the only work areas besides the kitchen table. There was a gas stove whose pilot lights didn’t work. I would timidly turn the dial and toss a lit match in the direction of the pilot, while simultaneously jumping to the other side of the kitchen in fear of my hair catching fire with the “Whoosh!” of the flame. It is a miracle I didn’t blow up the entire house.
My favorite thing to make was cake. Betty Crocker had pages and pages of delightfully named cake recipes, and I tried them all, from “Silver White Cake” to “Brown Betty Butter Cake.” One day, despite my mother’s admonishment, I used a coin silver serving spoon to mix the batter instead of a wooden one. Scraping the side of the glass mixing bowl, I lost my grip and the spoon got sucked in with the creamy batter, twisting and bending around the moving beaters. Cheeks burning, I had to tell my mother I had disobeyed her and watch as she disentangled the mangled silver spoon.
I was not the only child in our family to have kitchen disasters. One afternoon my sister Robin made frosting and deciding to experiment with food coloring, added several drops of each color to the sugar and butter. The result was akin to something we would find in our baby brother’s diaper. My father took one look at it, gagged and threw it in the trash. Another time, my youngest sister Missy made pumpkin pie for the family. It looked delightful- caramel in color, shiny on the top. When the last person was served we dug in together, anticipating the smooth sweet flavor of pumpkin and spice that would tickle our taste buds. I looked across the table at Scott, whose bugging eyes and coughing confirmed my suspicion. Soon everyone was sputtering and laughing, except Missy, whose face slowly turned a deep shade of crimson. She had forgotten the sugar.
Despite these mishaps, my mother continued to encourage us. Although none of us is exactly a gourmet, family pot lucks prove that we each have a robust gastronomic repertoire.
If I had it to do over again I would forget about the spills, turn a blind eye to the mess and let my kids measure and chop until they found their own inner chef. They might have understood fractions sooner. They might have learned not to open the oven door while a cake is rising. They might have learned to skillfully wield a knife like the folks on Food Network, or truss a turkey like Julia Child. They did not. Instead they learned to “get-out-of-the-kitchen-while-Mom-makes-dinner.”
In spite of my hang ups, they are learning on their own, as adults. They may make a few mistakes along the way, but they’re figuring it out. Abby makes the best butter cream I’ve ever tasted. Gabe made me chicken korma after I had hand surgery. And Elizabeth baked a delicious German chocolate cake for my birthday. It might not have looked perfect, but it was made with love. Besides, that little divot made the perfect pool for some extra frosting.