This time, I am going to talk about the tangential learning opportunities found in learning to cook. Initially, I started with this list of subjects that a culinary education offers:
- The Scientific Method
- Deductive Reasoning
- Reading Comprehension
- Nutritional Science
- Business / Personal Management
- Finance (Business and Personal)
I wrote a couple paragraphs each, and had a friend read it.
Bear in mind, I am not exactly an educator myself, nor do I yet have children- so if any of you guys out there are teachers and parents- leave comments with your ideas and suggestions! The mission is simple: teach our kids to cook so they can live healthier, and more enriched lives.
That’s all out of the way, so onward to:
What Cooking REALLY Teaches
What DON’T you need math for in life? Between measuring, scaling, portioning, and calculating yields for even the most basic recipes and formulas, math is all over the culinary world. What’s more, learning to do calculations quickly in one’s head is an extremely valuable and even sought-after skill. On top of that, cooking gives students a MUCH more exciting and useful application for their skills than “How many candy bars does Johnny have”- and that makes them want to learn.
Not everyone is comfortable walking into a kitchen and throwing a little of this and that into a pot. Everyone needs to learn from somewhere- and that’s where recipe books come in. In reading recipe books and learning to follow instructions, children get a fun and practical way to build their relationship with language and the written word.
Chemistry and physics make up the rule book for reality, as far as we know. Most cooks don’t really think about exactly HOW cooking works, but chemistry and physics tells us WHY a steak cooks on a hot grill, and WHAT it is in lemons that makes them sour, or in chili peppers that makes them hot. Baking, especially, involves a LOT of chemistry and physics. Before the words “molecular gastronomy” were even put together, the baker was the closest thing to a chemist a kitchen had. The baker needs to know how different ingredients will react, and why an oven needs to be a certain temperature for a certain time.
“Ideas are tested by experiment.” That is the absolute basis of scientific thought, and a cook must be a scientist-to test new recipes and techniques, sample strange new ingredients, and figure out how to make them work.
Sometimes great things come out of experiments. Sometimes those things are failures- what went wrong? Why did the cake fall? Why did the cookies burn? When a student fails, a good teacher makes them go back over what they did and figure out why the results came to be- this is deductive reasoning. Together, these concepts not only teach children to experiment, but to learn from their errors rather than fear them, and to accept constructive criticism. For any creative field, The Scientific Method and Deductive Reasoning can be boiled down to the mantra, “Fail Faster, Fail Better.“
Agriculture has been around for nearly 12,000 years, but humans have been eating food from the Earth for much longer. Similarly, we hunted wild animals for food long before we learned to domesticate and keep livestock.
The world offers a variety of plants and animals that can be eaten in a number of different ways- which plants are safe to eat? Which aren’t? Why is the diet of most Asian cultures based around rice, rather than wheat or potatoes like in the Americas? In learning to cook, a student becomes familiar with animals and plants all over the world: how they are grown, and how to make them delicious.
Humans are capable of eating animals, but not necessarily raw- or whole for that matter. For anyone that wants to cook meat, part of the task is identifying which parts are best made how- grilled chicken breasts? Sheep’s stomach for haggis? How about pickled pigs’ feet? Even the most un-adventurous eater learns a little anatomy and physiology in order to butcher, particularly for that most favored of American traditions- how to carve a turkey.
Now HERE’S an important bit- the way our OWN bodies work. Why is it important to eat balanced meals? Why CAN’T kids just eat pizza and chicken nuggets forever? Is there actually a REASON behind eating the broccoli? If you’re going to make food, you’d better know what it does, right?
Eating is as primal a behavior as can be imagined, and people have been cooking their food to make it more digestible and enjoyable ever since the discovery of fire. All across the globe, you can learn the history of a nation simply by looking at their dinner tables. There are recipes to fill you, developed when food was scarce. Others call for rare and exotic ingredients, meant to be served to princes and kings. Why did corned beef and cabbage become a staple of St. Patrick’s Day? Why is so much Chinese food cooked in a wok? That’s some history to chew on!
Eating may be a primal behavior necessary for survival, but sitting down with friends and neighbors for a meal is something more. Food has often influenced- and been influenced by- social behaviors. Social status, economic class, even prevailing attitudes at a given time could inform what lands on your dinner plate. How did the rich and poor eat? How different could it be?
Life doesn’t just happen in big groups, though. How food affects the individual is just as important- and that’s where psychology comes in. After our sense of smell, taste is the sense most immediately connected to memories and emotions. Why does the smell of bread baking make us feel comfort, or the smell of lemons make us feel lively and alert? Maybe the taste of a perfectly grilled hamburger takes you back to 4th of July barbecues when you were a kid. A good chef understand this- and can use food to elicit emotions and memories from his diners.
Sometimes the food people eat is defined by their faith. In Judaism and Islam, the pig is an unclean animal, and so they don’t eat pork. Some Hindus and Buddhists don’t eat meet at all- what do you do when the faith that guides your life is telling you what you can and cannot eat? People have been coming up with very creative answers to that question for centuries- and those answers still wind up getting served today.
In the end, it all comes down to what makes us all human- and how we feed it.
A good cook or chef must learn how to manage their resources- not just food, but money, time, people, and equipment. One thing a lot of culinary students don’t realize is that a chef usually spends as much time staring at spreadsheets and figures as standing at a grill- sometimes even more so. In learning to cook, children learn how to keep track of themselves, their time, and their ingredients. They learn not too waste, and how to work within a budget- thinking ahead, and getting only the food they need.
In a nutshell, learning to cook doesn’t just teach kids how to feed and look after themselves- it also gives them a practical application for a veritable universe of learning, in and out of the kitchen.
Have a great night, and I’ll see you next week!