WHENEVER THEY SEE ME heading toward the kitchen, my granddaughters, ages 5 and 3, run to grab their aprons and hold them out for me to tie the strings. They know that something is up — something that might possibly involve mixing with a fork, cracking an egg, patting down dough, peeling carrots (maybe just holding onto my hand while I wield the dangerous peeler), or doing something entirely new. It’s gotten to the point where, if I am in a hurry to get a meal on the table or know I can make something faster or better without their “help,” I sneak into the kitchen and work as quietly as I can before they figure out that I am there.
Of course, it isn’t always benevolent, creative togetherness. Sometimes they couldn’t care less. Sometimes they are busy drawing or riding a bike through the living room or throwing all their toys on the floor or teasing each other in that special sibling form of love. But clearly they have decided that the combination of Grandma and kitchen spells opportunity.
Climbing up on the stool is a good part of the attraction, having a ringside seat for the transformations that happen in the sink, on the cutting board, on the stove. Maybe they sense that I am doing something I enjoy, and they want some of the fun for themselves.
I know how they feel. I was lucky enough to have grown up with one of the Grandmother Greats — at least she was that for me. She had learned to cook and bake in 19th-century Russia, and she loved putting together old favorites as well as trying new dishes. She made strudel, blintzes, roasts, knishes, cherry pie, fried chicken. When she was working on her family-size portions, she often gave me a scrap of dough and a small pan so I could make a child-size version.
I cannot tell you how great that made me feel. Well, maybe I can. It made me feel as if she understood how it was to be tiny, and that she was confident I would one day grow up to be as big and competent as she was.
As a child, I also helped my mother in the kitchen, and later, when my own kids were little, they did kitchen “work” as well — starting with “washing” dishes in a sink full of soapy water, a classic way to keep a toddler out of your hair. But it’s the grandma incarnation that resonates for me. After all, that is what I have become — gray-haired, knife- and rolling pin-wielding, productive, if missing the foreign accent. And I have the little grandchildren trailing their aprons on the floor, waiting to get covered with flour, excited to see how much of the egg they can keep in the bowl before it slides down onto the counter or stove or floor.
I know that there are lots of benefits to having kids learn their way around the kitchen: They are more likely to eat a variety of foods. They are sharpening math skills and improving physical dexterity. And they are getting comfortable with and competent at preparing food for themselves and others.
For me, though, there were even more payoffs. When I was in the kitchen with my grandmother, she talked to me about subjects far beyond the table. Her tougher stories waited until I was a lot older than my own granddaughters are now. By the time my grandmother was ready to teach me her more serious lessons, she already had my full attention, thanks to years of sharing tactile, yummy fun.
But I have to go now; I have a meal to prepare, and my assistants are restless.