As the parent of a daughter in her last year of high school, I have no shortage of topics to keep me up at night. Will she get into college? Will we be able to pay for it? Will she be safe and happy on her own? Will we?
And yet, in a classic case of displacement, all my anxiety seems to be coalescing around one issue: Without me to wait on her, what is this kid going to eat?
In a family of foodies, people who care deeply what's for dinner, my older daughter is the distracted intellectual, seeming to subsist on ether and the occasional olive. Bone-thin, always hungry, she'll gratefully gobble anything that's put in front of her—but won't make a move to prepare it herself. She bangs into the house at the end of the day, dumping her books by the door, and heads straight for the kitchen. "I'm starving!" she'll moan, in a voice so loaded with drama that you half believe she's down to her last few breaths. But the simple act of opening the refrigerator seems to exhaust all her culinary initiative. The fridge can be stocked with food: ripe, artisan cheeses oozing in their waxed wrappers; tender greens from the farmers' market filling the bin; paper-thin slices of prosciutto waiting to be wrapped round a grissino. But unless there's a plate of food already assembled—basically, unless there's a warm bowl of tortellini in brodo just awaiting her spoon—she runs out of steam. "Oh, never mind," she murmurs, and nibbles half a cracker.
I've been forced to recognize that although she's as smart, capable, and organized a person as I've ever known, my daughter is absolutely inept in the kitchen. She's afraid of the oven, claims to have no idea how to dress a salad, and can't crack an egg without losing half the white to the floor. How did this happen? In a family of cooks, how has she made it to an age of near maturity while clinging to almost total culinary illiteracy?
Clearly, it's (mostly) my fault. I can no more resist feeding her than I can loving her, and she plays me like a pro. "Would you make me popovers for breakfast?" she wheedles on a Sunday morning. "Please? Your popovers are sooo good." And though everyone else has eaten hours before, and the kitchen is clean, I reach for a whisk. On a school morning, though I'm late to work, she begs, "Can you make me that frittata di pasta to take in for lunch? The cafeteria food is so disgusting." And somehow, I find myself firing up the stove and sizzling cold spaghetti in oil.
So go ahead and berate me: When it comes to lunch, I'm a failure at tough love.
But while assuming the lion's share of blame, I have to lay a half-portion on the overscheduled, overworked lives all our high-achieving children lead. They go straight from their hours of school to soccer practice, or chamber ensemble, or volunteer tutoring; they stagger in at dusk and head to their rooms to do Latin translations and study for chemistry tests. By the time they hit high school, free time is nonexistent; the long hours of just hanging around the kitchen, watching a parent or grandparent cook, casually lending a hand while licking the spoons and nibbling the rinds, are distant memories. Apart from the occasional batch of brownies, with each year that passes, and each activity added to the schedule, they spend less time in the kitchen. And so, at a time when many parents are focused like never before on what they feed their kids, those kids often hit age 18 without the foggiest idea of how to feed themselves.
There are certainly exceptions. My younger daughter, for example, is clearly a cook in the making. At age 10, while living in Italy, she announced one Saturday that she'd like a classic plate of tagliatelle al ragù for dinner. When I replied that I had other plans, she marched to the public markets, made the rounds of the butcher stalls and vegetable vendors, and came home to make it herself.
Her older sister, by contrast, would as soon make her own ragù as she would whittle her own toothbrush out of tree bark.
So, forced into action by her imminent departure, I've been trying to quell my anxiety with cooking lessons. Armed with her favorite dishes, I've coached her reluctantly through a batch of pork and chili-spiked potstickers. I took her step by step through a pot of butternut squash soup. She learned, grudgingly, how to bake a potato.
And we've made some progress. She whipped up a bowl of guacamole for a snack. She wanted some spicy mayonnaise for a sandwich, and under my direction, made it herself, with a dash of lime and sriracha.
And yet, I can't feel too complacent. "I'm sooo hungry," she lamented last Sunday morning. "I want hash browns and a feta cheese omelet." I held firm. "Those are easy," I pointed out. "Take out the ingredients and I'll talk you through it." She pulled open the refrigerator, and hung there for a moment, contemplating the carton of fresh eggs, the Irish butter, the sheep's milk feta floating in brine. Then she closed the door. "Oh, never mind," she mumbled. "I'll just have an olive."