Remember long ago, when you knew how to cook, in like 7th grade? When you made roast chickens and baked Alaska in home-economics class? I do. My junior high school had a couple of full kitchens in one wing of its main building, just a little ways down from the drafting studio, the wood shop where I made a toy sword and a wooden shield (apparently I was a would-be SCAdian even then), the metal shop where I made some hooks and a lamp of folded tin for my mom’s kitchen (I think they’re still in her junk pile in the garage, never hung), and the industrial painting studio. We had a mechanical shop, where 16-year-olds used to rebuild junk cars, but that lab had been junked or sold by the time I made it to seventh grade. The kitchens and the woodshop went away not long after I graduated ninth grade.
But I remember learning things in that kitchen. I remember having to take photographs at home of my meals with an actual camera that used film.
Today I can just use my cellphone to capture pictures of the bird in three separate stages: the pre-roasting bird in its too-small pan, stuffed with lemons and garlic, rubbed with salt and pepper and olive oil.
Put the bird in the oven for 48-60 minutes at 450° Fahrenheit.
I should have put garlic and quartered new potatoes into the pan around the chicken. This bird got cooked for 45 minutes, and I decided it wasn’t quite done. So I gave it another 10, and then another two. That’s 57 minutes, right? It wouldn’t have been off-track or out of place to just give it a full 60 minutes. And I’ll be sure to do that next time.
But the result? A lovely cooked chicken, roasted, which will provide the main source of protein for my lunches this week. Cooked in my own house, in my own oven, and set up to provide me with a feat every day (It packed nicely into my lunch box containers, too).
But we’re not done yet.
Because I don’t believe in disposing of food under-used. Undercooked or overcooked, sure — dump it as fast as possible. But I like to use everything. And so we continue with making stock.
A few years ago, my mother got me a crockpot. It’s a dump of a thing, garnered from the appliance aisle at the local supermarket. Not particularly high-powered — three settings other than off: keep warm, low and high. Not a sophisticated thing at all, and yet it’s the kind of thing that I can leave running on the lowest power while I’m at work all day. When I come home, I have chicken soup after a bit of straining, a relative of the alchemical filtering I usually do. And it stores in the same kinds of mason jars as my cohobating tinctures. This is how we achieve greatness, at least in the kitchen: by learning to make great, simple food that enrich and empower both ourselves and our guests.
The result is quality food — to feed myself, to feed my guests, to feed my family and friends. The result of that is quality conversation and discussion of the events of the day, whether Syria or Systems Thinking, Greek debt or Greek myths, Arabic numerals or Arab Spring.
What’s the point of all of this? Why go to all this trouble?
The Designer’s Takeaway
Remember how I referenced those home-economics classrooms, those workshops in my junior high school at the start of this blog post? Remember how I referenced making Baked Alaska and that sword and shield at the start of this post?
Oh, guess what. This is turning into another one of those You can’t think with tools that you haven’t used posts.
And it’s still true. And I wonder how it is that we’ve stripped the stoves and the shop benches from most of the schools in America, and expect college prep programs for everybody. These kitchen experiments of mine are edible alchemy; my true alchemical experiments are medical experimental chemistry.
Today, I gave my students ten minutes of playtime in their word processors in my new class on computer science. Every few minutes, I had them walk around the room, and see what everyone else was doing. The result was that we discovered what the tool can do much faster, as a group, than we ever could have the way I did it — laborious hours learning how to work Microsoft Word and Word Perfect 6, alone in my apartment, trying to write the Great American Novel at the same time I finished graduate school.
But PLAY is an essential part of what we do as learners. Yet I think that in the high-stakes world of testing in schools, we’ve forgotten that the right kind of play can reveal all kinds of essential truths about both the tools and the students. It gives them new appreciation for what’s possible, just as I have new appreciation for the nourishing powers of a roast chicken.
Are we hungry for change yet?