This is an oldie, but the frosting is still fresh. Son Two is twenty now, and he still confuses the mixer with the power sander, thinks frozen pizza in the big box is gourmet food, and lives for the day when you can get a mom that doesn't talk back out of a vending machine. For less than a dollar.
The Kid came through the back door like Secretariat out of the chute at Churchill Downs. We call him the agitator. He does to my nervous system what the spin cycle does to my delicates.
“Mom, you have to make a German Chocolate cake for my social studies project.”
“Excuse me little boy, but I’m neutral. I do not sew, neither do I bake.”
I am a firm believer in teaching children to make their own way in the world. Survival skills are necessary for kids who live in a world that evolves so rapidly the prize in the cereal is obsolete by the time they open the box. The day will come when my son will have to frost his own cupcakes. With this concept in mind, I decided it was time to teach him to cook.
Extensive negotiations found me and the Baker’s Apprentice at the kitchen table surrounded by supplies. We have eggs, vegetable oil, box of cake mix, and can of frosting. I do not want an “A” badly enough to make this cake from scratch, but neither do I want to miss out on seeing this kid face the consequences of volunteering. Don’t bang the can on the counter unless you’re willing to bake the biscuits.
The Kid is 12. He is cooler than spearmint gum. At present, he is wearing his cooking clothes, which are pretty much the same clothes he wears for everything else: socks with holes and without shoes, blue jeans with the top button missing, red silky boxer shorts visible above his jeans like a belt of fire ants, and no shirt.
“Why wear a shirt?” he shrugged. “If I get anything on my skin, I can just lick it off.” He runs his tongue around his mouth for practice. This kid will never need a compass to draw circles in math class.
Once things get underway in the kitchen, the kid discovers that he loves to cook. It’s like working in a secret underground laboratory only without the eye of newt. His favorite part is cracking eggs. He’s been practicing his cracking while I don protective gear. Removing a Kevlar glove, I scrape all the spare egg slime into a bowl and plan an omelet for supper.
“Okay,” I call out in my best Martha Stewart voice. “What’s the first thing we do?”
“Eat the icing!” he chimes.
I stop and consider. It’s not too late to solo on this project. Although I might not bake like Betty Crocker, I can mix like a cement truck. But the principle of the thing still dangles like a participle above my head.
“Read the directions.” The doctor says the kid gets his ADD from me, so we both have a little trouble staying focused. Sometimes it takes the two of us, a psychologist with an advanced degree, and an egg-timer on a fast-track just to read to the end of an instruction sheet. For us, it takes a village just to boil water. We know from experience that water doesn’t get any more done when you boil it an hour that when you boil it five minutes. We’ve got so many electronic timers in our house to remind us of things, it sounds like mission control at launch time when they start going off.
“Preheat the oven,” he says slowly, underlining the words with egg yolk.
“Wrong. Wash your hands.” I cringe as he wipes egg yolk stripes down the legs of his jeans. Soap is on his list of personally banned substances.
Eventually a cake rises haltingly from the crumbs of dry ingredients.
“No, No, No! You do not beat the cake batter like it’s the last horse around the bend at Churchill Downs.”
He gazes up at me with puppy dog eyes. His face and chest is dotted with chocolate splashes. He looks like a Dalmatian. “It said to mix well.”
“Mix. Not flog. We want to blend the ingredients, not torture them.”
After taking out our inner hostilities on the mixture, we pour the batter into the pan.
“Do we have to put it all in?” The kid’s cake mix targeting computer has been activated as I can see by the tongue that is already swimming in circles around his mouth.
“We have to put enough in to make a cake. You barely covered the bottom of the pan.”
He licked the spoon. “You said it was a sheet cake.”
“Well you short-sheeted it. Pour the rest in.” He poured in another teaspoon of batter.
“We want a layer cake, not a pancake.” He eyed the batter, judging just how much would be left at bowl-licking time. I sensed mutiny hovering on the horizon.
“I have an idea. Why don’t you make cupcakes and eat one early?”
Later, I watched The Kid lounging in front of the television, licking the icing off of a tattered cupcake liner. He grinned, wiped chocolate off his chin with a grimy forearm, and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Sometimes the most important lesson is establishing priorities. I’m a slow learner, but this kid is a great teacher. Especially when the lesson involves chocolate cake.