I’m amazed at the amount of kids cooking shows on the food networks these days. There’s Chopped Jr., the Next Food Network Star – Kids, Rachel Ray’s Kid’s Cook off, the Kid’s Baking Championship (a fave of mine). Even kitchen bully Gordon Ramsey has a Master Chef Jr. show. Those kids have to have thick skins to deal with Chef Ramsey’s fire breathing commentary!
And locally there are tons of Summer Cooking Camps for kids and cooking classes at places like Farmers’ Markets, Cake Supply Stores, and even the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State.
It shouldn’t be surprising there are so many kid cooks in the kitchen. Kids have been helping mothers bake and cook since the dawn of time – acting as sous chefs, icers, decorators – and observing over their mothers’ and grandmothers’ shoulders. I wish I had done more over the shoulder observing with my grandmothers growing up. Kids are quick students. And why shouldn’t cooking be part of their early education as much as reading, writing and arithmetic?
Four H Clubs and state and regional fairs have sponsored pie and baking competitions for kids since the Civil War. Even the Cincinnati Public Schools were teaching Home Economics to preteens and teenage girls in school over a century ago. Their cooking coursework was more involved at the turn of the last century, than any teenager could imagine today.
I recently found the 1907 Cincinnati Public Schools Domestic Science coursebook, owned by one teenage girl, Louise Smedley, at the Ohio Bookstore downtown. They have an incredible section of vintage cookbooks that are a gold mine to food historians. Louise’s teacher was a Mrs. Roberts, whose recipe for Welsh Rarebit was noted in the margin of one page. Imagine a time before modern refrigeration, microwaves, gas fired stoves, running water (in most cases), frozen and canned foods, supermarkets, and electric appliances. These girls were taught complex methods, like how to make soup stocks, how to cook tough meats, and the difference between spring and winter wheat and how it affected the bake (spring wheat being higher in gluten, for more elastic bread dough). With Cincinnati being an oyster town back then, the course described how to prepare oysters five different ways. There were recipes for the obligatory cream puff, and a German coffee bread.
The huge difference today is that kid cooks have exposure to more exotic ingredients, advanced techniques, and modern flavor pairings than ever before. One kid, Liam, on the Next Food Network Star show made a Persian breakfast dish from his family that no one could pronounce, called shakshuka, which, unless you were part of that community, you would never be exposed to. Now ten year olds can articulate how to make a Persian dish. This fosters a level of engagement and understanding of cultures that we adults don’t have. As our country gets more and more ‘pluribus’ or diverse, this becomes the new diplomacy, bridging the cultural gap.
I had the great opportunity to sample the baked goods of one of these new age kid cooks. My sister’s next door neighbors have a daughter who is baking cupcakes in all sorts of varieties. During a recent family party, Marleigh brought over a plate of her bacon vanilla cupcakes for us to enjoy. At her young age Marleigh knows the magic of pairing unique flavors – mixing the salty and sweet, the savory and creamy. Her knowledge and technique are way beyond her years. The bacon was perfectly crispy and just the right size on top of her well-iced and decadent cake. Marleigh’s cupcakes could stand at any high end New York City cake shop. I hear she just produced a batch of s’mores cupcakes, and I can’t wait to sample her next brilliant creation!