Yes, that beautiful sight is exactly what you think it is: My twelve-year-old is making dinner. For the family. A stack of pan-fried gray sole with a green salad and ginger-miso dressing to be exact. What you don’t see, out of frame, are her parents, having some chips and salsa at the kitchen table, catching up on the day’s events, and doing their best not to tell their twelve-year-old to turn up the heat or turn down the heat, or salt the bread crumbs, or use a fork and not your fingers to put the fish in the (omg very hot) pan, or maybe set up your dredging station next the stovetop instead of a half mile away.
Like all major milestones in life, the genesis of this particular one began at the hair salon.
My mom has been trying to get me to see her colorist for years now and so finally, a few weeks ago, I conceded. Her name was Gisele and having only met her for about two hours, I can say with confidence that she’s my friend for life. As well as learning that the look for prom this year is the low, loose bun, I learned that she adds breaded chicken cutlets to her baked ziti, that she came to the US from Lebanon 44 years ago, that she’d had many jobs in her life (realtor, executive assistant) but hair had always been her true passion. You can learn a lot about someone when they are inches from your ears for two straight hours.
When Gisele found out that I wrote about food for a living, she was amazed. “How wonderful!” she said. And then,”Your kids must be excellent cooks!”
I thought she was heading in the direction parents normally head which is: “How wonderful! Your kids must be excellent eaters.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “They can make a few dishes.” In my mind, though, I had a hard time coming up with something that involved a technique more complicated than spreading hummus on pita. “But they eat pretty much anything.”
And that was that. Until the very next morning when my newly highlighted self went to the coffee shop and ran into Phoebe’s friend, Lauren, and her mom.
“I love your cookbook,” Lauren said. “I cook from it all the time!”
Here again, I thought she was heading in the direction kids normally head, which is: “I love your cookbook! My parents cook from it all the time.”
I thanked her, and inside, I realized, the universe was telling me something: It was time that my kids start cooking more. Not just a batch of muffins or a peanut butter sandwich — but a meal. After decades of being kitchen mates and sous chefs and salad makers, and little self-sufficient bakers, my kids (especially my 12-year-old) were 100% capable of cooking dinner from start to finish. There were only two reasons why they weren’t already: Me and Andy. It wasn’t their issue. It was ours. We needed to hand over the reins.
That Wednesday, I picked up some gray sole at the farmer’s market on my way home from work. It was a quiet weeknight — no sports, light homework — so I plunked the fish down on the counter and told Phoebe she was cooking dinner. She had flanked Andy and me at least two dozen times in her life as we dredged filets in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs for our stand-by fish dinner. She was ready to take the lead here.
Her response was only: “What should I make on the side?”
As usual, she was way more game than I had anticipated, and jumped right in, even stealing moments in between fish flips to read from her well-worn volume of Ender’s Game. The bigger challenge was on my end, as I attempted to resist the urge to give her any counsel. When Andy came home a few minutes later, I convinced him to do the same. Harder still was figuring out what exactly to do with ourselves while Phoebe was running the show. If it was between 6:30 and 7:30 PM and I didn’t have to be in front of a stove — well then what was I supposed to be doing? Crocheting? Gardening? It quickly became clear I need a hobby that doesn’t involve the kitchen or my MacBook Pro (and I better figure out what it is before my children leave for college).
Phoebe picked her side dish. We had some greens from Trader Joe’s, which she tossed with sliced cucumbers, crumbled feta, grape tomatoes, and some bottled miso-ginger dressing that I usually use for carrot dipping after school. Forty-five minutes and a massive pile of dirty pots later (who cares? I sure don’t!) we were sitting down to dinner.
PS: Feel free to suggest any other dinner ideas that are easy enough for a 12-year-old. I could totally get used to this.