Something important happened today.
I was invited to spend time with family. A nephew is vacationing in town before joining a boarding school in south-west England. As I learned only somewhat later, the main purpose of my being invited today specifically was to provide an activity to the nephew, who was bored out of his mind after three days of staying home due to bad weather and severely flu/cold-afflicted supervisory relatives.
I was invited with no specific schedule in mind, but as is customary in my visits to this branch of family there was a floating expectation that cake and baking would be happening. The expectation was further qualified by indicating the nephew in question was catching up on life skills, including cooking lately, and that he had expressed some interest in dipping his fingers in dough, both figuratively and literally.
I was to make a cake happen, preferably in a way he could learn.
And so I taught him to bake.
Without thinking about it this happened naturally as follows. A rather detailed, exhaustive and well-illustrated book was half-serendipitously propped into our hands. Under the guise of having to “choose a recipe” I walked him through the various chapters of the book, organized around different recipe structures. Under the guise of learning how to name the differences in cake appearances, I explained the preparatory differences between biscuit, cookie, creamy and airy dough. Under the guise of bewondering decorations, I explained various techniques one can use to change the patterns of colors and texture both inside and outside of a cake and how to shape fillings. And so the pupil had already learned plenty about grades of complexity in recipes even before deciding on which cake to prepare today; he even had learned well, for he rather intuitively—and correctly—chose a cake that was both reasonably simple but yet interesting.
We proceeded to inventory the ingredients; walk to the grocery store to gather the supplies (I made a point to have him recognize and pick each item); then have him transcribe, in handwriting, the recipe in his own notebook in a language he was comfortable with, before we started, to get him acquainted with the steps in advance. I then had him read aloud and follow his own recipe, answering open questions on the way about techniques he was to use but didn’t know yet (separate yolks from whites, melt chocolate in bain-marie, stiffen egg whites, check baking progress in oven, etc.), and providing feedback on the texture of his various mixtures. I merely facilitated the work by suggesting to start some two steps ahead of time to gain some concurrency, and later indicating when was a good time to pre-heat the oven—the work he really performed himself, perhaps under the impression I was instructing, yet completely of his own volition. The recipe he had chosen I had never before practiced myself—I was even somewhat prejudiced against some of the steps suggested—yet I kept my opinion silent.
The result was convincing! Not pretty, as splitting a cake in its middle requires large hands and some dexterity that he needs more training for, so cake fragmentation happened, but definitely convincing. It looked like delicious cake, and it was indeed delicious. The surface decorations looked stammered out by uneasy hands, but were definitely original and creative; a miracle for a youth trained by an education system which otherwise discourages creativity.
The chef seemed pretty satisfied with himself afterwards, with perhaps an inkling of ambition to later exceed this first performance. Without emphasizing the learning moment, I subsequently casually had him assess what are the areas where he could most immediately benefit (better oven heat, less egg, less sugar, more frosting, a few other things), and demonstrated by example that the most important yet under-valued moment in the baking activity is where one clears and cleans the cooking utensils afterwards.
Am I bragging? Just a little. The key point here is that I only realized I had grounds for bragging afterwards — the process here was so casual, so uncomplicated, absolutely and thoroughly unabashed that at no point I hesitated in my act to carve around him the space to “fake it until he was making it”; nor thought about it consciously, for that matter.
The moment I realized that something was worth actively thinking about came somewhat later in the evening, when I suddenly realized I was satisfied and rather self-confident about the circumstances—an otherwise remarkably rare conjunction of feelings and circumstances in my life.
And so there it was—whereas a solid majority of my “working” time in the last six months was occupied questioning my self-worth, my role in society and what brings meaning and value in my life, a circular and sterile cogitation that was slowly and distinctly affecting my mood negatively, one afternoon/evening of “simple” (albeit, arguably, highly trained and absurdly excessively deployed) Education, played with a capital E but exercised with a kind heart and warm spirits, reset my mood meter to neutral and, unexpectedly, revealingly and pleasingly reminded me where the center is.
We plan to play some video games and perhaps cook some more together around the year transition, in the coming few days. I promised him I would illustrate the innovative aspects of Portal by having us play together, but I also realize am thereby promising myself a pacifying dose of emotional balsam, a joyful session of non-intellectual flow, and a fulfilling ounce of feeling of accomplishment.