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Teaching the Small Fry How to Cook : Trend Shows That Children Are Learning Kitchen Skills

February 02, 1987|JOAN LIBMAN | Joan Libman is a free-lance writer who lives in San Francisco and has been cooking since she was 7. and

ALBANY, Calif. — It is 5:30 p.m. An exhausted Debbie Singer turns the key in the door of her home in this small East Bay suburb 12 miles from San Francisco. The aroma of delicately seasoned lemon chicken and roasted potatoes wafts through the living room. The cook has performed admirably.

The cook? Weather permitting, she's probably outside playing baseball.

Since 6:45 a.m., Singer, a single mother of two, has been on her feet, working as a registered pediatrics staff nurse at a nearby hospital. The chef de cuisine is Singer's daughter April, 13, assisted by son Brian, 11.

From Sherman Oaks to Dallas, Tex., to Mechanicsburg, Pa., children are moving from their traditional place in the kitchen--in front of the open refrigerator--to the stove, where they are learning to saute, stir and simmer.

Elementary School Class

April Singer's interest in cooking was sparked two years ago when she signed up for summer classes at Cornell Elementary School. Her teacher was Helen Gustafson, author of a newly released children's cookbook, "Dinner's Ready Mom" (Celestial Arts: $7.95). Although scores of cookbooks have been written for children, none take for granted Gustafson's position that an 8-year-old, working alone, can cook a complete dinner night after night.

Gustafson, a former teacher who works as a restaurant employee, gives step-by-step details for 35 dinner recipes ranging from "Bubala's Chuck Roast" to "Chinese Chicken" to "Quick-Mex Supper."

Demographers note that nearly half of all U.S. workers are women. Many, like Debbie Singer, are working mothers, straining to perform demanding jobs while raising children and running households. Gustafson and her publisher are betting on these parents.

"We think we've found a hole in the (cookbook) marketplace," said David Hinds, vice president of Celestial Arts, whose company, along with its sister press, 10 Speed, carries about 30 cookbook titles. "This is the only cookbook I've seen that assumes a kid on his own can get something edible on the table," he added.

"With mothers working, kids are really picking up on cooking," said Mitzie Cutler, owner of Le Kookery, a Sherman Oaks cookware store where children ages 5 through 14 can learn to prepare complete menus from scratch. Cutler is surprised at how well children receive some of the more unusual items on her constantly changing menus. Recent hits: potato leek soup and Irish soda bread. Cutler, who teaches three classes of 14 children monthly, is moving to larger quarters. "With more space, there's no doubt in my mind I could fill 20 classes each month," she said.

Her experience is echoed in Dallas, where Ellen McDowell and Louise Montjoy watch a lot of eggs miss the bowl and diced apples fly across the room. McDowell and Montjoy are owners of the Cooking School. Weekly, 150 children, ages 3 to 10, are taught to make salads, entrees, vegetables and desserts. "Once kids get to be about 11, they want to know how to cook dinner," McDowell said. For children 11 through 17, the school designs six-week courses with kids mastering a complete dinner menu each week.

Once interest is kindled, budding gourmands can be demanding. Gloria Thompson, home economics teacher at Good Hope Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pa., a suburb of Harrisburg, teaches an after-school gourmet class for gifted children. After tackling the likes of fettuccine Alfredo, Caesar salad, Chinese cooking, frozen desserts and pastries, Thompson's culinary experts insisted on a lesson on--what else?--the fine points of garnishing with fruits and vegetables.

Preschoolers' Delight

The appeal of cooking starts at an early age, said Joan Bergstrom, professor at Wheelock College's Department of Professional Studies in Early Childhood in Boston, Mass.

Bergstrom said cooking is an excellent way to teach what she calls "the other 3 R's"--resourcefulness, responsibility and reliability.

Gustafson, who lives in Berkeley, developed her cookbook for children 8 and older, testing recipes on children in slow, average and high reading groups at two local schools. The project grew from a kitchen notebook she started years ago when daughter Jill, 19, and son Paul, 16, were 12 and 9.

A working mother, Gustafson called home every afternoon at 3:30 p.m., to give the children cooking instructions, which she gradually committed to paper. At least one recipe, "Paul's Fabulous Meatloaf," is her son's childhood experiment, an allegedly delicious concoction featuring a handful of lettuce as the special ingredient.

Gustafson's aim is to provide simple fare and eliminate complicated instructions that intimidate children.

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