those who can cook, should perhaps teach

Yesterday I got a call from a friend and instructor D. at our local community college.  She wanted me to come give a brief talk to her class on the subject of cooking healthfully for kids.  Her class, entitled “”Making Better Food Choices” is a workshop of sorts, taken as a requirement by some fifteen students who all receive TANF benefits for themselves and their families.  D. felt that the students might appreciate some perspective from someone who “walked the walk” in terms of cooking for children.  “If even one of them leaves that workshop and feels inspired to eat healthy/low impact, I’ll feel accomplished”, she wrote me later.

I asked her a few questions about the students and their reception of the material.  What had she covered in class?  How had they reacted to the information so far?  Getting off the phone I knew three things: 1. I was going to enjoy getting to know these students and their specific situations (inasmuch as I could in the time permitted), 2. I wasn’t going to give a calorie-counting, tsk-tsk- junk food, any sort of “good food” vs. “bad food” lecture, and 3. I was going to love talking about food and my own family.

Despite having a passion for the subject and decent communication skills, I am rather nervous at public speaking – especially when I feel I’m giving information that may not be particularly wanted or asked for.  But in this case it was simple to find something that might go a fair way as a teaching aid: homecooked food, a commodity I notice many people deeply appreciate.  I got up early this morning and made ten loaves of pan cubano and a pot of frijoles refritos.  Good, cheap, delicious food – and I do mean delicious.  At 10:40 I pulled Nels out of bed, threw some clothes on him and attempted to brush through his blonde tangles, then put the hot, fragrant bread in a large basket, wrapped the pot of beans in a towel, and pocketed the little jump drive with my modest one-page outline.

Loosened up by the potluck nature of the event, the time seemed to go very well.  My son and husband attended and twice Nels raised his hand politely and, over his plate of fresh fruit, instructed the class on a few important family institutions: brushing one’s teeth every night, for instance.  I was proud of Nels, who as much as any of the four of us is involved and instrumental to the way we grow, shop for, and prepare our food.  I was also pleased he was more or less well-behaved. As I told D., it could really go either way at any moment.

I had a few questions to ask the students.  What were their favorite grocery stores? Did they use the food bank?  What did they think of the food provided there?  How many kids did each of them feed and support?  What kind of food stamp benefits did they receive – how much money, say, for a family of four?  Who was using WIC?  How long did the WIC benefits run for children? (Answer: until age five – a change since the days our family availed themselves of the class.)  Who was happy with how their children ate?  Who would describe their kids as “picky eaters”?  The conversation felt good to me; I tried not to spend too much time on my handout.  I shared my own family experiences, always speaking in first person.  I also shared our grocery budget in dollars and cents.  And maybe most significantly, to me at least, I made sure to firmly articulate the respect and props any family cook should afford themselves for what is a true labor of love: one sometimes thankless, exhausting, and uninspiring – but more important than our social culture often acknowledges.

Nels and I left just before 1 PM, my basket raided of bread and just a few scoops of beans left.  It should surprise exactly no one who knows me that I found myself thinking about this class a lot – and thinking how much I’d love to teach it.  “I’m no nutritionist,” I had said to the students today, but as I said it I realized that ultimately I believe nutritionist-based food discussions are of limited usefulness.  I have no beef (so to speak) with the field itself; but food, and cooking at home, goes so far beyond the nuts and bolts of this-many-servings-of-grain what-have-you (especially given the large scale of dispute on basically any tenant of so-called nutritional wisdom).  Food is about who you are – your hopes and fears, your values (whether you could articulate them or not), your habits, your spiritual and familial center.

Some of the best moments of the class were the compliments on the food I’d spent the morning on.  As one woman, mother to three, left the room she once again thanked me and said, “I’m going to go home – I’m inspired to cook beans!”

Music to my ears.

nearly a barf-o-rama

I feel absolutely crippled – physically and a bit mentally – by how busy it’s been around here these last few days. All very, very enjoyable stuff: waitressing, teaching, birthday presents, desktop publishing jobs, having company, sewing, having more company, more sewing, garden work, and two trips to Oly.

I Want You Out, Bro
Harris Vs. Ralph. Every day.

Next week is this quarter’s last class. I have enjoyed teaching so much. But I look forward to not having to help anyone for a while, and being able to focus on my own things.

Last night’s trip to Olympia yielded, among other things, the twin pleasures of fabric buying – 13 wonderful, fabulous yards of it – and dinner at Quality Burrito (recommended it by locals who obviously didn’t have children; however, it was a great meal despite hipsters and b.o. of waitperson). This evening in the bath Sophie told me she had named the plastic dragons Ralph purchased her at the craft store: Four-Winged Glory, Drake, Godzilla, Wyvern, and Cling-To-All-Surface. I admire her brain for the imagination it holds. I’m like the orange peel in our worm bin, all scraped bare and used up.

And I just want to remind the general public who reads that when you are parents to children your every peaceful, fun outing can be immediately transformed into a type of nightmare – just like that. We were about thirty feet from the entrance of the fabric store when my daughter – despite our repeated suggestions she stop reading her comic books in the car – complained of being ill, then leaned back in her seat, called out to me, and began sputtering out puke (don’t ever watch someone vomit when you have a direct view of their mouth, just a friendly tip). Our son had fallen asleep in the car so Ralph had to drop me and the sleeping boy – who weighs four hundred pounds while unconscious – off at the store and go in search of wipes etc. to manage the mess.

Sophie’s first words upon completion of the hurlage: “Oh dad – you were trying so hard to sell this van!”

a modest series of impressive protoges

My husband supports my sewing to an extent I have simply not seen in any other partner towards their spouse’s hobby.

From the beginning he has championed my habit and praised my talent. He was the one to suggest a sewing room (and therefore, a shared bedroom for the kiddos) and he has hauled all my very heavy sewing machines from house to house. The first day after we moved in our new domicile he prioritized buying the expensive bulbs in the studio so I’d have good lighting. I mean he made a special trip to get me those bulbs. Whatever our budget indicates, he puts money aside for my fabrics or whatever else I might need. Now that I’m back to doing a bit of teaching, he prints out class notes for me and has driven from the college to home and back to bring my huge ironing board to class and in short performed a million big and small errands with the cumulative effect of feeling immensely supported.

Today due to the snow the on-campus class was canceled. Ralph called right away to tell me. I decided to invite my students over to my house during class time. I was able to reach three, and one couldn’t attend due to road conditions. At 5:30 a lone student, S., shows up for instruction.

It seems every person I’ve ever helped has delighted or surprised me – usually both. It had been a while since I’d taught and in my foolishness S. had seemed nearly hopeless to me a few weeks ago when we commenced class. She exhibited fear or trepidation at nearly every step. I would have to explain something to her more than once, not because she didn’t understand my verbiage but almost as if she literally did not hear me the first time. She showed what I at first would call a low social awareness: in class she would interrupt my “lecture” even if only seconds previous I had just personally assisted her. She is quiet – so quiet it is nearly impossible to hear what she’s saying, even if I’m in the same room with her. So I’d hear her interrupting but have to ask after her question nearly every interruption.

On the first day she attended class she took up a piece of work we’d sewn on the machine and embroidered a perfect elegant flower, freehand.

Tonight we spent most the “class” at my house in silence, as I directed her in tracing patterns. I tried to make small talk but she is not much of a small talker (although she did seem to enjoy my cats). Having her alone I was able to observe her more closely. She may not know this yet, but she has shown a tremendous amount of progress since I saw her first drive her machine. Her caution and trepidation have resulted in exact, precise results of cutting and stitching. Her requests for repetition means once she starts operation she does not make mistakes. What may have seemed at first like a dragging pace is actually serving her well for the rather advanced project she’s picked: many small, repetitive steps. She is, in short, a precise, meticulous seamstress in the making, right before my eyes. I had a wonderful time being with her tonight.

I think I could be as addicted to teaching the craft as I am actually sewing myself. Each student I have had is so unique. They see themselves as flustered, in a new territory. Most of them get rather peevish when given a difficult problem! Then in a few minutes with my guidance they are able to accomplish it. I see their potential talent. Every person I’ve helped has shown talent. I laugh (internally) at their colossal mistakes even as I laugh (internally) at myself for once again forgetting they are beginners. I remember once having a girlfriend show me the threaded bobbin for her brand new machine – it looked oddly formed. I asked if something was wrong with her winder and she gave me a quizzical look, “Well, my husband wound it” – by hand! I laughed but at the same time thought of course that made a lot of sense – and was so sweet besides.

It is sometimes odd to have to explain things I’ve known how to do since before I can remember knowing most other things.

What my students like S. probably will never realize is I am sure I love teaching them and watching them more than any of them like learning to sew.