Friday, August 7, 2009

Tamales, Julia Child, and the Obligatory Education Connection

Yes, it's 11:30 Friday night. Please make whatever comments you will about my social life, and then continue reading.

Beside me is the latest Time magazine, open to a review of Julie & Julia. On the TV, Alton Brown uses an ice cream scooper and a dinner plate to assemble tamales. In the kitchen, my husband is cooking up a late dinner. I don't know what it is, but I smell onions. I love onions.

I can't help thinking about the process of cooking and the process of education. I haven't seen Julie & Julia, but both title characters seem to show that cooking is about more than just providing nutrition. The first photograph of Meryl Streep/Julia Child tenderly frosting a cake, as well as a later shot of Amy Adams staring down a lobster, both depict a distinctly human ritual.

On Good Eats, Alton Brown consistently demystifies the creation of classic foods. He never fails to present foods in a way that makes me say "oh, I can do that!" Brown's episodes on pasta have forever changed the way I see (and eat!) spaghetti, and I've learned to take more risks and make dishes that I always considered too complicated for my limited cooking skills.

Here's where I get anxious. Tonight's rerun shows how absolutely simple it is to make tamales.

Simple? Not according to my friends and students, who have described with exaggerated gestures and eye rolls, the rite of passage that is tamale-making. Adults laugh about their grandmothers who didn't entrust them with filling the tamales until their quinceaneras, kids describe the clatter and organized chaos as they watch over the enormous pots, and everyone develops a glazed, far away look when describing Thanksgiving dinner.

Even our simple cooking-for-two has become an important ritual. My husband and I have developed our own favorite recipes, especially our sweet pasta sauce with slow-roasted tomatoes, that is unlike anything you can find in a jar. For us, dinner is a gift from one to the other, and we find joy in making each other's favorite dinner. Someday we'll teach our own kids exactly how to sift the fresh-ground pepper with the powdered sugar, when to add the garlic, and a million other little tricks we've discovered.

But what happens in this world where I can click to Youtube and find step-by-step instructions for making amazing paella? Does watching a 30-minute segment of Good Eats replace abuelita'scareful instruction? Are we missing something with our online recipes and Food Network specials?

How does this translate to education? The fast-paced world of standardized testing and intense pacing guides seems to prevent real learning. Teaching is a balancing act in a whirlwind; Alton Brown at best, but fast food at its worst.

What would Julia Child education look like? Are we missing a vital ritual?

But I'm out of time. My wonderful spouse has just brought me a plate of farfalle mixed with his own special sauce, which appears to include carrots, mushrooms, celery, and parmesan. He must love me!


  1. I like the way you write. =)

    I have often lamented that I spend so much dang time assessing that I feel I cannot teach. So what am I assessing? It drives me crazy! I want to teach, introduce, examine, extend, etc... And if my kids want to go in a whole other direction than what I had planned then I want to explore that. But there are benchmarks and DIBELS and intervention and small groups and blah, blah, blah... Those things are import...STOP I'm so sorry! I did not mean to use your blog as my own soapbox!

    The pasta sounds wonderful!

  2. Oh, please, pontificate at will :) I remember what the OK standards are like - my 7th graders were expected to master something like 119 items, just in Language Arts!