Friday, 7 January 2011

Food, Kids and Cooking

Food is a basic necessity. For many eons, humans have been fairly successful at finding, hunting and growing food. This is evident in the fact that there are nearly 7 billion of us on the planet. Yet for many people today, food remains somewhat of a mystery.

I will admit that I am one of these people. The other day, as I was making lentil salad, I realized I have no idea what the plant form of lentils looks like, despite the fact that I eat a fair quantity on a regular basis. Like many of us, I suffer from a disconnect between the origin of my food and its appearance on the grocery store shelves.

I started thinking seriously about food a number of years ago, when I was in teacher's college. I had a sudden inspiration in the grocery store about an integrated unit related to the grocery store. Integrated units were the rage at the time (if you're in education, you will see that I am clearly dating myself here!). The idea was to combine subjects in order to show their relevance to the real world. For example, my grocery unit combined math (costs/budgeting, measurement and proportions), geography (mapping food origins, comparing growing regions/climates), history (comparing older and newer recipes), language arts (writing the recipe, following directions, reading labels, etc.) and so on.

The general idea of my grocery unit is as follows: on the first trip to the store, take a general survey of the different places foods we regularly eat come from. Return to the classroom and plot the items on a map.
Next, the class votes on 2-3 popular food recipes to make together in groups. Once the recipe is recorded, there is a second trip to the grocery store to purchase items. Older kids are encouraged to budget at this stage and to read (or calculate) the value of the ingredients on a cost per unit basis.
Back in the classroom, the kids prepare their foods and share them. They also plot out (on a new map) the origin of each of the ingredients. Older kids are asked to calculate the total (minimum) distance their ingredients had to travel in order to reach them. The recipes are shared with the entire class.

An extension to this that I've tried to do with my own family as a homeschooling parent is to grow some of the ingredients, and visit farms (we joined a CSA) and farmer's markets to see the entire process of food production. We have been fascinated by brussel sprout trees, enchanted with the baby cows, and learned that there's a lot more to soil than meets the eye. We also learned that there are different farming philosophies, and that we have some strong feelings about where our food comes from--something which  just a few years earlier I'd never really thought much about.

The kids have also learned to cook, which is a skill that I believe will help them maintain healthy eating habits throughout their lives. Some of their favourite recipes can be found here.

So now my new mission will be to figure out just what lentils look like from start to finish.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Creating Special Moments

This post is inspired by a story by Stuart McLean called "The Mystery Book" which can be found here:

Have you ever secretly done something that you expect, or perhaps just dare to hope, will profoundly touch another person's life? Something that they are sure to cherish as a special memory for years to come? Something that takes a little extra thought and imagination, but once you find the idea, you know deep within your being that this is something that is Special?

Sometimes I have had that feeling, and I recognized it when I first heard that story a little over a year ago at the Vinyl Cafe Christmas Concert. When I heard that the story was being aired this year, I was especially glad as it is one of my favourites.

Yet, having recognized that feeling, I was hard pressed to come up with the examples of when I've actually experienced it first-hand.

Since I've had a year to reflect on it, I did come up with a few that I'd thought were sure winners, but upon reflection, didn't actually work out that way.

There was a hand-knit sweater I made from hand-spun designer yarn that cost more than I'd ever consider investing on a project for myself, but was perfect for the woman who would wear it. I was excited about the project--I researched pattern after pattern to put together something especially suited to her in colour, texture and form. I knit and re-knit parts until they met my satisfaction. It was perfect. Except she started menopause and didn't wear it due to hot flashes, then lost weight and it didn't fit her. She no longer has it--I think it went to Goodwill. I would have re-used the yarn and knit something else had she given me the chance.

Then there was the year that my parents were invited to a getaway with a group of friends and asked me to babysit for them that weekend. I was taking a double course load at university, and that weekend fell in the middle of exams. With 6 exams and 4 major papers, plus the demands of work, I just couldn't swing it. They were disappointed to say the least. So I saved up, eating Mr. Noodles for supper and taking on extra shifts ushering at the theatre and serving coffee at a campus coffee shop, and bought them a weekend getaway. I planned it when exams were over and watched the kids for them. I picked out concert tickets, booked them a reservation at a nicer restaurant, and bought them a suite at the hotel along with champagne and brunch. My dad said he slept through the concert I sent them to, and although they enjoyed the brunch, the rest was essentially a flop.

I did buy books for my own younger brothers, and often. I chose a variety, particularly favourites from my own childhood and classics. While they tended to ignore them for a while, eventually they both found the Lord of the Rings series inspiring and are now avid readers. Maybe that wasn't a total flop, but they weren't "sparkly special" the way I always hoped they'd be. I also tried to share my passion for nature with them by taking them along with my boyfriend on camping and canoe trips.

In the end, none of these was particularly special as it goes, at least not to the receivers. And maybe that's not the point. Maybe it's all about the sharing, caring, planning and just plain thinking about the person that really matters. Maybe these sorts of acts of sharing, although intended for others, are really for ourselves. And maybe that's not such a bad thing, if it allows us to continue giving, sharing, planning, spending the time and considering others despite the setbacks. Maybe it's one of the things that makes us alive.

Who knows--maybe Sam tossed out the book Stephanie bought for him. It's possible that he missed the point altogether. It would be quite likely that he would have a completely different experience than the one she had had with her book. Perhaps for him it was just a book and nothing more.

But the caring and sharing that came from that act, I believe, is what it's all about. And like some kind of twisted Karma of giving, I have to believe that it made a difference, a positive difference, even if it might not have been the one intended.

Sometimes we need to be Santa, in order to feel real and alive. We need to share in order to truly appreciate the beauty and joy we've experienced in our own lives. It helps us remember the important things. The outcome is only a part of it; as with much in life, it's often the journey matters most.