Thursday, October 17, 2013

The kids are alright

I think we are done now.

The local middle school cut Mandarin this year and because no amount of pleading would get them to restore it, Owen and his orphaned Mandarin classmates now take classes twice a week at someone’s house. As of a few days ago, our house. I didn’t know how I’d feel about this, but I love it.  There are two girls in the class and twelve boys, half of whom are enormous, the other half, elfin. They're unbelievably fun to watch. 

There's a tendency among some of my friends to grumble about how kids in this town don’t have manners. I don't think it's true and I really don't think it's true after hosting the Mandarin students. They're polite, they're just not naval cadet polite. I'd say they're imperfectly polite. Clearly no one has ever told them to answer “yes ma’am” or rapped them on the knuckles with a willow stick for not looking you in the eye when they say hello. But someone has taught them to say thank you and to take their dishes to the sink and to try to be considerate, whatever that means. You can see them trying to figure out the details for themselves. It’s hard! About 15 seconds after they possibly should have said please, you can see them thinking, oh, wait, maybe I should have said please. And they say please. Or if I try to take a dirty glass out of their hands to put it in the dishwasher, they hesitate. Do they let me? Or do they insist on doing it themselves? What are the rules? Maybe it’s the decline of civilization, but I find this touching in a way that impeccable manners learned by rote at age three are not. 

Since they come straight from school, a parent supplies a snack. Monday, a parent brought bananas and pretzels, which is what I would have brought as it is healthy and unobjectionable. This snack didn’t go fast. It didn’t go at all. But we had these store-bought cookies someone had given Isabel and Owen that had been sitting in the car, bag open, getting stale for a few days. I asked if anyone wanted one before I threw them away and in about 90 seconds the stale cookies were gone. Dumb, stale cookies trump bananas and pretzels.

Yesterday I put out granola bars and some banana bread I’d made using the uneaten bananas from Monday. Moderately popular. Only Owen got excited about the granola bars and I think there was one boy who really liked the banana bread. Stale cookies trump bananas, banana bread, pretzels and granola bars.

I was downstairs when I heard class ending so I came up to say good-bye to the teacher. I found four of the boys looming over the plate (like I said, imperfectly polite) on which sat the unappetizing remains of Owen’s John Gore birthday cake that I'd hidden in a corner of the kitchen.  The frosting was drying out and family members had been shaving off tiny pieces with butter knives for the last few days. Not a pretty cake. I heard one of the boys say, “Owen, why were you keeping the red velvet cake from us?” 

 “You don’t really want that do you?” I said. 

They really did. A feeding frenzy ensued. I got more compliments on that cake in five minutes than I’ve received on everything else I’ve baked for the last month. Frosted four-layer red velvet cake trumps all. 

Another boy came into the room and saw the cake, now just a shadow of its former self. He said, “You made banana bread AND a layer cake!” 

I said, “Oh, the layer cake is from Saturday, I didn’t just make it for this class.” God forbid anyone think I have time to custom bake Mandarin snacks, even though I do.

He said in wonderment, “Still, you made them.” 

Sweet kids. Good job, parents. 

I’m pretty much done with Smoke and Pickles. Monday night I cooked the piggy burgers which I loved because they were so easy and tasty. You make pork patties (flavored with hoisin sauce), fry them, put them on buns and dress with a sun-dried tomato ketchup that sounds hard, but takes about 5 minutes. The recipe makes way too much ketchup, of course, unless you want to use it on your sandwiches every day for the next month. 

Tuesday night I made lamb rice bowls which were tasty but not easy. You make a lamb meatloaf that involves pureeing your meat mixture until it becomes a repugnant paste and then packing this weird paste into a loaf pan, baking it, cutting the cooled meatloaf  into slices, frying the slices, and serving these on top of rice with a yogurt-tomato sauce. Tasted likes gyros. Owen did not like the rice bowl, but he was mistaken. It was delicious and I will never make it again

Last night, I served Lee’s spare ribs with sauerkraut and horseradish cream.  Lots of bones, lots of liquid, soupy sauerkraut, horseradish. Yuck. Not my thing at all, but maybe I was mistaken. Owen loved it and cleaned his plate.

38 comments:

  1. Just imagine what would happen if you decided to make doughnuts.

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    1. See, I feel like if I do that a parent will complain. I was careful not to actually OFFER the red velvet cake.

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    1. I'm buying some today to take to a friend. I can't wait to taste L.A. cronuts!

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    2. Come to Forage for a croissant doughnut! The LA Times liked mine best.

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    3. I know!!! I read that. I hope they're available the next time we get to L.A.

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  3. I think you may not realize how few women actually bake anymore. If you, like me, bake pretty frequently, then you don't think much of it. Most people buy bakery items these days. So, I have found whatever I bake and take to a pot luck, people scarf it up quickly, and I receive more compliments than I deserve. I would guess some of these kids don't see many home baked goods. As to the politeness, I'm glad you find it at an acceptable level in the kids in your community. I think it varies a lot. I learned my manners under the fear paternal reprisals if I lapsed, but I have been thankful every day that it is automatic and consistent. Even though it is automatic, it is sincere. Alas, I am one of those people who thinks that common courtesy is no longer common, and that we all have a less pleasant everyday existence due to its absence. Am I just old fashioned?

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    1. No, no, I agree, manners are vital and they have slipped. But it's not as bad as some people think. The parents are trying, the kids are trying, they mean well. Table manners are a big problem for us. I was sternly, but STERNLY, disciplined about table manners, but somehow I have failed to pass that along. Maybe because it was so unpleasant the first time around.

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  4. My mother was raised in New York City. She met my father during WWII. Her mother died when she was about 10, so she learned her kitchen skills from her mother-in-law - and realized pretty quick if she was going to keep her southern boy's heart, she needed to learn to make biscuits. And she did make fabulous biscuits. In the 60s she went back to NYC and wound up for some reason making biscuits at her sister's house. My aunt had only one kid at that time. He is very high up in the banking industry now, has traveled the world - and is still talking about those biscuits. You just never know what's going to impress a young 'un.

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    1. Sweet! He will probably never taste a biscuit better than that biscuit he remembers.

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  5. Perfect blog title.

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  6. I wonder if they'd get a kick out of making Chinese food to go along with their lessons or if they're only interested in baked sweets (or already baked sweets).

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    1. Oh, I would love to teach Chinese cooking. Not that I'm very qualified, but I can do a few things

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  7. tastes like a gyro?! I am on it! What's the next cookbook?

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    1. I gave an idea - "The Unappreciated Cook" with recipes you liked, the recipes your family liked, and ways to try to satisfy everyone (with the occasional "don't bother trying" notations) and stories. :) Best, Ida

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    2. My husband read me your comment out loud. He loves the idea. I think Ginny was asking what cookbook I'll write about on the blog, but one of these days I do have to try to write another book.

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    3. I'm dying to hear more about the goats and chickens.

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    4. Make the Bread, Buy the Butter - Part II. Please! :)

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  8. Aha you can go on a baking binge and everything will be used up every week as long as chinese lessons are coming to your house!

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    1. I know, though I'd have to keep it somewhat healthy. Not my forte.

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  9. I just, just, just love this post. Mostly because I was reminded that baking will always speak to people, kids of any age are hilariously wonderful, and you are a most excellent writer. Thank you for writing this blog, Jennifer!

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  10. More data for the dissertation! And some for an essay on Manners of Contemporary Youth. I agree, your observations are encouraging.

    My mother had a health-food epiphany when I was 8. Suddenly instead of Nestle's Quik we had a carob powder that didn't mix into the milk. Instead of sugar, honey. No salt anywhere. Everything whole wheat and fibrous, tasteless or odd-tasting. I would have been bored by the sight of a banana in those days, but pretzels and banana bread would have appealed to my deprived palate, and store-bought cookies and frosted cake would have been the Promised Land. Clearly, when writing the section on Food Preferences of Young Visitors, you will have to include data on the foods they are normally offered at home.

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    1. We have lots in common. My mother had a similar epiphany when I was about 8. I remember bologna, American cheese, Kaboom cereal, and strawberry milk. Then it was all carob, whole wheat, and honey and she never reverted. If some of the Mandarin kids get there early next time, maybe I'll casually "interview" them about what they eat at home. Owen will absolutely hate that.

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    2. Me, too. No sugar in the house for most of my childhood, lots of bran bread and carob. I wonder if our mothers all read the same book back in the seventies.

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    3. Kaboom cereal! total blast from the past! We had Tiger's Milk Bars too--carob coated--that stuff is like wax.

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    4. Oh yes, Adelle Davis. Laurel's Kitchen. Prevention Magazine. I'm glad that decade is over and that I am in charge of my own food now!

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    5. Prevention! That takes me back.

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  11. Thinking about manners and kids, I wonder how much it varies regionally across the country. When we lived in Montana, kids were generally polite but when we moved back to Texas my husband and I had to up our manners lessons with our boys. There is still a strong expectation of using yes sir and yes ma'am and adding "miss" or "mister" in front of adults names. I actually like that custom as I don't need to be as formal as Mrs. W, but don't want young kids calling me by my first name.

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  12. It definitely varies. We were an army family which adds another layer of expectations when the kids are addressing adults. When we moved from Texas to the D.C. suburbs the first time my son addressed his football coach as 'sir' the man thought my son was was sassing him.

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    1. No one is very formal around here. Some things drive me crazy, like when kids rush through a door before you and don't hold it. And when I used to work at the lunch counter once a week children would breeze through and not thank me, which was irritating. But as they all get older I find the ones who weren't so perfectly trained starting to make up the difference. Friends of my daughter's who used to never speak to us now say hello and thank you and make conversation. No one wants to be a lout. Some of them have to figure out more for themselves and it's interesting- gratifying-touching to watch them do it as they move towards adulthood.

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  13. Bet all those "home-baked" starved kids eyes would light up if they saw a checkerboard cake. Is it time for a come-back?

    When I got caught in a storm in Paris, I jumped on the first bus coming by, with no idea where it was going. Not understanding the language, I had to just watch their actions. What I saw was not rote-learned politeness, but consideration, and I thought that was better. Maybe those kids are learning from the ground up, starting with "What is considerate?"

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