I have been cooking and baking for a long time. When I was a kid, we always helped my mom make the salad or stir the pot. When I was 16 I got a job at a French restaurant called Picot’s Place in Hamden, Massachusetts, and learned to make Beef Wellington, French onion soup, chocolate mousse and the best omelets ever. I wanted to learn to be a master chef and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Before I turned 18 I had worked in the kitchen at a German restaurant, at a country club and, for part of a summer, at a little country inn in Bavaria. Starting in my 20s I made food for my family all the time.
What on earth this has to do with cartwheels is a good question. Getting there…
Today was a baking day with Kaileena, my ten-year-old great niece. She said she wanted to make something like a tart and had mentioned swirl bread as well. A wet front has been coming through our area, so on this rainy July day, we picked up Mom, got what we could from the garden before the skies opened up, and headed for the kitchen. We decided on plum galette and cinnamon swirl bread.
Kaileena has helped make pies at home at Thanksgiving every year but had never made any kind of yeast bread before, not that she remembers anyway. She helps a lot in the kitchen at home, loves watching cooking shows and is very comfortable in the kitchen. Nonetheless, kneading bread dough until it is smooth and elastic, incorporating enough flour but not too much and keeping yourself and the kitchen from becoming a gigantic mess is no minor effort.
“Wow!” she said upon seeing that her dough had risen the way it is supposed to.
And oh how yummy the bread was, lightly toasted, a few hours later with its delicate swirls and hint of cinnamon…
Rolling out pie dough so that it doesn’t stick to the counter, is the right shape and the right thickness and then transfers nicely to the pie dish takes some doing as well. Kaileena had the distinct advantage (and pleasure!) of working alongside her great-grandma.
She learned what a galette is – a free form pie, in this case filled with pieces of plum and a few dried cranberries, mixed (as with any fruit pie) with a little sugar for sweetness and flour to bind,
and baked to golden brown!
She even learned how to put a lattice top on this little pie (which did not last long)!
Have you ever tried to put a lattice top on a pie? You start with rolling out a piece of the dough as thin as your bottom crust. A tool called a pastry wheel (which we affectionately in my family call a Raedle) is used to cut the dough into thin strips that have a zigzag edge. You start with two strips laid across the middle of the pie at right angles to each other, then add one strip at a time and weave them together working outward – over, under, over, under – and then another strip in the other direction until you have covered the pie. Crimp the edges and into the oven it goes. As they say, easy as pie!
If you have never made a pie, or put a lattice top on a pie, it’s a little like doing a left-handed cartwheel if you have been doing them right-handed or doing a right-handed cartwheel when you have been doing them left-handed – harder than it looks! Or like signing your name with your nondominant hand. Or like walking up stairs backwards or trying to have an intelligent conversation in a foreign language you learned in high school and never quite polished. In my case it’s like using a biscuit joiner – a woodworking tool that has nothing whatsoever to do with making yummy biscuits! I think about how cool it would be to make useful and beautiful things from wood, and I’ve watched other people do it many, many times, but doing it myself is oh so different!
If you do a thing often and are very practiced at it, you develop an ease, a finesse, an effortlessness. I think of Mark doing a drop shot, Brad or Lincoln or Ernie building anything with wood, Marie taking photos, Samuel doing a handstand, Kim holding a preemie, Claudia making jam. It’s easy to forget how many steps are involved when a given skill is broken down, how awkward and slow you (you too!) used to be back when you had not devoted so much time to developing and practicing it.
Doing a cartwheel, for instance, involves lunging with your dominant leg in front, then in one smooth motion putting your hands on the ground shoulder-width apart and turned 90 degrees, kicking your back leg up and over followed by your other leg and landing in a lunge facing the opposite way you started. That’s a lot of steps. Not to mention keeping your weight over your shoulders when you are upside down or keeping your legs straight.
Sure, that’s doable, right? This is Kaileena, who is not a gymnast, in mid-cartwheel on her dominant side.
And this is her non-dominant side.
Wait, what? How do I do this? It felt totally awkward to her, but no amount of awkwardness prevented her from wanting to try it again. And in one short session, that cartwheel improved considerably! Luckily, gymnastics is not a required activity for most of us.
As we get older we see the cycle of learning more clearly. People of any age can be eager and energetic but also fairly clueless about the how-to or the why, and certainly lacking in high levels of skill. Others come along to guide, instruct and encourage. As learners we get the joy of doing something new, which is not only exciting but also feeds on itself and makes us eager to learn something else new. We also get what it feels like to be the novice so that we don’t get too impatient with the novices when we ourselves are on the guiding side. As guides we get the joy of passing along some of our sometimes-hard-earned knowledge and skill, and seeing someone else enjoy a thing maybe as much as we do, as well as carry forward a method, a style or a tradition.
I love this cycle. I love being in some things on the learning side and in some things on the guiding side. I got to make a beautiful red bench with my uncle’s patient help, and with my help and Mom’s, Kaileena got to make a scrumptious pie. For this happy face, I’ll guide her any day!