For three days last month, my son Jack and I took turns checking our front porch, hourly. He is 6 years old. This was the first time he and I had stalked the UPS driver with equal anticipation. When the familiar brown truck finally rattled down our street, we stood quietly in the doorway as the driver climbed our front stairs, carrying a box big enough to hold a large puppy.
But we hadn't been waiting on a new pet. We'd been waiting for our Pro 500 KitchenAid mixer. My husband calls it The Porsche. It's the color of titanium, roars like a V-8 and has a lever that locks the bowl into place with a satisfying thunk, like downshifting on a curve. When it's at full speed, it makes the smell of ozone.
We pulled it out of the box, and Jack washed the attachments in warm water (his first voluntary chore, ever) while I scanned the enclosed recipe book for something that matched my cupboard and Jack's skill: Nutty Shortbread it would have to be.
Jack is an athletic boy. He vibrates with energy. He is his triathlete father's son. But on certain overcast afternoons, he is my son. He is a baker. His comprehension of fractions is directly related to teaspoons and half-teaspoons, comfortably beyond first-grade curricula. He can double a recipe with reasonable accuracy, and when he leans in to lick a beater, he momentarily stops vibrating.
The trouble comes when he wants to go off-book. He watches me cook without a recipe and assumes he can do the same, but he hasn't yet learned which flavors will mesh and which won't. He hasn't made the mistakes I have.
At age 4, while I was upstairs napping, he talked his father into letting him have free range of the kitchen. He took a two-quart pot and dumped in all his favorite things—turkey slices, cheese sticks, Triscuits and chocolate bars. My husband lit the gas stove, and they melted it all down into "Jack's Stew," which I found waiting for me on a place mat with a silver spoon.
At 5, watching Iron Chef America, he learned the word parfait and decided to make one with yogurt and marshmallows, using every fruit in the house, canned and fresh. It was better than the stew, at least.
And recently, after tasting some Christmas chocolate bark, he decided to freestyle it, using Ghirardelli bittersweet chips, a hunk of butter, heavy cream and walnuts. He poured it into a pie pan, sprinkled unsweetened coconut and shoved it into the fridge for an hour. It was damn good.
I've since tried to teach him both my grandmother's North Carolina cobblers and the jambalaya from my New Orleans upbringing. We downloaded Hank Williams on iTunes and sang "Jambalaya, a crawfish pie, and a file gumbo..." Even with the music, he has a 15-minute window of rapt attention before dashing off to cut some rosemary from the garden.
He's learning to cook. I'm learning to balance childlike whimsy with the realistic properties of food and physics. And to eat stew.