And some kind of help is the kind of help…….

Written for The PJ Library March e-newsletter
Remember the Little Red Hen, who searched the farm high and low for help baking bread? Well, she’s back. Only this time she speaks Yiddish, and she’s getting ready for Passover. Unfortunately, not much else has changed around the farm in this month’s PJ selection The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah. No one wants to help plant, harvest, or grind the wheat, or do much of anything besides kvetch and, of course, eat. So, the Little Red Hen ends up preparing her Passover meal all by herself.
“That’s not fair,” cried my daughters. “She doesn’t have any helpers.”
“That’s not fair,” I thought. Why can’t I have the kitchen all to myself the day before Passover?
The benefits of cooking alone are not lost on me. Neither are they lost on The PJ Library, whose other book about Passover cooking, Too Many Cooks, is a cautionary tale about what happens when everyone wants to contribute a little something to the charoset. Let’s just say that Bubbe should have locked the kitchen door and worked her magic. Alone.
Do I sound like a grouch? In truth, I love many things about cooking with others, which in my case, invariably means my children. I love how serious they look in their little aprons, and the way they try to sneak their fingers into the sugar when I’m not looking. I even love the way they can’t manage to crack an egg without half the shell going along for the ride, and the cloud of flour that flies around their heads whenever they mix dry ingredients, like a bleached out version of Pigpen from Peanuts. Their enthusiasm makes the work of cooking way more fun than it ought to be, and their sense of wonder about it all is a welcome reminder of how magical baking really is.
But, when it’s time to prepare a holiday meal for a table full of company, sometimes I just want everything to be picture perfect, like my mother’s table looked when I was growing up. Deep down, I want my guests to ooh and aah, at least a tiny bit, over my flawless creations, as I try to replicate my mother’s handiwork. And let’s face it – little hands do not pinch perfect hamentashen, neatly chop the apples for charoset, or evenly coat the challah with egg wash.
Does that mean I’m going to lock the kitchen door? No. (And not just because we don’t have a kitchen door, much less a lock.) When I think back on celebrating Jewish holidays as a child, I don’t remember much about going to synagogue, shaking the lulav and etrog, or even reciting the four questions. (Granted, I kind of remember High Holiday junior congregation, but I think that’s only because Ira Glass of This American Life used to lead the services when he was a teenager.) What I do remember is cooking and baking with my mother. My little hands pinched perfect hamentashen, neatly chopped apples for charoset, and evenly coated the challah with egg wash. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Did my mother really manage to teach me how to make such beautiful food? Or did she tuck away the items I had helped with in the kitchen, putting only the work of her skilled hands on the dining room platters? Last night, I called her up and asked.
My mother laughed. “Of course I served the food you made,” she said. “Who cares if the apples were a little big, or the hamenstashen filling spilled over a little bit? You were so proud of what you made!”
Probably my mother was a more patient teacher than I, and perhaps my work was a little more careful than that of my daughters. But more likely than not, what made those plates of food so gorgeous was the love and joy that went into their preparation. What I remember as perfect is really just a perfect memory.
I’m not completely relinquishing control, lest I end up like Bubbe in Too Many Cooks, with an inedible dish. But, it is my job to throw the kitchen door wide open. If I’m lucky, it will be a long time before I get a “Not I!” from one of my daughters when I ask for help preparing the next big meal.
(r) cmyk PJ Library logo with tagline and piecesThe PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations.

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the Rebbetzin

posted February 9, 2010 at 8:02 pm

I know – part of what I enjoy about cooking for the holidays is being alone in the kitchen!!!! But I do love the looks on their faces when our guests ooo and ahhh about the charoses or the challah rolls :-)

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Amy from VA

posted February 9, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Another great post!

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Amy from VA

posted February 9, 2010 at 9:05 pm

P.S. I love your “Free to Be, You and Me” reference. ; )

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posted February 9, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Thank you. I count on the fact that most of my readers probably are about my age and grew up on the same pop culture…..

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Jennifer in MamaLand

posted February 9, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I *love* cooking alone; I only invite dh in when the dirty dishes start piling up… :-)))
Then again, I also love cooking with kids. But it’s definitely a different kind of activity.
Wish we had PJ Library here, by the way. Most people don’t know about it here; it’s not available in most of Canada. Drat! I considered having my MIL in Calgary lie for us and order it to her address, but decided that would be Wrong.

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Minnesota Mamaleh

posted February 9, 2010 at 11:45 pm

i really, really love this post amy. while i, too, love entertaining and presenting i so cherish my time with my girls in the kitchen. so much of how we do things is embedded in food and i hope my kids have vivid memories of cooking with me, like i have with my mom and grandparents (my grandfather made the *best* israeli salad EVER!). i will admit that letting brody into the kitchen will be a whole new world, though!

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Judy Meltzer

posted February 10, 2010 at 9:11 am

In the midst of a record blizzard and millions of tons of snow, you’ve really brightened my day with beautiful memories. How lucky I am to be a bubbe and relive some of these precious experiences with my delicious grandaughters..

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posted February 11, 2010 at 9:25 am

beautiful post!

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Kathy Bloomfield

posted February 11, 2010 at 5:05 pm

What a beautiful post, Amy. It made me relive being in the kitchen with my grandmother, who taught me most of what I know about cooking. My husband does most of the cooking nowadays, but at holiday time, the kitchen is all mine.

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posted February 11, 2010 at 5:08 pm

You. Me. Kitchen soulmates.
I’m going to let the toddler “help” with the hamantaschen this year, but my handcrafted molded chocolates will be done ALONE, after he’s asleep.
Also – good grief! Ira Glass at high holidays?!? Well, if that doesn’t inspire a life-long love of Judaism, I don’t know what would!

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posted February 11, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Once again, I agree with so much of what you say! I so much enjoy cooking with them… and without.
I also want to pipe in about the many aspects of education reinforced in those cooking sessions. Oh, the fractions! Oh, the math…. : )

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posted February 11, 2010 at 8:31 pm

During yesterday’s snow day we baked sugar cookies, and I discovered I really only dislike having my kids in the kitchen when we are making something I’m not very good at – mostly any kind of rolled pastry dough (cookies or hamentashen.) I’m just way, way too tense. I kept barking at them. Once we got to the decorating part it was a lot of fun.

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Minnesota Mamaleh: Purim is Bittersweet | TC Jewfolk

posted February 26, 2010 at 8:04 am

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