Teaching my daughters how to feed themselves, and others, has offered me the same maternal joyful highs and humbling lows as teaching them about food itself.
At first, the learning curve was very much on my end. For the most part, babies are born with remarkable instincts for where food is to be found and how it’s to be obtained. Moms are the ones who have to figure out how to get the demand lined up with the mechanics of the supply. Some Moms get their very first taste of Mommy guilt right from the get go when the 24 hour a day manufacturing plant is inefficient or parts seem to fail.
Within six to eight months though, the switch begins and the first lessons in nutritional autonomy, usually in the form of oatmeal delivered by means of a spoon, begin. Around this same time babies discover that they have in their own persons the same remarkable capability to deliver food – opposable thumbs are a wonder. From there the cycle of teaching which tool is good for what begins to turn, and turn, and turn. In this phase, a mom’s task is one of making every possible food finger-friendly. Culinary school students spend copious amounts of time and money learning how to turn whole foods into giant piles of tiny cubes; moms of toothless and teething babies get the same education for free. This season seems to go on for years….because it does. Many is the mom who has Rumpelstiltsken-esque nightmares about being imprisoned in a room filled with piles of chicken and potatoes to chop into pieces by morning, or who finds herself on a date with her husband at a restaurant blessedly devoid of a kids’ menu, yet still slicing her beautifully seared filet into tiny bits before eating it. The day my youngest daughter finally mastered a knife and fork I wanted to throw a party bigger than the one we threw when she learned how to use a potty.
After that monumental milestone was reached, the next adventure, the biggest one, the one I had envisioned in sepia-stained vignettes acted out in slow motion to a stringed orchestra soundtrack, was teaching my kids how to cook and bake for themselves. My own childhood cooking memories are mostly sad ones, overshadowed by my mother’s frequent illness and our, at times, significant poverty. “Cooking” in our house was often little more than opening freezer packages or cans, procured through food stamps or the kindness of others. But God, being rich in mercy, blessed me with a remarkable number of providences in the subsequent years: cooking classes in high school, a career that involved a lot of after hours entertaining of clients in restaurants on the company dime, and even a home with professional grade kitchen (designed by my former restaurant manager husband), situated in a state that produces over half of the country’s produce, and a region that is world-famous for general foodiness. With all of those resources, how could I fail but to make my children little Master Chef Jr. candidates from the get go??
Pretty easily, as it turns out. Apart from the ordinary challenges of teaching kids a skill that involves tools that can dismember or disfigure them, the biggest battle was not letting the weight of my disadvantaged past, or the expectations wrought by my abundantly blessed present, crush my poor girls like so many delicate spices between a mortar and pestle.
No day better exemplifies my struggle than the one I spent trying to teach my ten-year-old daughter how to make an apple pie. We had weathered the peeling and cutting of the apples and preparing of pastry with all kid digits and maternal patience intact (mostly). But as I watched my daughter wrestle with the rolling pin and saw the piecrust begin to tear, I saw that my vision of Platonic pie perfection was at risk. I nudged my daughter out of the way and took the rolling pin in my hands to rescue it. “Mom, let me do it!” my girl protested. “Well, you’re not doing it properly!” I replied impatiently. “And pie is important!”. Sarah’s slumped shoulders and crestfallen face instantly broadcast my mistake. Instead of giving my daughter the warm memories of time spent together learning and experimenting and enjoying God’s gift of food, I was giving my daughter memories of how I cared more about culinary orthodoxy than her. I apologized instantly and sincerely, she forgave me, and we finished the pie together. (It came out just great.) Since then, the phrase “Pie Is IMPORTANT!” is offered up in our home as shorthand for “Quit being a kitchen mean freak!” whenever any of the Starkes are tempted to choose cooking truth over familial love.
God has brought back that day to my mind often as I’ve pondered struggles to find the “right” way to teach my girls to love God’s Word. When I say that being able to read and study the Bible is already in my girls’ genes, I’m not exaggerating much. Between my husband’s immediate family and mine, we have thirteen bachelors’, masters, and doctoral degrees, with several more pending, and almost all of them in disciplines like English or theology. Starkes don’t do sports; school is our sport. My own English and Bible degrees gave me an incredible foundation for teaching my girls how to read and appreciate literature in general, and the greatest Book of all. and I’m forever grateful for them. And yet, the same education that has helped me the most is, I’m now seeing,what puts me and my girls in actual danger, because it has been an education of a specific and potentially toxic kind.
The central tenet of all my training in my Reformed Baptist home, and at my evangelical college, was neither Jesus’ greatest commandment, nor the second one. My education centered on knowing all the right things about God, and why the wrong things were the wrong things, and why everyone who believed the wrong things was wrong, wrong, wrong. I was raised and educated to be a spiritual food critic, maybe even a food snob, rather than an appreciative eater. I can shred a bad sermon and pick apart a bad song lyric with ease. I know my eisegesis from my exegesis, (which is why going into mainstream Christian bookstores makes me break out in a rash). But when it comes to loving my neighbors, especially the neighbors who eat the spiritual junk food and don’t seem to mind it, too often I fall far short of love.
My only comfort (which, come to think of it, shouldn’t be all that comforting) is that I’m not alone. A quick scan of the Reformed internet reveals that there’s far more “someone is wrong about God on the Internet!” content than there is content about loving God and neighbor. I want more for my daughters, and myself, than more lessons in how to live as a food snob in a world filled with bad food. I want to be a better eater, I want to be a loving feeder of others, and I want that for my girls as well.
Next – how Tom Collicchio and John Piper are helping me teach my girls to be the right kind of spiritual eaters.