Friday, October 30, 2009

Marie Clare Smith: The Next Generation of Cooks

Marie Clare Smith moves with grace, confidence, and speed as she makes pumpkin chocolate chip mini-muffins (recipe below) in her Oakland kitchen. With her mom, Karyn, working on dinner in the background, Marie Clare checks out the recipe, reaches for the flour, the sugar, cracks the eggs, opens the can of pumpkin, stirs the mixture together, adds the liquid to the dry ingredients, squishes everything together with her hands when she realizes that her spoon is not up to the task, fills the muffins tins, bakes them, and tastes the results. She dances through the process, focused and relaxed, carrying on a conversation with me and her mom. She is a very experienced cook. But get this: Marie Clare is thirteen years old.

It started seven years ago when Marie Clare, then six, pulled up a chair to help her dad, Neil, make pancakes for the family’s Saturday breakfast. At nine, she was making dinner of pizza or macaroni tuna salad for herself when her parents were going out for the evening. Brennan, her brother, would join her if he liked the menu and if it went with ketchup, his favorite condiment. Noticing how much Marie Clare loved both cooking and earning money, Karyn started paying her $10 for each family dinner she prepared. The plan worked for everyone: Karyn got a night off (sort of); Marie Clare added another dinner to her repertoire and increased her shopping fund. Recently she’s started cooking meals for family friends when they come for supper.

So what’s for dinner? She might make potato latkes, Baked Macaroni and Cheese, Eggplant Parmesan, Potato Chip-Crusted Fish with Tartar Sauce or her famous Salmon Pockets (salmon wrapped in puff pastry with lots of dill) which she invented by combining the best of two recipes. Usually she’ll include a side vegetable like green beans, some bread, always a salad, and dessert if she has time.

Her passion for cooking has been nurtured and encouraged in a number of ways:

1. Her mother is a wonderful cook and is willing to let her experiment and use the kitchen. This is big. The only thing Marie Clare can’t do is cook over an open flame when she is by herself. Everything else is fine. Karyn says “Knives were never a concern to me. Fire worries me a lot more.” She adds, “If she is cooking with friends, she needs to clean up the kitchen. If she is cooking for the family, we take over the clean-up duties.”

2. She has access to a lot of good cookbooks, some written for kids, as well as her mom's recipes. Teens Cook and Teens Cook Dessert by sisters Megan and Jill Carle are favorites.

3. For three summers she has gone to Sprouts Cooking Club led by Karen Rogers, where the kids learn skills and cook food with area chefs and then have a chance to “jam” in the kitchen, creating recipes of their own. This past summer she was a Counselor in Training and may assist Karen in a cafĂ© she hopes to open. At King Middle School in Berkeley she has also taken cooking and gardening classes with her friends in the Edible School Yard which her father started with Alice Waters when he was the principal.

4. I must confess that I am Marie Clare’s doting fairy godmother, supplying her over the years with way more treats than her parents might allow. On our very first outing together, we went to SFMOMA. After a quick tour of a gallery or two, Marie Clare shyly expressed a desire for some food. We purchased a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Fish Ice Cream--my effort to suggest something healthy was unsuccessful--and she proceeded to eat most of it while we sat on Union Square watching the scene. What do you think she remembers about the trip? You got it. The ice cream. From then on food dominated our activities together. We ate a lot of superb ice cream and chocolate, frequenting Lulu Rae and Fenton’s Creamery in Oakland, Ici in Berkeley, and the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory (closed I’m sorry to say).

Now at thirteen, she no longer needs the indulgence of a fairy godmother; she is fully capable of providing herself with just about any treat she might want. So what am I to do? Of course I will continue to support her culinary enthusiasm or any other enthusiasm for that matter. I can write about her on my blog. Perhaps I can also become her cookbook editor or her publicist or her biggest fan or watch her on the Food Channel. When I asked her in an off hand way if she might want a career in cooking (Who but an indulgent fairy godmother could ask such a question and get a civil reply?), she said she had absolutely no idea. Being a baker is out because of the early hours. But she might be a chef or maybe a lawyer. “I have a lot of time to decide,” she said.

And finally I asked her what she would tell kids who wanted to learn about cooking. She said, “Cook what you like to eat. Enjoy eating it. Have fun.”
Not bad advice for any of us.

1 comment:

Tinky said...

Marie Clare sounds great--as does her family. I wish I could get MY family to clean up when I cook!