Six years ago, my cooking experience was mostly limited to lighting charcoal and reading instructions off the back of a frozen pizza box. My chief culinary attainment was pre-heating the oven.
But then I got married and found myself promoted to CEO—“Chief Entre Officer”—of our domestic enterprise. And we’ve added more consumers to our daily product offerings in the years since, so that I now have four little ones to cook for (aged five and under), along with my wife and myself.
I’ve had a lot to learn about successfully navigating the kitchen and putting its many technological marvels to good use. In my pursuit of cooking competence, I’ve consulted numerous books, magazines (“Taste of Home” is my favorite), web sites (allrecipes, and when I want to be wowed, Catholic Cuisine), and videos—plus lots of calls to my Mom, mostly made in a panic amid unforeseen cooking predicaments. There should have been a reality TV show to chronicle my slow culinary journey from ineptitude to . . . well, I won’t say “Excellence,” but at least “A High Degree of Edibility.” Things taste pretty good now, but in the beginning it sure wasn’t “Iron Chef.” More like “Iron Stomach.”
But there’s nothing like practice. And cooking for a family is about the best apprenticeship in the vagaries of food preparation that you can get this side of Le Cordon Bleu. It’s a total immersion in the great sea of gastronomy: three meals a day, seven days a week, week after week without end. The kids keep getting hungry, so you’re forced to either figure out a few things about cooking, or give-up and get to know your local pizza delivery driver on a first name basis. (Or maybe a little of both.)
One of the things I finally discovered over my six years of swimming in the deep water of the culinary arts is an appreciation for the power of time.
Just consider this experiment, which I’m sure will be familiar to everyone: fill a pot with water, tomato sauce, onions, chopped carrots and diced potatoes, a few cans of Veg All, green beans and beef. Add salt and pepper.
What have you got?
Really—think about it as it is at that moment, not what you envision it will become. In its present state it’s just an assortment of floating food products. When you first fill the pot you don’t have anything edible, not yet.
But now, add two teaspoons of time: bring that same pot of ingredients to a boil, then turn the heat down and let it simmer for five hours.
Now what have you got?
Ah ha, that’s what we were looking for: delicious soup, to nourish the body and warm the soul. As Mark Twain wrote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when “things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around” then “things go better.”
And one of the chief factors in that transformation from garden-enriching fertilizer to stomach-filling deliciousness is: Time.
And there’s no cheating time. As anyone who’s forgotten to fill their crockpot in the morning can tell you, putting it on “High” late in the day won’t get the job done. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten home from the school pick-up, ushered everyone in, gotten out the afternoon snack, and only then, when my thoughts finally turned to dinner, looked over at the empty crockpot and thought Aaahhh! I was supposed to put spaghetti on this morning! Then I’ll dash around, trying to get everything in the pot as fast as I can, running timelines in my head and playing out different scenarios as I try to figure out how to make it work . . . maybe if I push dinner back a bit? Say to 10 PM?
Dear experience has taught me that by then, it ain’t gonna happen. Without the time it takes for those ingredients to “swap around” and be transformed from a random collection of groceries into a real dinner, it’s still going to be a pot full of compost. Just warm compost.
There’s a social phenomenon centered around this revelation about the importance of time in cooking, called “The Slow Food Movement.” The idea is basically that you can’t get something for nothing: if you want good food, you have to invest the time it takes to make good food. That means slowing down, making cooking a priority, and intentionally setting aside the time that good cooking will require.
We need the same kind of time-based movement for our families—call it “The Slow Family Movement”—because just as with cooking, there’s no cheating time for our families, and you can’t get something for nothing: we get the kinds of families we invest our time and ourselves into creating.
As Pope Francis famously urged parents, “waste time with your children”—because it’s not a waste at all, it’s how you make a family. Transforming a group of people from a collection of individuals who happen to share rides in the same minivan into a family takes something more than physical proximity with each other. And part of that “something more” is: TIME.
It’s not the only thing, of course. It also requires attention and tending (just like your soup needs stirring, tasting, seasoning, adding water, etc., as it cooks), and absolutely it requires love (that’s the fire which heats the pot and is the catalyst for everything else—without love there will never be any transformation, no matter how much stirring or time you give it). But the attention and tending and love all need time for their mysterious powers to work their transformation.
Which can be tough. Giving them the time they need is usually much harder than it would be to add a new activity to our already supersaturated schedules. In a way, it seems odd that it would more difficult to slow down when we’re already so busy than it would be to pile on more commitments, but partly that’s because the culture is always urging us to speed up, to do more, to add more teams, more lessons, more events to our calendars. As a result, we’ve all gotten to be well practiced at wedging one more activity into our hectic days of getting the kids up on time for school, and finding lost socks, and packing lunches and backpacks, and picking everyone up, and getting the bills paid, and carting everyone to practices and games and recitals. So we have lots of experience at maintaining activity overdrive, but we don’t get much practice in unleashing the power of slow. That requires developing a whole new skill-set, and without much support or models to follow in the prevailing culture.
But there is a compelling counter-cultural figure we can look to for a powerful example: Jesus Himself. In His busy ministry, a ministry that saw Jesus surrounded by pressing mobs clamoring for His time and attention, eager to touch Him, or even just to see Him, Jesus took time for little children, saying: “Let the children come to me . . .” Mt 19, 14. In his Catena Aurea, St. Thomas Aquinas recounts a reflection by Saint Jerome on this passage, in which St. Jerome says that the disciples “thought that He like other men would be wearied by the applications of those that brought” the children to Him. But Jesus was not. He took the time to let the children come to Him, and Jesus blessed them.
In taking that time, Jesus showed us how important it is. So while there are plenty of challenges to slowing down and making the spaces in our schedules and lives to allow “wasting” time with our kids, it’s worth it. Slow is powerful, like a creeping glacier that reshapes an entire landscape. And time with our families can reshape something greater than any forest or valley or mountain that was ever sculpted by a glacier: it reshapes the human heart—our own as well as our kids. And in that is the power to transform not only our families, but our world.
Do you have strategies, techniques or regular rituals you use to help your family slow down to spend time together?
Copyright 2014, Jake Frost