Kitchen Knife Lessons
I love the sight of a young kid with a knife in their hands.
I love the transformation that happens when they’re handed a real blade. Even the kids who spend their days turning branches into swords and spoons into catapults and every single blessed thing into a gun (down to their own fingers!) – even these kids pause when they take the knife.
I watch the enormity of the moment settle over them – true responsibility, in its most concrete form. I watch their shoulders relax, and their focus narrow. Some parents wonder why I save the safety talk until the knife is actually in their hands – and this is why. Once you are holding the knife, wielding that power, the safety lessons make much more sense.
But for the safety lessons, I take the real blade away, and distribute butter knives. We practice safe handoffs – offer handle first, make eye contact. Then, we practice traveling, moving in intricate patterns around the kitchen with our knives firmly pointed down, parallel with our legs. We practice safely dropping them – stepping away from the falling blade, throwing our hands to the sky, to thwart the instinct to try and catch it.
There are few giggles, or even smiles, when we practice. Even with the butter knives, their faces are knotted in concentration. This is how I know they’re ready.
After safety, comes skills: practicing the correct grip, how to use the knife’s leverage to make smooth, clean cuts, instead of muscling through with force. I stay close, but not hovering, offering quick corrections – “fix your grip,” and “point down, point down,” like a coach calling a play in real time.
And we talk about cuts – burns, too – as inevitable. We ask, “what will I do when I get cut?” We practice the route from counter to sink, turning the cold water on, locate the bandages ahead of time. We talk about blood, and how our bodies heal. This too, is important – not to scare them, but to create awareness.
This is why I prefer not to teach in classrooms, where liability and risk aversion force me into the unpalatable world of plastic knives and no-heat cooking. With all my respect to schools and institutions everywhere, these limitations prevent the kind of intense, rapid learning that has such seductive power.
When kids are trusted – really trusted – with true responsibility, they rise to the occasion. They will always know if you’re holding back, or if you’re counting on them to mess up. But the moments I’ve connected most deeply with kids in the kitchen are the moments in which I was just a tiny bit nervous – and trusted them anyway.
[Photo credit: (cc) giulia gasparro]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dane writes poems and cooks food in Northampton, MA. When she isn’t engaged in one of her semiannual 30-poems-in-30-days sprints, she teaches people how to feed themselves tasty things at the Julia Poppins School of Cooking. Julia Poppins School of Cooking promotes food literacy through fun, confidence-building, hands-on cooking lessons in the Northampton area.