“Always give your children the bowl to lick.  It will encourage them to cook in later life.” –Clarissa Dickson-Wright, Two Fat Ladies

I admit it.  I LOVE the Two Fat Ladies.  When the Cooking Channel was launched, one of the things I was most excited about (and frankly, still am) was the 10 p.m. Saturday night back-to-back programming of old episodes of the show.  If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend checking it out at least once.  It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s something immensely comforting about these two zaftig, daft British ladies toodling around the countryside in their motorbike and sidecar, cooking marvelously unhealthy and heartfelt food for people (and usually having to do some other manual labor along the way, about which one of them, at least, complains mightily).  I almost never think “Oh, I’d like to make/eat that” when they’re cooking…and yet, Two Fat Ladies is a bit like a warm fuzzy blanket that I can pull around my shoulders late in the evening; it sends me off to bed sleepy and satisfied.

Aside from the comfort factor and the overall zaniness of the show, though, there are some serious reasons, I think, for my affinity for these two ladies.  For one thing, they espouse “homemade cookery” and are unrelenting in their disdain for anything smacking of supermarket convenience.  These are women who know how to cook and/or bake almost anything you can imagine, simply because they believe that one SHOULD know how — for them, the homemade meal is not an art, it’s not a gimmick, it’s a practical skill that gets one through life.  Also, Clarissa and Jennifer (yes, I feel I’m on a first-name basis with them) are people who firmly and staunchly defend local and sustainable foodstuffs as an inalienable right and need of mankind.  They may grumble while they’re stooping to pick the wild strawberries for the tart, or milking the goat to make the cheese, but by God they’ll have their pick of ingredients or die trying.

They’re also eminently sensible about the role of food in family life, as evidenced by the above quote, which I caught on this Saturday’s episode.  Clarissa Dickson-Wright delivered that line about letting kids lick the bowl with such certitude that it may as well have been engraved on one of the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.  Clearly, in the minds of the Two Fat Ladies, there is a simple and logical equation when it comes to children and food: Involve the children, because then they’ll want to learn to cook, and one MUST learn to cook, or else be doomed to a life of unwholesome and unenjoyable supermarket fare.

Oh, sure, we’ve all heard it a dozen times at least.  Every kid-and-food expert out there says you should let your kids help in the kitchen, so they feel they’re a part of the food preparation.  But you know what?  There are two things that Clarissa adds to this position that most people sort of either gloss over or leave out entirely: Fun and Skill.

Most of the time, when people talk about having children help out with dinner and so forth, the statement is followed by something like: “…so they’ll be more likely to eat what has been made.”  Our society’s take on this issue is that the reason you want your kids in the kitchen is to encourage them to put a stop to the picky ways that we view as the birthright of all children.  (Obviously you know how little I think of that mindset.)  Clarissa and Jennifer never, ever discuss pickiness in children, not even when they’re whipping up something like deviled kidneys or stuffed quails.  They make the assumption that you’ll serve this food to your family, and your family will eat it, because you’ve prepared it for them.  Full stop, as the Fat Ladies might say.

What Clarissa did say, if you read the quote again, is something a bit different from what we are accustomed to hearing.  What she said is that the reason to have kids in the kitchen is to teach them an appreciation for the skill of cooking so they’ll want to master it as they grow up.  What a concept — that we should be encouraging our kids to learn about food preparation not to coax them to eat their vegetables, but as a basic life skill!  And even better, she prefaces this not with “Always have your children wash and chop their own vegetables,” nor with “Always ask your children to choose a new item of produce to try at dinnertime.”  No, Clarissa begins her statement with the very old-fashioned, and eminently practical pronouncement: “Always give your children the bowl to lick.”

What?  I should let my kids have fun in the kitchen, calories and raw eggs be damned?

YES.  I chuckled to myself as I watched her issue this edict on the show, because she had just finished making a dessert that was primarily beaten egg whites, and here she was saying that children should lick the bowl — how many modern American parents would go weak in the knees thinking about salmonella outbreaks at that moment?  But Clarissa and Jennifer probably got those eggs from a local henhouse, not from a factory farm, and anyway, the Two Fat Ladies inhabit a misty and gold-tinged world of bygone notions and quaint food customs.  No child, in their reality, ever got sick from a gob of raw cookie dough.  And for the record, mine haven’t either.

Yes, I let them lick the bowl, the beaters, the spoons.  I indulge L. in his curiosity each time he helps me bake, and I provide him with little pinches of everything — salt, sugar, flour, what have you — to taste as we work.  He smells the spices, licks his fingers, gets dirty, and has a wonderful time.  P. sits on countertops with me and plunges his fists into bowls, throws apple peelings around, sucks drops of coffee from my fingertips at breakfast, and explores the world of the kitchen in every possible way.  When my kids are with me in the kitchen, we have tasks to complete, but I’m not focused on exposing them to healthy foods or teaching them how to count and measure.  I’m focused on making the kitchen a place they want to experience.

So yes, parents, take a word of advice from a Fat Lady, and from me.  Always give your children the bowl to lick.  Give them wooden spoons and cookie tins and let them drum to their heart’s content, despite the noise.  Let them rearrange the spice bottles in the pantry and fingerpaint with whipped cream on the tabletop.  Give them a plastic plate to hold and tell them to catch the pancakes as you flip them through the air — nobody I know has ever died after eating a pancake that touched their very own kitchen floor for a few seconds, no matter what the germ experts on the Today Show might want you to believe.  Let the kitchen be a place where your family plays, and everything that comes out of it will be more magical, not just for the kids but for you.

And maybe, just maybe, those kids will have a good idea or two to contribute.  L. did, when we set out to bake a new and different Christmas cookie this weekend.  Nutella, orange, and marshmallow.  Enough said.  Oh, yeah — and we ALL licked the bowl.