Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Spice of Life

The following is an excerpt from the article, “The Education of the Senses” by Maria Montessori:

Sensory education must begin in the formative period, if we want to perfect it. Thus, the education of the senses should be begun methodically in infancy and should be continued during the entire time of schooling, so that it may prepare the individual for life in his world.

Aesthetic and moral education are tightly tied to sensory education. Multiplying sensations and developing the capacity to appreciate small differences between stimuli sharpens our sensibility and increases our pleasures. Beauty is in harmony, not contrasts, and harmony is enhanced when there is the sensory delicacy needed to perceive it. The aesthetic harmonies of nature and of art flee those who have coarse senses — their world is limited and rough.

Now, this sounds like any one of the hundreds of pages I have lying around on childhood development in my pursuit to try and grasp this Mom-thing. Especially when you note that the author is the one and same creator of the Montessori education method. The truth is, I got this handout on my first night of culinary school, long before I cooked up a bun in the oven at home.

If you read the whole article it makes references to being a chef, particularly the idea that if you do not know what it tastes or smells like, how are you going to cook with it? But the early education of the senses part stuck with me.

Sure, the kiddos are going to see and learn colors and pictures at school, they are going to be presented with different textures to touch, tools to handle and music to make and listen to. But taste and smell? The only unique tastes on the menu at toddler school include things like Hot Dog Tacos, Tater Tot Casserole. And an occasional bite of crayon or paste. Both of which probably taste better than the casserole.

As for smells, chances are the most exotic thing you are going to find there is coming from someone else’s diaper. I know this from experience. I have developed the Mom Nose, which can pinpoint the exact source even when he or she is moving rapidly away from me at a distance of 20 feet. It is not a gift.

What this means is, parents, the whole taste and smell edification is up to us. Because smell and taste are so intertwined, it would only make sense that developing one would enhance the other.

I put this theory to the test. For any of you who read my work on the site, you already know that I head to the farmer’s market every weekend. What you don’t know is that right in that market is a spice store. That’s all they sell. Literally, every spice and variation of that spice from everywhere imaginable. The best part is that each variety is arranged around the store with a little “smelling jar” on the shelf in front of each spice and herb and blend.

It is heaven. A veritable culinary encyclopedia for the olfactory glands. For example, you can compare Ceylon cinnamon to Korintje Cassia and Vietnamese Cassia. All qualify as “cinnamon” but the Ceylon is soft, complex and fruity without a hint of harshness. The Vietnamese Cassia is a heavy hit of crisp, sweet and hot cinnamon, Korintje is the softer spiciness you normally think of. Each totally different. There’s 15 kinds of Chili powder plus whole dried chilies, 12 Indian blends, three of which are curries, plus salts, blends, rubs and even sausage spices. I could spend a day in there savoring each and comparing.

It’s incredibly embarrassing, but my spice cabinet at home looks like a small-scale version of the store. I have things in jars most people have never heard of much less heard of using on food. Someday, maybe, even I will figure out what to cook with them.

And yet, overstocked as I am, I go in the store often for no reason other than to sniff stuff. I don’t go alone, either. Strapped on my back is my little one. She’s right up where she can see everything and smell everything right along with me. As we go through the jars, I talk to her about them, how to use each spice, what it is, ask if she likes it.

What amazes me is how much she enjoys this. I see a little hand come over my shoulder finger pointing at the next jar, “More! More!” she shouts. She nearly dives into some of the jars like the baking spices and oddly enough, the sweet curry.

I wondered what would happen when she would taste each of these in a prepared dish. I should have known the answer to this the day I caught her licking the insides of an empty chili powder. We were at a party last weekend with beef and chicken curry kabobs. She devoured it. And had some black licorice to top it off. Pretty shocking for a toddler.

But does sniffing saffron really make my child more sage? If you believe in the Montessori method, it does. And perhaps, Maria herself would even give me a gold star and ten extra minutes of recess. But it doesn’t really matter.

As long as I see the huge smile after smelling a particularly fragrant jar, and hear those happy shouts of “More! More!” I know that regardless of any education theory text, I am definitely helping develop two of her greatest senses; adventure and fun.

1 comment:

Kailani said...

I totally agree that the taste and smell senses are an important part in learning the world around us!

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An Island Life