Before he was even 2, precocious chef Aaron Asch stunned (and terrified) his mostly stay-at-home dad, who caught the toddler using a spatula to spread butter in a hot pan, over burners he’d turned on himself. A month or two later, Aaron took this trick a step further, succeeding in cracking eggs – albeit seasoned with shell shards – into a ready skillet, even after his father said they couldn’t have eggs (again) for lunch.

Observing his father, Chris Myers Asch, a historian and educator, cook meals for the family of five apparently inspired Aaron, who considers cooking a man’s domain.

“He doesn’t know about buying packaged meals at the grocery store. We’ve never been to McDonald’s,” says Myers Asch, husband of Rabbi Erica Asch of Temple Beth El in Augusta. “He thinks of food as what you make in the kitchen and what we grow in the garden during the summer.”

The family lives in Hallowell. On each of the many snow days this winter, Dad has tackled a messy but warming baking project with sous chefs Aaron, now 2, and daughters Miriam, 7, and Robin, 5, calling the shots. “They learn all kinds of things,” Myers Asch said.

Favorite family cookbooks include “Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah” and “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen” by Joan Nathan, plus the indispensable website. “They’re constantly measuring and figuring things out. And Miriam will make up her own recipes or search through cookbooks and find something that she likes, and they have to figure out if we have all the ingredients, or if we can make substitutions.”

After days spent snowshoeing, skating and sledding, the Asch kids warm up inside, mixing blueberry muffins with berries they froze from bushes in their yard last summer and baking granola, banana bread and from-scratch brownies. Sweet baked goods nudge even reluctant kids to get involved.

But much as my 31/2-year-old Theo devours my chocolate chip cookies and gingersnaps, to my chagrin and shame, he quickly loses interest in the process of baking. Fortunately, given his passion for counting and reading, he’s still drawn to recipes. From “Sesame Street,” “B is for Baking: 50 Yummy Dishes to Make Together” by Susan McQuillan (and co-written and edited by Leslie Kimmelman, a sister of Source editor Peggy Grodinsky) has become one of Theo’s favorite books: “This is my cookbook!” he declares when I try to consult its recipes.

Theo rifles through each page, reading aloud – with increasing speed and volume – each recipe’s numerical measurements and number of steps, like the character Count von Count: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8” for Rosita’s Beefy Enchilada Pie (see recipe), which, by the way, drew praise from adults with discerning palates.

Theo’s favorite cooking tasks involve operating motors and pushing buttons. If I let him power the KitchenAid, he’ll happily dump cups of flour and sugar and teaspoons of baking soda and salt. The mixer dusted the countertops with flour snow as Theo overzealously blended ingredients for Oscar’s Really Rotten Banana Bread. He briefly punched the Play-Doh-like purple (thanks to purple sweet potatoes from the Portland Food Co-op) dough for Elmo’s Yummy Tummy Sweet Potato Biscuits. (Heads up: This wheat-centric book is not for gluten-free families.)

I should be more assertive but remember to always give Theo choices. If asked if he wants to cook with me, the answer is usually, “No thank you! I want to do something else.” But if I declare, “Theo, we’re going to bake cookies. Do you want to measure the flour or the sugar?” he is more game.

Peer pressure also helps. When his buddies come over, Theo is willing if they are. Blueberry-buckwheat pancakes were an effortless endeavor when his bud Zella Jones DeScherer, 3, helped with the prep last summer. And Theo followed the lead of his more compliant friend Silas Morin, 4, who patiently whisked together batter for Big Bird’s Good-For-You, Good-For-Me Oatmeal Muffins. Theo manned the oven, excitedly calling out numbers as it preheated to 400 degrees, then counting down the minutes until the timer went off.

Even non-cookbooks about food can stoke or improve a child’s appetite. Theo benefits from classics dusted off from my childhood: “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food,” “Babar Learns to Cook” and “Strawberry Shortcake’s Cooking Fun.” But “Bread and Jam for Frances” by Russell and Lillian Hoban is our mutual favorite. With his constant requests for bread and bagels, Theo recognizes himself in the pages. Like Frances, he’s finally starting to covet his parents’ veal cutlets and string beans. It gives me hope that by the book’s end, our protagonist proudly lays out her school lunch of a Thermos (“What’s that word?” Theo always asks) of tomato soup, a lobster salad sandwich and black olives.

For the more horticulturally minded, the time is ripe to ask kids to help plan the family garden. Make a vision-board collage with veggie photos cut out of Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog.

On her blog, North Yarmouth mom and farmer Stephanie O’Neil is posting her top seed picks that entice kids to eat fresh from the garden. She highlights culinary trend-setting rainbow carrot varieties like Purple Haze; the Northern Pickling Cucumbers I wish we’d grown for my crock of fermented kosher dills beloved by Theo; softball-sized, cantaloupe-esque Tasty Bites melons; and of course sweet shelling peas – the variety Penelope – and bean tee-pees of Fortex pole beans, among others. Don’t forget the thrill of edible flowers like peppery nasturtiums, which pop up and sprawl when direct-sown from seed. This coming summer, I’d like for Theo and me to help with the free kids’ garden clubs that O’Neil runs in Topsham and Freeport.

Perhaps the problem is that Theo perceives gardening and cooking as women’s work. My efficiency-obsessed economist husband has convinced me a marriage benefits when a couple embraces their comparative advantages and employs division of labor (see the book “Spousonomics,” republished as “It’s Not You, It’s the Dishes,” by journalists Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson). I prefer food prep as my meditative solo task but would garden more if Dan helped with the manual labor. He breezes through the dishes (if not left in the grimy sink) and always runs and empties the dishwasher.

Two-year-old Aaron Asch cooks to emulate his father. Actually, it was my own father who inspired me. He tore up the kitchen most nights after work and taught me a love for culinary improvisation. So Theo’s mother can do the same for him. Perhaps, given the love of math Theo inherited from his father, he’ll someday gain comparative advantage over me in baking, which has never been my strong suit. And if that day ever comes, you won’t hear me complaining.


This recipe is adapted from the “Sesame Street” “B is for Baking: 50 Yummy Dishes to Make Together” by Susan McQuillan. Use pepper jack cheese and/or diced tomatoes canned with green chiles for a spicier version of this mild Mexican entree. Frozen corn works fine for the crust.

I made this dish with local Fairwinds Farm red-flecked cornmeal and dried beans, farm eggs and Crystal Spring Farm ground beef. Since Theo still prefers his hamburger adulterated only by ketchup, I used leftovers from my pound package for plain mini-patties for him. Serve the pie with toppings: a dollop of sour cream, minced scallions, sliced olives, chopped cilantro and diced tomato and/or avocado. You don’t have to be a kid to love this recipe.

Makes 6 servings


1 (8-ounce) can sweet corn kernels, drained and rinsed

1 tablespoon olive oil

2/3 cup finely ground cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup boiling water

1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack (or other) cheese

1 medium egg, beaten


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 sweet green or red pepper, chopped

1/2 pound lean ground beef

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup canned pinto or black beans, drained and rinsed

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes with onion and garlic or chile peppers

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack or pepper jack cheese

To make the crust, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate or shallow casserole.

Kids! In a large bowl, stir together the corn, oil, cornmeal and salt.

Add boiling water to the bowl and stir to mix well. Stir in the cheese. Set aside to cool slightly, then stir in the beaten egg.

Kids! With the help of an adult, use a rubber spatula to spread the corn mixture evenly across the bottom and up the side of the prepared pie plate to form a crust.

Bake the crust for 15 minutes. Transfer to rack to cool slightly while making filling. Leave the oven on.

To make the filling, heat the oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the onion and sauté 3 minutes. Add the peppers and sauté 2 minutes longer. Stir in the ground beef and salt. Cook, stirring often, until meat is browned. Set aside to cool slightly.

Kids! In another large bowl, mix the beans, tomatoes and 1/2 cup of the cheese. With the help of an adult, stir in the cooled meat mixture and spoon this mixture into the pie plate over the baked crust. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup cheese.

Bake for 25 minutes or until mixture is thoroughly heated and cheese is melted. Transfer the pie to a cooling rack for 5 minutes before slicing into wedges.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon and read her blog at

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