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Un-Percolated Perfection

When I was around 7 years old I made a chocolate coffee cake for my dad’s birthday all by myself, and from scratch. No help. I was very proud of this cake because it had multiple layers and two different types of frosting. It was a recipe that many adults may have found intimidating, let alone a seven year old, but I confidently and meticulously plugged away step by step until it was finished to my liking. It looked like a masterpiece and I was beaming with pride as I showed my mom and dad what I was able to create for this special occasion. I remember the countless praises they gave me for how beautiful it looked and how much effort I had put into it. After dinner I was filled with anticipation as my mom and dad took their first bite into this cake that I had spent all afternoon creating. Simultaneously I dove my own fork into this chocolate delicacy and took a bite. I suddenly realized that something was wrong. My beautiful cake tasted gritty. How could this be? I had followed the instructions to a T.

As a seven year old, I didn’t know what the word “percolated” meant. As a confident child who was determined to make this cake all by myself, I didn’t ask for clarification and followed the recipe’s instructions as I understood them. So when the recipe called for two cups of percolated coffee, I proceeded to dump two cups of coffee grounds into the batter. The lesson of this story is not about learning the definition of a word, but how my parent’s reactions after taking their first bite have had a continuous impact on my development as a cook, and more importantly as a person.

Close your eyes for a moment, and think about what a mouthful of coffee grounds would taste like. A natural reaction would be to spit it out in distaste. My parent’s natural reaction was to smile and emphasize how proud they were of me for how hard I worked on this cake. They didn’t spit it out. They didn’t criticize me for my mistake. They didn’t lie and tell me it was the best cake that they had ever tasted. They focused on the positives. Had they lied and told me how great the cake tasted, I would more than likely always second-guess their feedback and consequently the feedback of others, because I had tasted the truth. It didn’t taste good, it tasted like coffee grounds, but my parents support and humor made it easier to swallow. Had they made me feel bad about my mistake, in that instant they would have crushed my spirit, my inclination to independently try new things, and very likely this blog would not exist and Scott would be eating Spaghettios and Hamburger Helper for dinner. But instead, I have gone on to bake more cakes, cook for family and friends, whether 2 at a time or 50, and have now opened myself up to sharing my creations with those that I do not know.

My husband, Scott, is the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Faculty member of a prominent state university and works with many young adults (and sometimes their parents). Having worked with children professionally for 25 years myself, I believe that the students’ and parents’ behavior in his office might parallel their behavior in the kitchen. Children who are told their cake is the best that the parent has ever tasted, when it tastes like coffee grounds, may become students in his office arguing their entitlement for a good grade when in fact they earned a failing one. Those same parents who tell their children their cake tastes delicious, when eating straight up coffee grounds, may become parents who end up in his office believing their child deserves a passing grade when their kid in fact earned an F. Children who are reprimanded for spilling flour outside of the bowl or scolded for not knowing what “percolated” meant may become students who cheat on a test because they are afraid of failure and its consequences or fail because they are afraid to ask for help. Parents who place expectations on their children to bake perfect cakes and then “save them” from making mistakes in order to keep up that illusion may remain people that are unsatisfied and disappointed with others, and more importantly, disappointed with themselves.

Children who are taught how to follow a recipe are more likely to become students who are able to follow a syllabus and take direction from others. Children who are allowed the freedom to make mistakes in the kitchen and figure out their own solutions are more likely to become students that can think for themselves and not rely on others to give them every right answer. Children who create dishes, and are encouraged when they don’t always work out the way they wanted are more likely to become self-motivated students that won’t be destroyed by an unsatisfactory grade but instead try harder and work smarter next time. Children who learn how to acknowledge and accept their mistakes in the kitchen are more likely to become students that hold themselves accountable for their actions, seek help when they need it, and know the difference of whether they earned a passing or failing grade and possess the appropriate humility or tenacity when told otherwise.

Take a moment and think about your own experiences in the kitchen and who you are today. Can you see the parallels? Please take a moment and leave a comment.

The Golden Nugget: Life, like food, has a recipe and the secret to both is finding the right balance of ingredients. We’ll never know if we have too much or too little of something unless we truly take a taste of what we are made of, and we’ll never find our true balance unless we learn to adjust our ingredients accordingly.


  1. I have always loved to cook. When I was in the 6th grade I asked my mother if I could make dinner and she agreed! The one thing that sticks in my mind that I made was artichokes. I can't remember what made me want to make artichokes; I am certain it was the first time we had them in our house. My mother had never made them but she supported me in my endeavor! I remember admiring the deep green prickly shape and deciding which pot would hold them.
    I think I made meatloaf and potatoes with a green salad to go with the artichokes. The dinner was a success! But what really stuck in my mind was this strange new vegetable that I was able to conquer and how impressed my whole family was with me! Such a sense of accomplishment and pride in being able to make something that even my big brother was impressed with!

  2. Martha,

    Thanks for sharing your story, I loved reading it!


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