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A Boy Learns to Milk (and Becomes a Man?)

Over the last six months, I have watched my little boy become a man. His voice has dropped, the downy fluff on his legs has become coarse and he skulks about the house in some sort of hormonal haze. Last week, I discovered that he has surpassed me in height. His physical transformation is clearly underway; now it’s time for him to face a psychological and intellectual coming of age.

My culture — American by way of English, Irish, German and Scottish — provides few traditions for a boy’s coming of age. There will be no recitation of the Torah, no hunting expedition, no ritual tattooing, no weeklong sweat with hallucinogenic beverages. I had to come up with our own ritual, a new tradition that suits our family. Ben’s little brother, Finnegan, is watching this process with keen interest, as he knows that five years down the road, he will follow in his big brother’s size-11 footsteps.

After much deliberation, my husband and I have decided it’s time for our man-child to learn how to feed himself. Sure, we want him to take some hand in preparing the formidable volume of food he’s consuming these days, but more than that, we want him to understand and take some part in the labor that goes into producing the neat, convenient rows of bottles and jars lined up on our refrigerator and pantry shelves.

We narrowed his coming-of-age tasks down to the following four (I’ve taken to calling them the Labors of Benjamin), and he has the rest of the summer to master them.

First, Ben will discover the origin of all those gallons of milk he pours down his gullet. This morning, thanks to my friends and dairy farmers, Lee and Betty Sue Robie, he learned firsthand how a gallon of milk goes from grass to heifer to refrigerator. (Watch this first stage of Ben’s education in the video below.)In order to successfully complete this task, Ben must prove himself a competent and helpful milking assistant, and once Lee and Betty Sue give him their stamp of approval, he will have climbed the first rung of his education.

Next, he must be able to create a respectable sauce. As Ben is a fan of tuna salad, he chose mayonnaise as his sauce of choice. Mayonnaise, like most sauces, is predicated on the suspension of oil in a liquid, otherwise known as an emulsion. If he can master a mayonnaise, he can prepare everything from a salad dressing to a hollandaise. We happen to have a flock of hens busily laying one of the key ingredients for this lovely sauce, so mayonnaise it is. I could be a stickler here, and insist he make his mayo by hand, but I am allowing the use of a food processor. If it’s good enough for Mark Bittman, it’s good enough for me.

And what else does he need for his tuna salad, prepared with homemade mayonnaise, but a hearty slab of bread? As his third task on his way to culinary manhood, Ben must be able to bake a respectable loaf of bread. I don’t care if it’s crusty, no-knead or flat; he must be able to transform flour, yeast, water and salt into something that will perfume the house with its yeasty goodness, something he’d be proud to serve to his friends or a future dinner date.

Finally, Ben will prepare a meal for the entire family, start to finish, that includes a protein, at least one vegetable, and a starch — a loaf of bread, perhaps? The menu is his to choose, and he may have as many trial runs as he would like. I will teach him everything he needs to know in order to prepare the meal, but in the end, he must bring the food to table on his own.

I understand that the ability to bake bread or milk a cow is in no way a measure of Ben’s manhood, but it’s a start. In learning how to cook, he will receive an education in discipline, organization and attention to detail. Most important, he will learn how to nourish himself and his family, and I can’t imagine any greater achievement of manhood. .