Monday, December 04, 2006

Costs of Free Education

Guillermo and I were treated to a delightful Sunday lunch single-handedly managed by our friend Miguel. Together with Paula and their girls, we tucked into some delicious butternut squash gratin followed by the retro yumminess of a broccoli soufflé. We then had some of the apricot bavarois I brought over as pudding.

After the girls were sent off to their routine afternoon nap, the four adults enjoyed discussing (in the English sense of the word; there wasn't any argument) a range of topics from nationalism to the girls' education.

Paula is a progressive-minded paediatrician and Miguel is in the field of IT. Unlike most professional parents in Buenos Aires, they made a conscientious decision in sending their girls to a State-run kindergarten. The girls, Gabriela and Carolina, are now 4 and 2.

As I mentioned before, Miguel and Paula have put a lot of thought into their roles as parents and their parenting style is quite different from most other porteños of their generation. They do not engage in "baby talk", instead the girls are treated with respect as persons capable of understanding reasons. The youngsters have a healthy routine of napping in the afternoon and turning in at 7:30 in the evening so they are never cranky with tiredness. Further, they are exposed to a wide variety of nutritious foods and as a consequence the girls enjoy a healthy and balanced diet packed with fruits, vegetables and nuts (the unsalted kind).

Most importantly, Gabriela and Carolina do not watch television at home. In fact, the parents have given away their television so the kids will not grow up in front of mind-numbing and dumbing shows. Instead, both Miguel and Paola spend a lot of time talking and playing with their children; reading is already a big part of their leisure activities so is enjoying music. Gabriela loves Vivaldi which was introduced to her the natural way and not through any Baby Einstein product.

However, our friends are running into increasing frustration with the girls' kindergarten. The State-run institution has limited resources so the kids end up watching television in their classroom a lot of times, especially when it is raining. None of us can imagine what happens during the rainy season, would the kids watch television the entire week?

Some parents request not only lunch but breakfast being given to their children at the kindergarten. To these parents and educators, breakfast means a sugar laden alfajor; once other kids have spotted their friends getting a sugar-high, they scream for a shot too so very often the teachers hand out alfajores to everyone. Then there are the birthday parties, some of which are held at MacDonald's, and other random sugar fests which are all part of a normal day at kinder.

Lunch is also potentially problematic; after a not so nutritious meal, kids are allowed unlimited serves of dessert. In fact, they can skip the main meal altogether and go for a few serves of flan instead; nobody is going to refuse them.

Anyway, these hitches over television and diet pale into insignificance when compared to what the teachers feel are part of the girls' education.

Unlike most Argentine parents, our friends did not have their new-born girls suffer the purely cosmetic procedure of ear-piercing. Gabriela is now old enough to realise this physical difference; in addition, she has also begun to notice, unlike mummy, her teachers and some of her 4 yr-old friends are wearing make-up to school. She is beginning to feel she is missing out...

To add fuel to the fire, knowing full well the parents' disapproval, the teachers are more determined to make a Barbie doll out of Gabriela. They have even said so to the parents directly. Together with other parents who have heard about their "unique" parenting style, they are branding Miguel and Paula "strange".

As frustrating as Galileo must have felt when explaining why earth is a globe, bringing up children within this culture presents a set of unique challenges. It is one thing when children are allowed sweets and gender-conditioning toys occasionally but something entirely misguided when those are treated as essential parts of a child's diet and education. What is even more sinister is when some enlightened parents speak up they are labelled "strange" and somewhat ostracised.

The most frustrating, however, is probably the lack of alternatives. As Miguel pointed out, going to a private school would not necessarily provide solution to this particular set of problems. We only have to wander through Recoleta, the affluent barrio of many cameltoed Stepford wives, to sense that private schools are probably just churning out a different set of cosmetically enhanced Barbie dolls.

Until Sunday, I had almost forgotten how wonderful a perfectly risen soufflé could be. It is time to revive this classic recipe.

1 cup milk
1 thick onion slice
a couple of bay leaves
6 whole black peppercorns
5 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
salt, pepper, grated nutmeg
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup grated Gruyère
500g broccoli florets, cooked in boiling water until tender, and puréed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 egg whites
butter and 1 Tablespoon of Parmesan cheese for the soufflé dish


Preheat oven to 200C. Butter a 1-1/2 quart soufflé dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter and sprinkle with Parmesan. Turn to coat the dish.

Make the white sauce: In a saucepan, add the milk, onion, bay leaves and peppercorns and bring it almost to the boiling point. Remove from heat and allow to stand 10 minutes to infuse the flavors.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan and with a flat whisk, stir in the flour. Cook for 2 minutes. Do not allow it to brown. Remove from heat.

Strain the milk into the butter/flour mixture, beating constantly. Return to heat. Continue beating until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens.

Season with the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan and cook the broccoli purée until it is dry.

Place the white sauce over low heat and beat in the egg yolks, one by one. Stir constantly until the sauce thickens slightly and remove from heat. Stir in the broccoli purée and the mustard.

Stiffly whip the egg whites. Add about 1/4 of the egg whites to the warm broccoli mixture and stir to combine thoroughly.

Add this mixture back to the remaining egg whites and fold together as lightly as possible. Pour the mixture into the prepared soufflé dish. Run your thumb around the edge of the mixture, making a groove in it, this will allow the center to rise in a high cap. Bake about 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately.

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