I REMEMBER MY GRANDMOTHER swathed in a shoulder-to-hip apron, looking resigned; my mother chopping onions with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, looking grim. These were women who had other fish to fry (so to speak): writing, teaching, reading, making music. They knew they had to get a meal on the table, but they weren’t happy about it.
And so I have a hereditary discomfort with the kitchen. I feel isolated there, exiled, and perpetually anxious about whether things will “come out.” I control my nerves with micromanagement: making elaborate lists and timetables; creating orderly little piles of grated cheese, chopped herbs and vegetables…with the result that I devote way too much time and effort to the process. By the time I’ve decided what to cook, secured the ingredients, and knocked them into edible shape, it feels as if Dinner dominates the entire day, particularly if guests are involved. When Dinner doesn’t loom, it frees me.
There are things I like about cooking. It’s full of aesthetic moments: The mixture of colors, the arrangements on the plate are like a collage, like an abstract painting. Also: the smells (though not the lingering garlic on my fingers), the tastes, and, yeah, the praise. It’s only that it’s so high risk. Here is a bunch of ungainly raw materials (slabs of protein, dusty potatoes, a bruised tomato) of which I must make a meal. Of course, for that very reason, when I pull it off, cooking actually does seem alchemical, inspired, transformative. Magic.
WHY AM I RANTING about this? Why don’t I just do it or not, but shut up? Because I’m wondering if other women have this doubt, this resistance, this sense that every meal is a wrestling match with herself. Even though I know men who love to cook—and women whose fathers did, sending a different message—providing nourishment is intimately bound up with our gender’s place in the world, with our very physiology. If cooking does not feel “natural” to me, if I’d rather do something else with my days, does that mean I am selfish, ungenerous, short on the caretaking instinct that every female is supposed to have?
Intellectually I know the answer is no. On a gut level, I’m not so sure. I grew up with all that guff about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach. Okay, it isn’t guff in the sense that to feed people, literally or figuratively, is a potent way to love them; but it sure is if you are trying to strike a reasonable balance between asserting your own needs and serving somebody else’s. Over the years I have seesawed between faking it—pretending to a calm and generous competence I do not feel—and rejecting the whole array of traditional roles (helpmeet, nurturer, apron-wearer, food-gatherer) that seems to accompany kitchen activity.
SINCE COOKING LORE was not my mother’s forte, when I first got married, at 20, I tried to teach myself. I bought Woman’s Day and Family Circle at the supermarket and clipped recipes from the newspaper (some were really, really bad; Crab Manila, with about 50 times too much salt, became a code word for culinary failure in our house). Although I thought of myself as a radical intellectual (this was in 1965), I nonetheless seemed to expect myself to be a good wife, too. I suspect this is true of many of us who were born in the 1940s, raised in the ’50s, and turned loose on the world in the ’60s.
The women’s movement of the early ’70s arrived just in time. It gave me complete justification for not cooking. In fact, announcing that I would no longer cook was my main form of rebellion. It was a decision that didn’t threaten my marriage: I don’t think my husband cared all that much (remember Crab Manila…), and in any case he would have supported my feminist zeal, given that he was supposed to be Jean-Paul Sartre and I, Simone de Beauvoir. However, and this was my secret, it fitted right in with my instinctive resistance to domesticity, and my anger at being the one stuck in the kitchen. Suddenly, I wasn’t unwomanly or lazy or selfish; I was politically avant-garde!
I don’t want to slide over the anger part. It’s always easier for me to admit to fear than to rage, and my problems with cooking are no exception. I was furious because cooking seemed part of a whole unwanted destiny in which part of my day, part of my brain, was always expected to be given over to food preparation. I think it is the strength of the anger that made my kitchen boycott last so long—years, actually. I did cook occasionally, on Thanksgiving or for dinner guests. I got by, barely.
When I met and married my second husband, I ventured into the kitchen only slightly more often. Supposedly this was because I worked full-time, and it’s true that cobbling together decent meals daily, in addition to one’s job, is a chore. But billions of people do it without complaint, and besides, a shortage of time or energy was only part of the story. I resented being The One Who Cooks more than I wanted the credit and pleasure of feeding my newly acquired family.
OR FEEDING MYSELF. During those noncooking years I rarely made foods appropriate to my own fish-and-dairy-eating semi-vegetarian diet: I nearly always did meat or chicken for the special-occasion meals I prepared. I’d had a low-level eating disorder when I was younger, and my whole relation to food was remote, unsensuous, self-denying. I subsisted mostly on toasted cheese or peanut butter on bagels and sesame noodles. I worried constantly about my weight.
Then, because of a skin allergy, I gave up wheat. As a result, none of my usual quick-fix “meals” would work anymore. Around the same time, I left my office job and began working at home. My locus shifted. Domestic no longer seemed a dirty word. Now that my stepchildren had grown up and left, my husband (once a single parent) saw no need to crank out meals anymore, so we were picking up sustenance here and there, rarely at the same time. The absence of shared food made our cavernously empty nest feel even hollower.
So, with fear and (at first) loathing, I began to make things I could eat, like soup and salad, fish and rice pilaf, broccoli and green beans. My husband adapted handsomely to a regime that was neither his usual fare nor his heart’s desire. I think he sensed that I was trying in my own way to take care of us both, so he put up with food that was the culinary equivalent of sensible shoes.
Meanwhile, I started to understand that cooking, once it is no longer merely a sacrifice I make for other people, can be gratifying. Epicurious.com is now on my favorites bar. I dabble in crème fraîche, leeks, and raspberry vinegar. I’m not what you’d call a foodie, but my meals are getting less Birkenstock, more cute ballet flats.
AND YET…The image of my mother, glowering and seething in the straitjacket of ’50s housewife, remains vivid. It’s a struggle for me to distinguish between cooking’s intrinsic value and all it has been freighted with. I still get out of it when I can. I still get terribly nervous. (Only a few weeks ago, a kindly house guest had to talk me through my first frittata as a trainer would a skittish, unbroken horse.) And I still get bursts of anger; I refuse offers of help, then bang pots and turn petulant and think, victim-like, Why are people sitting around drinking wine or reading the newspaper while I’m slaving over a hot stove? It’s rude. It’s unattractive. It subverts the very idea of feeding others as an act of love. It makes me wish I’d grown up with somebody who was spontaneous and careless and confident about cooking, a happy artist of the kitchen.
But if my mother failed to bustle contentedly at the stove or leave me a file box of recipes, in her way she stirred the pot. Her fierceness gave me the goods to be a writer and a rebel and then some. I’m strong enough that cooking isn’t going to kill me. As long as I have a choice.
It helps to have a husband who expects nothing, eats anything, and always does the dishes.