I grew up in a family of scratch cooks. All my relatives and by relatives I mean the women, cooked every night. Our family gatherings were filled with dishes that were all of the homemade variety. It was pretty basic and rustic fare. No one went to fancy culinary schools or apprenticed with world renowned chefs but the food was wholesome and fresh.
A couple of family members did go on to own their own restaurants, though these were relatively short-lived endeavors. I also have an aunt who started a successful at home baking business. Each of my aunts as well as my mother had dishes for which they were known and therefore expected to always bring to our pretty large get-togethers. I had no interest in what I then viewed as kitchen slavery.
I was an unwilling participant in anything domestically related. I hated it all.
I didn’t have much of a choice to opt out though. I was fully expected to help out in the kitchen as much as my mother deemed necessary which was a lot more than I was willing. A strange by-product occurred. Although I lacked the interest, I learned how to cook in spite of myself.
When my mother returned to work full time, my job was to cook at least once a week. Suddenly, I became known for my own signature dish, baked mac-n-cheese. I made it often because it was easy and I was lazy but instead of my family becoming sick of it, they looked even more forward to it. Was I a better cook than I realized?
Imagine my surprise when after I left home, I met people who actually didn’t know how to cook at all? Some didn’t even know how to boil water.
If How to Boil Water was the actual name of a nineties cooking show then I am pretty sure there were indeed did not know. I still find this fact disturbing.
After the birth of my first child which was preceded by a long hiatus of eating packaged ravioli at the kitchen sink accompanied by bad Chablis or eating microwaved chain food when out with friends (aka, my single days), I reached a point where a single chastising by my husband, who caught me eating chocolate cake for breakfast one day, changed my kitchen course entirely.
My husband rather indelicately told me that now that we had a toddler, I couldn’t get away with stuff like mindlessly stuffing myself with cake, for breakfast no less. I knew that he was right but I also noticed that he was telling me this like it was my job to fix it and not his.
Though somewhat bewildered by my husband’s own less than stellar eating habits. He literally had no leg to stand on plus at the time, he was also a smoker, I returned to my cooking roots by starting to cook every night.
It was just like riding a bike.
It all came so naturally. Spurred on by the man who was always after a good home cooked meal (who isn’t?) and showing a gender traditional bent that I was not enamored of, I still became a dynamo in the kitchen. I could move like a force of nature and multi-task like nobody’s business with the end goal of getting that meal on the table.
I expanded my repertoire because I never went out for my mother’s same and unchanging ten dishes in constant rotation (two of which were saved for special occasions only) which probably explained why no one minded all the mac and cheese I made growing up. In other words, I finally embraced the role until one day, I stopped embracing it.
Like anything else, I grew tired of the daily grind. In the spring and summer, I made extra weekly shopping trips to draw new and needed inspiration from the bounty of vegetables that slowly reveal themselves in season. Summer is a time to challenge my creativity while keeping a relaxed perspective. Maybe I would have a new dish or two to add to my regular repertoire or inspire my kids to create their own signature dishes one day.
Problem was that I was stuck in my rut and unable to break free. My family came to depend on my meals and their expectations grew even great with time. The same child who inspired my own cooking creativity was himself a freak of habit and nightly expectation. I continued to cook with him as my primary inspiration.
My daughter hated every other meal I made, deeming them overly focused on health as I refused to cook her separate dishes of nutritionally devoid “kid” food. I stuck to my guns. I prayed for her startlingly unevolved palate though I knew my son’s sophisticated one was not the norm in our taste-bud hijacked society. I thought optimistically that maybe she’d come around one day. She reluctantly did but it was a very slow journey and still very much a work in progress.
These days, I cook every night for my family whether I want to or not. Many days, I don’t want to. I am endlessly being asked “what’s for dinner?” I hate this question even though I always know the answer. I bought one of those tabletop chalkboards to write down the nightly menu, like a restaurant lists its blackboard specials. Half the time I forget to use it. The other half, nobody bothers to read it even in a prominent location. They would simply rather ask.
My husband used to like to cook and used to go out for some real showstopper meals but those days are gone and since he currently is our primary breadwinner which automatically gives him a free pass as it further cements my cook’s prison. Let’s face it, shopping, preparing and cooking are the biggest time sucks.
Those cooking blogs do nothing for me because they ultimately try to pull the wool over our eyes by glamorizing the unglamorous. I cannot be reeled in with those gorgeous, high end photos. I hate scrolling through eight thousand steps. I already know how to cook, just give me the recipe, no photos necessary.
But, those early cooking lessons way back when I was too young to care, they were what helped shape me into the person I am today. One of the best things I learned from my mother was the critical importance in knowing how to cook and feed a family. The thing I took for granted has become one of the most influential aspects of my life. It’s funny how that happens.
My mother has not only passed on her cooking knowledge to me but to others as well including my own children and my father who desperately needed a hobby after he stopped working.
I may not always love the process and there are times when I wish someone would make a real start to finish effort to cook a meal for me once in a while but I would not trade what I have learned and daily put into practice for anything.
Being able to cook and cook well is its own kind of freedom. The kind that comes from confidently knowing that no matter what the circumstances, you can always rely on a home cooked meal.