The holiday season is one of my favorite times of year for many, many reasons, but maybe my favorite reason of all is that it means I get to cook all kinds of food for a lot of people. I love to cook for the people I care about. I take great pride in my ability to put together meals that provide my loved ones with nourishment and pleasure. One of the best feelings in the world is watching someone as they savor a dish I cooked from scratch.
The ironic thing is that I used to be really bad at cooking. Like, I was so bad that it was a running joke in my family. Any time I ventured something more complicated than a can of Campbell’s soup or a tuna fish sandwich was certain to be an unmitigated disaster.
Here’s a good example: when I was twelve, my Young Women’s group at church had a potluck, and we were all supposed to bring a dessert to share. I came home from school and got right to work making brownies from a box. I mixed the batter according to directions, cooked the brownies until they were done, and put them on a plate, which I then proudly presented to my youth leader.
My stepmother, who had come with me to the potluck, picked up one of the brownies I’d made and bit a corner. Her face soured, and she quickly put the brownie down.
“Why does this taste like fries?” she asked me.
I shook my head; I had no clue.
She looked at me. “What did you put in these?”
I listed off the ingredients: “Eggs, water, oil….”
She narrowed her eyes. “Which oil did you use?”
“The one on the bottom shelf in the pantry?” I couldn’t remember – was there a second jug of oil?
“Caitlin! That’s the oil from the deep fryer! You didn’t see the big label that said ‘Fryer Oil’ on it?”
I have about a dozen stories like this. I’m not sure if it was after the time I burned sugar while trying to help make divinity or the time I made a batch of spaghetti that looked more like a log of glue, but at some point I decided that I was no good at cooking, and that I wasn’t going to do it anymore.
My decision to admit that I was bad at cooking coincided neatly with my embrace of feminist politics. I wasn’t terribly sophisticated in my thinking, and so I decided I was better off not cooking anyway, because it was “a woman thing,” like having children and getting married and wearing high heels, and so therefore it was not worth my time. Cooking was strictly for housewives and I wanted no part of it. (I was a real shit as a teenager, wasn’t I? But then, who wasn’t?) That a knee-jerk rejection of all things “feminine” made me just as much of a misogynist as the people I was railing against was a realization that wouldn’t surface for several more years.
My anti-cooking ways went unchallenged while I was with my ex-husband, who also agreed that I was a terrible cook and that I was not to be allowed near a stove. My ex was a decent cook, albeit an unadventurous one, and it was a bargain I was willing to strike.
When I got divorced, I moved into a tiny studio apartment, where I lived on my own for the very first time. My kitchen was about five feet away from my bed, and consisted of a sink, a fridge and what I referred to as my easy-bake oven. I bought a starter kit of cookware from Target and some plates and silverware. I was a big girl now, and it was time I learned how to cook.
Several times a week, I tried a new recipe. I invited people over and turned them into my guinea pigs. I cooked fish tacos and seitan stir-fry. I made Cuban-style black beans, chicken cordon bleu, eggplant lasagna, salmon with lemon and fresh dill, roasted root vegetables, baked asparagus, avocado-mango salsa, curried cauliflower, paella, pork chops with apples and sage – if I came across a recipe that looked intriguing, I tried it.
I’d put the steaming plates down in front of my guest and watch expectantly as they took their first bites. If they closed their eyes and paused to enjoy the mouthful of food, I knew I’d done well. And maybe it’s just because I have very polite friends, but I’ve rarely felt as though I had served something that did not taste good.
Soon I realized that cooking wasn’t nearly as difficult as it had once seemed. All it required was that I pay attention and have some patience. The best dishes weren’t necessarily the most complicated ones. I didn’t have to know how to dice my onions perfectly or churn my butter by hand. I just had to follow some directions, keep an eye on the food and use some common sense.
Over time I’ve come to take a deep and abiding pleasure in the preparation of food. Sure, I’ve become more health-conscious, which means I care a lot more about what goes into the food I eat – the preservatives and the artificial sweeteners and the excess salt and all that. I like to make food that is as close to whole as possible.
But it’s more than that, though. Making food is an act of creativity for me, a space where I can improvise and experiment. I can look at a recipe and think, that might taste better if I used goat cheese or what if I tried a dash of cayenne? I taste and adjust, and if it works, then great, and if it doesn’t, well, now I’ll know next time.
I also see it as a demonstration of love and affection. Food is the substance of which our bodies are made and the fuel that propels us through life, but it’s more than that, too. The meals shared, the senses indulged, the cultural ties reified – it binds us to one another in a very real way. Food is one of the most mundane aspects of our life, but it’s also one of the most ecstatic.
The gender politics of cooking are always with me as I putter around with spatula in hand. I’m aware that I could be seen as fulfilling part of my role as Woman, and once upon a time that would have been enough to keep me far, far away from the kitchen.
Now, though, I think about how antiquated those ideas are, and how they are predicated on the notion that women’s work is important but not Important, just as we say raising children is important, but we expect those who undertake parenting to do so with limited social support.
We agree that it needs to be done, but we’d rather spend as little time and money as possible while doing it. Food preparation is one of those tasks say is necessary, but when you look at the way we’ve organized our lives, it doesn’t seem like we actually feel that way at all. It seems like we see cooking as a pain in the ass, one we’d rather hand off to low-paid workers or processing plants or whichever loved one is willing to do it – anyone but ourselves. We just can’t be bothered, or maybe we are intimidated.
(I’ve also seen the converse, where people go out of their way to make cooking into something that requires so much time and effort that it becomes unattainable for the average person. At that point it’s no longer about eating and more about establishing yourself as a person of a certain moral and/or artistic sensibility.)
There’s no reason why cooking should be seen as the provenance of one gender, no more so than it should be seen as something that requires specialized training or access to a specific kind of food. Cooking is part of our shared heritage as human beings, one of the most basic things that allows us to do all of the other amazing things we are capable of doing. We don’t need to treat it as a rarified art form to be practiced only by highly-trained French chefs, nor do we need to see it as thankless work performed only by the wives and mothers of the world.
I say we appreciate cooking for what it is – a pleasurable, joyous way to take care of ourselves and each other.