I’m one of those girls who grew up thinking I could do anything. That I could be anything. Why? Because my mom told me so. All the time.
She believed it.
A stay-at-home mom who took odd jobs on the side to help make ends meet, mine spent her twenties raising two small kids and cooking from scratch. But that’s just the tiniest tip of it. This was the seventies and what she and my dad really wanted to do was live off the land.
And we basically did.
There was a full-acre garden, apple trees, plum trees and rows upon rows of ripe raspberries in our backyard. And whether the purpose was fruit or adventure, we piled into my uncle’s light blue van every year, the kind with a mountain scene plastered over the windows and a bed in the back.
Off we went, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all roaring over the mountain pass with Harry Chapin blasting while cigarette smoke billowed from triangular windows that merely tilted open. A gesture to fresh air.
The point: As many boxes of juicy eastern Washington cherries and peaches as we could fit in the van. The result: Full canning jars, and plenty of them. Perfect for eating fruit from a bowl all winter long — ideally perched in front of “The Carol Burnett Show”.
Life on the farm
Back home there were also chickens, rabbits, cows and pigs.
I can’t be sure but they seemed to have pretty happy lives, roaming freely in grassy pastures, eating all the fresh food today’s factory animals will never see. As the saying goes, these animals have “one bad day” and the circle of life continues.
The end of this particular circle was a meat locker downtown where the Willis brothers carefully prepped and wrapped each cut in wax paper, labeled with black ink on masking tape. On weeknights after dance class my mom would often stop to grab a roast, a packet of bacon or maybe some ribs to thaw out for later in the week. Our tiny farm was 20 minutes outside of town and like moms everywhere, mine was practical about her driving time.
She made everything. Every summer, 5-gallon buckets lined up like soldiers on our kitchen floor while homegrown cucumbers brined their way toward becoming pickles. We had homemade cookies. Homemade bread. There was once even homemade ketchup.
My mom didn’t HAVE to make all the things. Yes we were poor, but curiosity fueled my mom’s drive to create.
She grew up in an upper-middle class suburb with a mom who started her music career singing on the radio, a dad who wore a suit to work every day and two older brothers who became lawyers. I’m sure my grandparents expected her to marry young and have children. To be a homemaker who cooked lovely meals.
But what they didn’t expect was my dad.
My mom went through the wringer in her early days. We all did. In the seventies men were allowed to terrify their families. We were stuck. So close to a dream come true, but in this particular version a family dinner could turn into a nightmare with one wrong move.
Eventually, slowly, and later than anyone would have chosen, my mom earned a nursing degree, packed up my brother and I, and left the farm.
A new start
We moved to a tiny rental house in town, where I hosted my first boy-girl party on my 13th birthday. “Wear Bermudas!” I wrote on every invitation. There was Coke, Sprite and enough Cheetos to fuel the entire seventh grade. A pretty big departure for a kid who used to long for a Ding-Dong the way others wished for a pony, which I actually had.
A shift had taken place. Once my mom started working, she no longer cooked from scratch. No time. No desire, really. That dream had left the building.
She remarried and even though she was still the primary cook in our house, the eighties brought with them a handy new option for cooks everywhere: packaged meals. Rice-a-Roni, Prego and Doritos now lined our cupboards.
And to be honest, there were no complaints from me! Not this Hostess addict.
Cooking isn’t the problem
Looking back after all that, after all the adventures, after all the scars and so much shame, my mom must have felt liberated in her new life. But I don’t think she ever saw cooking as the enemy. It wasn’t cooking that held her back. Cooking never told her, “Sure you can open a bank account, with your husband’s signature.”
The problem was a bad marriage. And a patriarchy that supported men no matter what demons plagued them.
Can I suggest something? Outside of abuse and free of fear or oppression, cooking can be beautiful. It can be vital. It can bring people together, nourish them and start again tomorrow.
Being in the kitchen doesn’t always mean you’re stuck in the kitchen.
You better believe we’ve come a long way since then. My husband and I live on a few rolling acres of our own now. We have four kids, a garden, chickens, bees and our share of troubles. He goes to work every day, I have a series of projects to help make ends meet. But it’s nothing like the situation I grew up in.
I hate that cooking is associated with “women’s work”, that there’s so little respect given to the family cook that most of us have opted out of cooking most of the time. Brushing our palms together with a sigh of relief. One less thing on my list, thank you very much!
I hate it because having the skills to create fresh meals for my family is of my life’s biggest pleasures. Really. As with everything (And when I say everything I do mean laundry. And maybe nighttime potty training.) sometimes I feel overwhelmed. Like if I have to cook one more chicken breast it’ll be after I stab myself in the eyeball. That’s when I take a night off!
I’m not stuck in the seventies version of the woman I adored growing up. Nope. I can pivot straight into the eighties and say thank you, Papa John’s, for filling in the gaps with your delicious cheese pizza.
I’ve seen both sides of this thing and I say, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can be a powerhouse with a kickass career, a rock solid marriage, kids who love you AND also be a good cook. Maybe not every night, and who ever said that was the goal anyway? I don’t even cook every night and I basically make my living from the kitchen.
Let’s not set the bar so high that we can’t reach it. Cooking from scratch is best! Or so low that no one even wants to. Cooking is for suckers! On that note, do you think Tom Colicchio feels put out by cooking? When has Anthony Bourdain ever felt trapped in the kitchen? Can we borrow a little chutzpah from these guys and start feeling like champions in our own homes? Side note: both of these men are dads, which is proof positive that it can be done.
I choose to cook. I choose to teach my girls AND my boy how to plan meals, how to shop, how to feed themselves healthy and delicious food, how to prepare dishes and share them with other people.
Along with reading, writing, thinking critically and seeing the world with an open mind and a courageous heart, these are life skills that I want them to have.
Then maybe they really could do anything.