It was 1995, my first Christmas as a newlywed, and the excitement of being a new wife, of building our first home together was very fresh. There were many of gifts under our tree that year – many that were wonderful and chosen with love, but there are a few that I will never forget: a large glass mixing bowl; a cookbook; and a mixer. Oh and flour. There was a bag of flour.
I was pleased, but a bit confused. When my husband-to-be and I met, I was living in a studio apartment in New York City. There was no kitchen. Not a small, tucked away kitchen in a cupboard; not a tiny broom closet of a kitchen. No kitchen. At all. And this was not a problem for me. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were easily and cheaply purchased downstairs, from any of hundreds of delis and take-away places. Or I’d go out to dinner. I was in graduate school; I was a New Yorker. I had no need of cooking. I guess I thought my husband
would’ve figured it out. Instead, a bag of flour. Someone, it seemed, was going to have to learn to cook.
But though we spent the first six years of our marriage in suburban Australia, I successfully resisted all attempts to “domesticate” me (my mother-in-law’s word). We ate out a lot; we ate sandwiches; we ordered in. After that, we spent six years in Hong Kong, where we quickly hired and grew entirely dependent upon a live-in domestic helper. I loved every moment of it. Especially recalling a prophetic conversation with a certain ex-boyfriend, who complained that I didn’t wash the dishes well enough after I cooked him dinner. “I’m going to have someone to do that for me,” I recall saying, with all the cockiness of a 22-year-old. Or was it defensiveness? Who can be sure. Anyway, every time our helper made us dinner, I luxuriated in the knowledge that this little dream had come true.
And then it ended. We moved back to Australia, to a further-out suburb, with two young children in tow. I recall the first few nights in our serviced apartment, staring at each other blankly when dinnertime rolled around. Someone was going to have to cook for this family. We eyed each other nervously.
You see, cooking in my childhood home had been a battleground. My father was a true Type A and his attempts to teach me to cook were terrifying. My mother was the breadwinner, working in New York City for nearly fifty years. Her specialties were spaghetti with sauce from a jar and…well, that was it. That’s how I’d know they had a fight: we’d have spaghetti with sauce from a jar for dinner. Unlike oth
er households, there were no joyous days spent cooking as a family, no recipe books handed down with handwritten notes in the margins. There was the microwave, and strange stews made by my father.
Twenty years after those childhood stumblings, I still found the kitchen a place of terror. The first thing I did, trying to learn to cook in Australia in 2008, was to google how to cook a boiled egg! Thank God for google.
It is now four years later. Through eagle-eyed observations at friends’ homes (Things I really said: Is that how you open an avocado? What exactly is cream the butter? Ok, chicken – how long, what temperature, covered, not? How do you know when fish is done?) My new friends were patient; the internet was kind. I found the answers. I tried. I failed. I tried again. I bought a food processor. I opened and began to use that cookbook my husband gave me in 1996 for our first Christmas. I began to use the huge pile of cookbooks that friends, clients and family had given me since 1996.
And slowly, ever so slowly, my confidence is growing. Just today, I was cooking three meals all at once, the kids dinner, our dinner for later in the evening, and banana bread as a treat. I was juggling it all, not looking at cookbooks, just letting it all happen.
And it occurred to me: I’ve done it. I can finally say I’ve learned to cook. I can have friends around for dinner. I can make the carb-loading pasta and sauce I need to support my races. And I can make my home smell of love, the love that comes from providing fresh, wholesome, delicious food for a family.
Can I do it without being a Type A stress-head? Not yet. Not really. But I am working on it, working on letting go of perfection and gathering up pleasure. Trying to make my kitchen my kitchen, and not that of my parents.
For now, it is enough that I can make what I need to nourish my family and myself.
And when I run my half-marathon in 10 days time, well, I will make a mean Spaghetti Bolognese and there will be no jar of sauce anywhere in sight.
Which goes to show, we can change. We can escape the legacy we were brought up with.
And that is delightful knowledge worth cooking for.
- R.I.P Fresh Home Cooking (momentmatters.wordpress.com)
- Come Into My Kitchen | Comfort foods keep connection to family roots (kansascity.com)
- Eat Your Books: A Master Index for Your Cookbooks (simplycooking.wordpress.com)