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The Good Cook's Curse

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I admit first of all that I come from a family of culinary Olympians. My earliest memories entered my temporal lobes via the nose: my mom’s fragrant Sunday gravy cooking over the stove for hours; the fragrance of garlic sautéing in olive oil on meatless Fridays; the anise-scented biscotti that my Aunt Rita made, Aunt Chickie’s stuffed cabbages; Aunt Anna’s ricotta cheesecakes; Aunt Theresa’s pizza. All were crafted from scratch, sometimes requiring a day of effort, often with the help of a cheerful coterie of aproned aunts.

Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmom’s house was like an Olympic opening ceremony, with wave after wave of outstanding specimens. The salad, pasta with meatballs, the turkey itself with all the trimmings, the desserts that my aunts brought in. Even the simplest food was prepared with great brio and great love, and served in lavish amounts, one gold medal winner after another.

Bad cooking — involving something that came out of dented cans or an envelope of dried seasoning for spaghetti sauce — was something that non-Italians did. We Italians did things the right way, the way we learned from our mothers, with no shortcuts. Any event where the food was stingy or halfhearted was a flop, something to be whispered about afterwards. We avoided most dinners at Protestant churches for this reason.

As I grew older, and learned the basics of mixing meatballs and cooking pizzelli from my mom, I learned that cooking well is not only a way to show love; it also attracts admiration and attention, and puts people in your debt: neighbors, coworkers, boyfriends. This sounds very screwed up but it’s the truth. Anyone who is the least bit insecure can relate.

Yet, while I crave the attention that comes from the results, cooking for me has always been a solitary sport. While the meal is the performance, the actual process of cooking is both grueling and all-consuming, like practicing for hours at the barre before a ballet. I can be in the kitchen for most of the day and lose total track of the time. It is a way for me to lose myself, to tune out the world by disappearing into something all-consuming. That’s why I never answer yes when an anxious guest asks if I need any help, even though we’d probably all enjoy one another more if the meal were a group effort.

So even during my busiest times as a working woman, I always considered skillful cooking as a duty and a pleasure that could not be sacrificed. For my daughter Rachel’s third birthday, when I was heavily pregnant with son Ryan, we spent the day in Philadelphia visiting the old Please Touch Museum, but I still found time to make her a homemade cake in the shape of a train, replete with Oreo wheels, pretzel logs for the flatcar’s cargo, and a boxcar filled with M & Ms. When I coordinated one office Christmas party, I had it catered but still cooked for eight hours. When anybody visits us, whether it’s family or strangers, I feel like it’s a command performance in the kitchen. The command doesn’t come from my family and friends – who probably wish I would just relax — but internally.

But lately I have found myself envying people who’ve let it all go; who can spend the morning before a dinner party cross-country skiing, hiking with their families or reading a good book, or can just transfer some salad from a bag to a bowl and hand their spouse the hamburgers to barbecue for guests. Or who can – as one acquaintance, a well-heeled mother of eight – tell a hungry child at dinner to “just microwave a baked potato.”

Good cooking can be both pleasure and compulsion. It’s a hobby that borders on extreme sport. It’s so absorbing that I not only forget myself, but I also tune out everybody else.

A beautifully cooked meal from scratch is a gift, but nowadays it’s an impractical one. Many times my husband Bob has suggested that we “just have a salad” for dinner but I never act on it. My in-laws, when they visit, beg me “not to fuss too much” but I can’t.

Lately, as I move through middle age and with only Bob and John and I left at home, I am trying to be more relaxed in the kitchen. I’ve given myself permission to top store-brand pasta with a jar of Barilla vodka sauce (with some fresh basil sprinkled over it all.) We’ve been making Kraft macaroni and cheese more often; Stouffers if people under 13 from outside the family are dining with us. We’ve discovered the wonders of frozen corn dogs and meals from a Trader Joe’s sack tossed into a hot skillet. Sometimes we even have sandwiches for dinner.

Somewhere in heaven my grandmother is thinking about staging an intervention.

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