But it wasn’t always that way. In my 20s, I loved cooking, because it wasn’t something I had to do everyday, there was no family depending on me to get it done, and it didn’t matter how long it took or if something was ruined in the process – if all else failed, I could just pop in a frozen dinner and call it a night. It was really more of an exercise in playing house.
So while I still love the theoretical novelty of the experience of preparing a meal, I do not like the duty of putting dinner on the table every night, or even some nights. It’s stressful and overwhelming, and when even the smallest thing goes wrong I feel like the hugest failure.
Every time I start talking about this, in pour the zillion “helpful” suggestions from the world’s Martha Stewarts. Get a crock pot so you can cook whole chickens and then have some for stew afterward! Make 10 meals on a Sunday and freeze ahead for a month! Create a rotating 3-week meal plan! Try steaming your vegetables! People, I really don’t think you’re getting this. I don’t need help with cooking, whether in terms of meal planning or food prep technique. I don’t need recipe ideas – that’s what Googlin’ on the internet is for. And I don’t need your suggestions for food I should buy, or a bag of tomatoes from your garden.
I don’t want help. I want liberation.
I once remarked in front of my mother that I would give an appendage – say, oh, my left arm – if it meant all of my meals would be taken care of for life, and that I would never need to cook anything ever again. She was horrified, for reasons I’m still not sure about, other than that I guess she just really, really loves cooking. “Don’t you feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in being able to provide your family with a nice meal?” she asked. But again, this is something I do not understand. I can order take-out and feel pride and satisfaction in providing my family with a nice meal, after all. All I feel when I cook is the urge to put myself out of my misery.
Ok, now this is where all of you anti-Marthas start in with the other kind of helpful suggestions. Just serve cereal for dinner! Heat up leftovers! Make dinner from a box! Trust me, I do that last one rather frequently. But this still misses the point. The alternating rage and despair when I cook dinner has nothing to do with feelings of guilt for not being a supermom. It’s not that I want to make the perfect dinner. I just don’t want to make dinner at all. Honestly, who likes doing something that’s difficult, time-consuming, tedious, and needs to be repeated every. single. night? That, to me, is the ultimate definition of hell – like that guy that has to keep pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom over and over again, for all of eternity. What kind of life is that?
An ordered life. A sane life. That’s what the cooking lovers and matrons of a well-kept house are thinking at this moment. Yeah, you’re probably right. But here’s the thing: growing up, no one taught me to value cooking as an integral part of the household, nor was I taught how to actually cook. Notice that these are two different things. Parents need to instill in their children the basic cooking skills, such as planning and purchasing groceries, prepping various food items for dinner, and then working with them and organizing them so that all components are ready at the same time. But just as importantly, if not more so, parents also need to teach their children the value of dinner time and the role of sharing a meal in the family’s life. Thinking about it now, growing up, dinner was hectic: one or both parents were just coming home or busy with some project, food was thrown on the table for whoever to grab, I was doing homework at the table (something I was praised for), and my mother usually ate standing up in the kitchen while everyone else sat down at the table, though not all at the same time. There just wasn’t “dinner time” in the traditional sense in my house, and I certainly wasn’t taught basic cooking skills.
I think my parents just tried to do the best they could, and they figured that those kind of life skills would be imparted to me at school somehow or during the course of my life. And they eventually were: I first tried my hand at cooking in college, and over time I did get better at a few simple dishes. So it wasn’t all bad. However, if you are raising kids now, and you don’t want them to turn out like me, I suggest you take some time to show them a thing or two about meal preparation – not just how to fry an egg, but how to make an omelette, if you know what I mean. And then, try to sit down and eat that omelette together as a family. I’m not saying this because I’m some sort of goody gumdrops traditionalist, but out of my intuitive sense that my trouble in the kitchen is somehow connected to the early impressions I formed around dinner and my family growing up.
But then, what do I know. I just told you to make eggs for dinner, which is probably ridiculous. So just order a pizza.