I like food, but other people just like it more. Still, I can’t quite shake the feeling that domestic-goddessery is expected of me, and I’m failing miserably.
I dumped a cold glob of Seafood Portofino—the remains of the previous night’s dinner—into a bowl to microwave, unaware that I was approaching a deeply erotic moment.
“I could cook this summer,” I said to my husband, who was making a salad for lunch. My husband’s the food guy. He’s a great cook, had made this fantastic meal the night before, as he did most nights—and I felt guilty. I tried to rally my limited enthusiasm and make it a project: Sonya Back in the Kitchen with Ingredients and Implements.
He chopped lettuce. “Why bother?” he asked.
I looked over at him. “Really?”
“Yeah. You do so much other stuff,” he said, listing the tasks I tended to: the bills, the insurance, the house stuff, the juggling of a full-time job plus overtime, the appointments, taxes, supplies for care and upkeep of the child, and so on.
The microwave dinged, and I looked at him and laughed the laugh of a lottery winner. I don’t like to brag, but in this case it’s clear I had received a windfall that had nothing to do with me. My husband is a very sexy man. Not just because of this, but this doesn’t hurt.
Food and I get along fine, but we have a very casual-Friday relationship. I’ve been happy with the easy and low-budget combinations: a can of corned beef hash and a can of olives. A salad and a baked potato with some Indian lime relish. Hummus, after I made its acquaintance in college. Sandwiches. Mac and cheese with frozen peas thrown in. Scrambled eggs with ketchup. Cereal is fine for Seinfeld, but a woman who eats like that is clearly a Communist.
I suspect that if I were a man, this would be “cute” or “normal,” but there’s always an uncomfortable pause when I make my confession. Questions are raised—what went wrong: upbringing, women in the kitchen, horrible accident with a food processor?
Well, I did help start a grease fire while attempting to fry donuts in a saucepan at a childhood friend’s house. Although the ceiling and her eyebrows caught on fire, this was not the start of the cooking impasse.
Nor is it my mom’s fault: She’s a kitchen dynamo, filling the house with the scent of fried potatoes, porkchops, brats, and other German bedrocks. And she’s open-minded and versatile: Our traditional family dinner on Christmas Eve was taco salad.
I existed fine with my handfuls of nuts and my grazing routines until I began my decades of cohabitation with various boyfriends. I noticed that my stomach would start to churn as the sun descended, and the evening was always hungry. My stomach wasn’t rumbling; this was gendered five o’clock guilt. In the midst of writing, studying, doing full-time employment things, I always seemed to push the thoughts of meal-planning until around 4pm, at which point the only thing to be done was to make a salad or buy a pre-roasted chicken from the deli case.
No man I lived with ever looked at his watch, then at the significantly empty table, while tapping his foot impatiently. Maybe a few comments were made when it became clear no home-roasted chickens would appear from the oven. More than the lack of roast chickens, I felt a moral kind of failing: I should want to roast chickens, shouldn’t I? The men I lived with often cooked lovely pasta dishes or used crock pots with aplomb, and I like to think that I helped clear the way for this exploration into their inner Julia Childs.
Still, as I chewed their creations and praised them effusively, I resented the fact that they got extra credit for what I was supposed to do, for what I therefore did only grudgingly. To contribute to my own kitchen-shaming, I kept an elaborate grade-book in my head of my food fuck-ups. This doesn’t make me a bad kitchen feminist, of course—it means I’m having a little delayed ability to throw off our millennia of being chained to the hearth. Being pro-choice about cooking means accepting that some women just don’t swing that way.
Around me, the kitchen memoirs began to appear. HGTV’s cooking shows listed every possible niche market, and a few times I watched—Bam!—waiting to be inspired by osmosis. But I always flipped back to CNN, mourning every evening when my inadequacy would be revealed between 5pm and 6:30pm.
Was I lazy? No, I could work like a maniac. Was it possible to have a cooking disorder? I did have a uterus, and yet it didn’t seem too talented at whipping up ganache. Why did I have this horrible Betty Crocker anxiety? I was bad at cooking, and taking the time to get better while being observed by someone else whose dinner you would also ruin was such a public way to fail. My cheapness didn’t help; any ingredient off the beaten path seemed expensive and wasteful and I don’t like moving out of my comfort zone for some expensive ingredient or piece of kitchen implement that then demands to be continually employed. Also, I had this 1950s fear (an era I did not live in) that if I started cooking I’d wind up in the Valley of the Dolls with an apron tied around a 12-inch waist (which happened to no one I know).
Maybe I could blame a school musical from fourth grade, a sort of dystopian Martians-invade-and-everyone-sings-and-becomes-friends production. My job was to wear green face paint and stand very smartly in a row of my fellow Martians singing this song: “Energy pill. Energy pill. Never a favor or never a thrill! Fortunate is how we feel, as you can plainly see! We never worry for our next meal. It’s always gonna be… an…energy pill. Energy pill.”
I guess that vision of no food was supposed to be scary, but it sounded great to me.
Friends have tried to woo me to their side of the kitchen, thinking that if I just had a good experience, I’d be converted. I’ve cooked many lovely things: apple pies will boost any fledgling cook’s self-esteem, and I do nice stuffed cabbage, a passable lemon-chicken thing, and I’ve sort of always liked ruining stir-fry. I have my private victories, and I have fed others well. I like wilted spinach with bacon and walnuts. I love food, but other people love it more.
I should just ignore foodies like I ignore football because both cultures have nothing to do with me—but the culture of saffron and creme fraiche gets under my skin. The competitiveness makes me feel insecure, and this weakness is the insecurity of a woman who can’t quite believe that domestic-goddessery is really not expected of me. (Right?)
The posting of dinner pictures on Facebook puts me off a bit, but I have to tell myself these victorious images are meant for other audiences, not to shame me into getting back into the kitchen. Other people’s dinners are not trying to make me feel inadequate.
Recently, I sat down after cooking something less than lovely and googled “I hate to cook,” hoping for a mommy online support group. Instead, I got “The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Cookbook.”
When I met the man who would become my second husband, I wooed him with egg sandwiches for lunch because that’s the fixings I had in the fridge. I invited him over for dinners composed around the central axis of kielbasa combined with whatever was in the CSA box. Then I invited him over for dinner and handed him some meat when he walked in the door. I was a single mother raising a 4-year-old and working full-time, so he was very understanding. And because he liked food, he would rather cook something he enjoyed than eat something infused with my hatred and burned to a crisp because I was trying to read or write while cooking.
Then, once I had a captive cook in the house, my body—which subsisted so nicely on the ingredients I gave it—slyly collapsed. I began to develop a thyroid condition that everyone in my family seems to get, then I got rheumatoid arthritis. (No, I don’t think the lack of saffron in my diet or absence of Le Creuset cookware had anything to do with my conditions.)
Slowly over the past three years, in addition to taking my meds, I’ve been investigating the food component of autoimmune disorders. I started eating more walnuts. After taking on the initial challenge of a gluten-free diet, I began to see a decrease in my pain levels, and the added bonus was that fewer ingredient choices meant fewer things to attempt to cook.
The truth is that I don’t even care. I like making my own hideously colored green smoothies, which are the energy pill all Martians dream of.
Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, as well as a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield University Low-Residency MFA Program. Find out more at sonyahuber.com