Learning to cook

Everybody has to start somewhere

By
September 17, 2008

When we were first dating, Bob taught me how to sauté garlic, chop vegetables, and flip an omelet. (He made me practice the omelet by flinging a piece of bread in a frying pan repeatedly until I got the wrist motion just right.) After work, we’d walk to the grocery store, where we’d buy just enough groceries for that night’s meal and a bottle of wine. We’d spend the rest of the night cooking some crazy-good pasta dish that Bob — who had worked in restaurants in college and grad school — had invented. Food had never tasted as good as it did when Bob cooked.

I’d grown up on Hamburger Helper, switching to Gardenburgers when I became a vegetarian in college. In my early adult life, I’d eaten whatever was convenient, an unimaginative diet consisting mostly of cereal, chips and salsa, and peanut butter and jelly. Cooking and eating with Bob felt like visiting another country. I imagined Italy or France.

One of Bob’s first gifts to me was a cookbook, The Art of Chinese Vegetarian Cooking. He left it on my desk one morning at the newspaper where we both worked. I was more taken with the idea of the gift (he’d called me “honey” in the inscription!) than with the gift itself. The unfamiliar recipes and their numerous steps, each recipe divided into preparation and cooking, intimidated me. Was bean curd the same as tofu? Where would I get coriander leaves or an anise bulb? What did those ingredients even look like?

Bob, not I, cooked from this book. Ten years of marriage later, we still have it; the pages are stiff and splattered, the recipes for hot and sour vegetables and seared bean curd with sesame ginger sauce are dog-eared. And I’ve still not cooked a single recipe from it.

chopping peppers
Every cook has to figure things out somehow.

Until recently, our nightly cooking ritual mirrored the routine we established in the early days of our relationship: Bob, the head chef, planned and made the meals, while I, the sous-chef, multitasked as the beverage getter, the compost dumper, the dog feeder, the dish do-er. I had brought a few recipes to the relationship (a Moosewood pizza dough, a beans-and-rice dish), and I pirated easy appetizer and salad ideas from friends and restaurants. But I was the less-adventurous cook, the less likely of the two of us to try something new.

We were both happy with the set-up, and I was proud to have a husband who cooked more than I did. “Bob’s the cook,” I’d tell friends. “I’m a wreck in the kitchen.” It was one of those myths about our relationship, one of those things you repeat so much that you forget it isn’t entirely true. I enjoyed saying it, the subtext being: Look at us! Look at how we have transcended traditional gender roles!

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But when our daughter, Olive, was born a year and a half ago, the meal pattern changed. I became Olive’s primary caregiver, working outside the house less than 20 hours a week. Bob went back to work full-time. Most nights, Bob gets home around 6:30, and he wants to spend time with Olive before she goes to bed. I’m ready for a break from childcare by then, and so it makes sense that I make dinner while we talk about our days and Bob watches Olive.

Suddenly, it seemed, I was the head chef.

I was uninspired in my new role at first, making easy dishes like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and old standbys such as Gardenburgers, beans and rice, and homemade pizzas. I mocked the housewifey-ness of getting dinner on the table by 7, asking Bob in a sappy voice if I could get him a drink while he played with Olive or if I could pack him a lunch for the next day.

My discomfort in my new role was due, in part, to the fact that it did seem so housewifey. But I was also intimidated by the kitchen. I had never seen it as my domain. It was, it seems to me, a uniquely Generation X moment. We Gen-X women are perhaps one of the first generations whose mothers didn’t teach us to cook.

While I was growing up, my own mother had worked hard running our family’s business and was often busy volunteering with civic groups. When she got home, she didn’t have a lot of energy for cooking. Though she’s always been a fantastic baker, cooking didn’t interest her. It wasn’t necessarily a feminist statement, as it was for a lot of baby-boomer women; it was just a fact of life. Mom couldn’t see the logic in slaving to prepare a meal for three that would disappear in less than 20 minutes. And so we ate meatloaf and spaghetti, Hamburger Helper and Tuna Helper; we ate pizza out every Friday night.

I admire Mom’s business acumen and I’m proud of her civic values. But I think I inherited from her a certain impatience when it comes to following recipes with more than a few steps. And, following Bob’s lead all those years, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to improvise.

During Olive’s first summer, we walked to farmers’ markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I was surprised by how much pleasure this routine gave me, from selecting the produce and bantering with the farmers to walking home with berry stains on our faces and clothes, Olive’s stroller loaded down with carrots and melons and fresh greens.

Sometimes we’d stop at the bakery, the fish store, or the market on the way home. I fell in love with the cheesemongers at the Kiva natural-food store, the way they described their Gorgonzolas, how it might be better to buy the cheaper one to crumble in the salad, or how I should go with the more expensive Parmesan for my pizza, since I only need a little and it will be worth it. I found myself lingering over the samples, asking needless questions.

That summer, I perfected a savory galette. It wasn’t a difficult dish at all — just a buttery, free-form crust, topped with a fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan, and basil — but it was a crowd pleaser, and a huge boost to my culinary ego.

tomato galette
A savory galette is basically a free-form vegetable pie.

In the fall, I learned to make pasta puttanesca from a friend, adding spicy olives for some heat. I began baking bread to go with it. I added yams and tomatoes to my bean-and-rice bowl, and started caramelizing onions for my pizzas.

This winter, I discovered the rapture of homemade soup: The smells! The comfort! The leftovers! I made miso soup, tortilla soup, and a soup with beans, squash, and kale. I cooked a carrot-ginger soup for a friend during a hectic time in her life, and her enjoyment of that soup gave me an unexpected high for days.

I wouldn’t say that becoming head chef has been easy. I’m messy and slow and short on what you might call technique. Lacking an olive-pitting device and the foresight to buy pitted olives for a fig-and-olive tapenade, I recently pitted a cup of tiny Niçoise olives using my teeth.

And there have been failures — some salvageable, others necessitating takeout or a quick batch of scrambled eggs. We have eaten burned pasta, dry pad Thai with crunchy, undercooked rice noodles, and dishes in courses that were supposed to be eaten all at once. We often eat well past 8 p.m.

Despite the defeats, I realized recently that I actually enjoy cooking. While that might seem like a small thing, it was a total epiphany for me.

I can’t help thinking there’s something culturally significant happening here, that finding a quiet joy in cooking is similar to the way so many women my age have found reward in knitting or sewing their own clothes, in domestic duties long-suffered by our foremothers and sworn off by our mothers. By acknowledging that these endeavors actually require thought and skill and creativity, it makes them somehow seem less housewifey, less worthy of resentment.

You could call this post-feminism (insert treatise and angry first-wave feminists here), but I think there’s something more timeless to it, some deeply rooted satisfaction in making something with your own two hands.

This is not the sort of story that ends with me starting a cooking blog or wanting to become a full-time homemaker. Nothing that drastic. This ends with me trying out a new recipe for, say, dal while Olive toddles around and Bob hovers, asking what he can do to help just as I used to. I love asking him to get me glass of wine or chop some vegetables or feed the dogs.

Even more, I love to watch his face as he eats. It’s a little bit like dating again.

Jamie Passaro is a writer based in Eugene, Oregon.

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1. by Vladka on Sep 19, 2008 at 10:56 AM PDT

Jamie, I love your story of how you became a passionate cook :) There are many of them and it’s always encouraging, it’s just like regular love-stories :) I have to say I always loved to cook, so my way to cooking was more gradual, thanks to my grandma. My mom is a terrible cook, she doesn’t like to cook, and doesn’t know how. But I learned from my grandma who never sticked to “good old” recipes only, and always experimented, finding new recipes, giving us, her grandchildren, the best - the basic techniques so that we always know what’s going on in our kitchen. Both me and my sister love to cook. I hope I can teach my children to be chefs in their kitchen, never to stop looking for new ways to please the palates of their loved ones. Cooking, after all, is one of the many ways to show your love to the person you cook for :)

2. by Kathleen Holt on Sep 19, 2008 at 2:30 PM PDT

Jamie! Love this essay. It really rings true for me, too, from the processed food childhood to being sous chef to my hubby for most of our 16-year relationship. I joke that I came to enjoy cooking after I started watching Top Chef and realizing that cooking is merely learned technique and understanding what food combinations work best together.

But the truth is that I’ve come to enjoy cooking since becoming a mother. I want to give her memories of frittatas made with goat cheese, asparagus and new potatoes in the spring, or tomato and corn salads in the summer, or risotto with pancetta and greens in the fall. Hooray for the rediscovery of the home kitchen!

3. by Nan Patience on Sep 23, 2008 at 10:35 AM PDT

I loved this post and can relate so much.

I’m a GenX, post feminist type, and my cooking skills were not great either going into marriage and motherhood. My husband was the better cooker when this all started, and I couldn’t cook anything as well as his mother. I live in an area in the countryside where mothers were still teaching their daughters to cook while I spent many of my formative years in the hustle and bustle of city life with a family that was caught up in the excitement of non-domestic pursuits.

It has struck me many times during these years of housewifery and motherhood that these simple needs and pleasures are meaningful and important. I do have times when I’d love to be the one getting fed for a change, and I do go through periods of time when I just can’t get motivated to cook much.

4. by jpassaro on Sep 23, 2008 at 1:42 PM PDT

Thanks for the great comments. Kathleen, I really like your point about coming around to cooking after becoming a mother. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s true for me, too. I want our daughter to be a part of the whole process of making meals, and I want her to know that distinct kind of nourishment that comes from eating foods homemade with local products.

5. by anonymous on Sep 26, 2008 at 11:43 AM PDT

Great post :) Like you, my mother didn’t really cook when I was growing up, so I never learned how, and it was actually my significant other who taught me most of what I know. I think I’ve come a long way in the last couple of years. When we cook together, I still tend to defer to his skills and knowledge, but I do pretty well on my own. Also,he suggested that I try the frying pan trick with a tortilla instead of bread :)

6. by DawnHeather Simmons on May 20, 2009 at 3:41 PM PDT

what a delightful post! Luckily for me, my mom was a stay-at-home mom for my early years -- and a great cook! I learned a lot from her. I think it’s cool that part of your own learning developed out of walking to the farmer’s markets and discovering the delights there. And it’s cool that you’ve learned to love cooking! I have friends (mostly young) who don’t cook and don’t enjoy cooking, and I kind of feel sorry for them. I think they miss a lot. There is something truly enriching about being able to choose and prepare a meal for those you love. Congratulations on finding that in your own life! And thank you for this posting! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

7. by the weekly veggie on Sep 10, 2009 at 11:52 AM PDT

I’m another GenXer right there with you on this one. Though for me, it was a health issue that got me to take a second look at cooking and food in general. I’ve stopped being conflicted about the ‘housewifey’ issue. I now look at cooking as a creative outlet that nourishes the body and mind. But I did start a blog. Take a look: www.theweeklyveggie.com Thanks for this post!

8. by Bruce Harrington on Sep 16, 2009 at 8:17 PM PDT

A wonderful post. I came into the picture as the cooking guy, but the kitchen has been a wonderful place to explore that I missed as a child and my wife has yet to discover (she was touched by your story). Our daughter (8 year-old) follows me into the kitchen and together we go over everything from knife skills, instant read thermometers to pasta cooking. She loves it.

9. by anonymous on Oct 24, 2009 at 7:39 AM PDT

I can totally relate to this post. My husband and I were married two years ago and I always tell others “my husband does the cooking, I’m a mess in the kitchen!” We now have a two month old and I’m home with her so the cooking responsibility has fallen on my shoulders.. time to learn how to cook! This is something I’ve been dreading for years.. I’m starting with simple dishes that I can hopefully master right away and then each week I’m going to try and add something new. Hopefully in a few years, I will be cooking great meals for my family every night. It is definitely a challenge for me and it’s nice to read things like this. Wish me luck!

10. by Fort Lauderdale catering on Aug 25, 2010 at 9:15 PM PDT

If we want to fulfill all our dreams and if we want to see what life has to offer, then we need to focus on the things that can enhance if not assist us in living healthy. It is good to know that there are a variety of ways on how to cook.

11. by VA Lawyer on Dec 30, 2010 at 6:19 AM PST

Your article really rings true for me. Like you, I’ve been in a long term relationship with a man who cooks well. We’ve spent so long saying “He’s the cook - I can’t do anything in the kitchen!” that it’s almost become a mantra for our relationship. When we recently moved into a bigger home with a great kitchen, I decided to try my hand at cooking. To my surprise, I find that I really enjoy it. It helps having my boyfriend standing by to assist if need be (e.g., when the pot’s boiling over) but I’ve cooked some great dishes and look forward to learning more. Thanks for posting your experience!

12. by anonymous on Jan 1, 2012 at 11:08 AM PST

I stumbled upon your blog trying to find new yet easier recipes to try. Your story is an encouragment to me as I have been struggling with this new role since the birth of my daughter. Not only am I not the bread winner of the family any more but I’m also with my two kids 24/7 and a lot of days the thought of what to make for dinner is overwhelming. Our mothers have similar stories and I grew up on the same foods as you. Which becomes a battle as I married a man who would love to take a food adventure every time he eats (very big shoes to try to fill)! Thanks again for sharing your story.

13. by anonymous on Apr 14, 2012 at 1:37 PM PDT

Please have the courtesy of doing basic research if you are going to mention feminism in a historical sense.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-wave_feminism

14. by anonymous on Apr 15, 2012 at 9:43 PM PDT

Thanks for your little essay, I am 65, a Baby Boomer who has never cooked. Neither did my Mother. Thank goodness that my husband loves restaurants. My friends all laugh at me, as they saute, braise, bake and stew into happiness and oblivion. I just never “got it”. Thanks for making me seem normal, maybe there is help for me yet.

15. by Elizabeth on Jul 10, 2012 at 3:27 PM PDT

WONDERFUL article. I am a Gen X kid, and this is exactly how I feel about my recent love of learning to cook. My mother (and father) worked long hours and generally fed us bland chicken and canned vegetables. It was just food, and I just ate it. No one ever bothered to teach me. I am recently married, planning to start a family next year, and realizing I need to know how to feed my family since I’ll be the one staying home for a while. I had always convinced myself that I hated cooking, but the truth was, I was just frustrated by it. People said cooking was a natural talent, and I obviously didn’t have it. But now I disagree with those people. One must learn to cook, and since I’ve been teaching myself how, I truly enjoy making food for my husband. I am not only learning how to prepare delicious food, but also learning the art of patience. Thanks so much for your article.

16. by jacobwaugh on Jul 3, 2013 at 2:12 PM PDT

I loved this post and can relate so much.

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