“Watching a woman cook is very sexy,” my boyfriend said.
“Not as sexy as watching a man order in,” I retorted.
“Making a meal can be creative,” he insisted. “A way to nurture the person you love.”
“You know what’s nurturing?” I asked. “Letting your ambitious girlfriend study over pizza.”
I was a grad student in New York City, subsisting on salad from the Korean deli, bagels, and adrenaline. Feeling inept in the kitchen, I held up the shield of feminism. I also felt a little demoralized by this man — who was rich enough to hire a personal chef — asking me to stop working and turn on his stove.
So I married someone else, a different man who found my domestic deficits charming. Once we had our two sons and moved to a New Jersey suburb, we both viewed food preparation as just another item in a long list of household chores. I served fish sticks or chicken fingers to my kids, too preoccupied with finances and rushing out the door to teach night courses at a local college to worry about the nutritional content of their meals.
My favorite photos show my boys eating take-out Chinese, Taco Bell, or store-bought birthday cake. My lack of culinary skills was depriving them of wholesome food, and my husband was often too busy to depart from his favorite staples: steak, mashed potatoes, and frozen mixed veggies.
Then one day my younger son, Spencer — a kid who loved to muck around in horse stables and play video games with his best friend — became fascinated with the Food Network. This intense boy, with the furrowed brows and piercing gaze, found solace from the corrupting influence of middle school in watching flour, eggs, and butter turn into brioche.
He’d do his sixth-grade homework in the living room with the television buzzing in the background, his new role models Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain, one eye cocked to watch them whipping up chicken paillard with lemon and black pepper and salmon en papillote with julienned vegetables.
From this breed of macho chefs, Spencer learned a whole new vocabulary that he’d casually inject into conversation: ceviche, confit, drizzle. But the real shocker came when he turned off the set and began to imitate his role models. This was cooking, no holds barred: not just homemade ice cream, but the frozen treat served daintily atop a tuile cookie, plated with stars made from raspberry coulis.
Once Spencer had pined for an iPod and the newest GameBoy. Now his wish list was laser-focused on kitchen gear: an All-Clad cooking set and roasting pan, a digital thermometer, an ice-cream machine, a pasta roller, a heat lamp and silicone mats for pulling sugar, and a hand-crafted mahogany cutting board, soft enough so as not to dull his samurai-scary Shun knives.
In eighth grade, he wrapped tissue paper around his homemade biscotti — the tips dipped in chocolate, dyed red for Christmas or blue-and-white for Hanukkah — and presented them to the kids at school. After that, he was bombarded with requests from his newfound friends, including the lovely redheaded girl who ate half his chocolate walnut pie in one sitting.
His passion was increasing not only his popularity but his confidence. I chauffeured him to the A&P and Whole Foods, busting our budget so he could try out new recipes. I marveled that this boy who had emerged from my body knew how to choose a better cut of brisket than I did. Spencer never allowed me to be his sous-chef. That role was awarded to my husband, who was allowed to marinate London broil or chop vegetables.
On the Fourth of July, we surprised our guests — who were undoubtedly expecting chip’n’dip, followed by takeout pizza — with Spencer’s pulled pork. His recipe required slow smoking all night on the grill. Like the parent of a newborn, he’d awaken every two hours to tend to his baby by adjusting the low temperature and throwing more hickory wood on the fire.
No longer was I the introvert for whom throwing a party generated performance anxiety and dread. Instead, I was the proud hostess who thrilled her guests with a delicious home-cooked dish — all thanks to her 14-year-old’s culinary enthusiasm.
A few years after the devastating loss of my father from cancer, holidays had become difficult. Nobody had much energy for Thanksgiving, once my mother’s province, until Spencer’s suggestion that he be crowned executive chef. We traveled to my sister’s place in Maine with nonperishable items that my middle-school boy insisted on packing.
Hauling the bird away from my sister’s house in a Styrofoam chest filled with ice and brine, we crammed it into the trunk of our car like a stiff we planned to dump in the Atlantic Ocean. Spencer and my husband hoisted it into the fridge at the Residence Inn to let it develop flavor and tenderness overnight in its salty bath. The next morning, we discovered that the container had sprung a leak overnight. Frantically, we mopped up the oozing mess.
I was exhausted already. But Spencer managed to whip up a feast nevertheless, featuring chestnut stuffing, roasted duck, and a pear tart. And I witnessed the healing effects of this special meal, how it released the loss our family felt and changed our traditions forever. My son now carved the bird in my father’s place.
A month later, Spencer received his first paid assignment: a bûche de Noël, or Yule log. He rolled the confection into existence, carefully decorating it with green sugar moss and mushrooms delicately formed from meringue. We delivered it to my friend’s house and, happily for us, we were asked to stay for the Christmas Eve celebration. As a reform Jew, it was the first time in years that the season — formerly spent with my parents — didn’t sadden me.
Throughout high school, my youngest developed a wide social circle of mostly female friends, for whom he serves dinners and desserts. I’ve noted how the girls flock to the home of a 17-year-old male who knows how to don an apron and turn on the flame. Lately, I’ve caught myself observing as he adds béchamel, mozzarella, and Parmesan to the final layer of lasagna, memorizing the steps he takes for when he’s no longer around to feed us.
Now, as Spencer goes off to college, I’m making an effort to incorporate finer, fresher ingredients into our meals and trying to eat higher-quality food. Still, I know I’ll never be able to match either his skill or passion in the kitchen.
I suspect that over time, I’ll succumb to many old habits, such as ordering in Chinese food and bringing home the bagels. Without our son around, my husband and I will be lonely. And hungry. We’ll be looking forward to his visits home.
I hate to admit it, but my ex-boyfriend was right. It took the son I adored, however, to show me that cooking is both an art form and a way to care for those you love.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
An American native
A father’s legacy
The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
Cracking a Filipino favorite