Do you need to cook to be a “good mom”?

By Jennifer Van Allen

My son’s eyes welled up and his lower lip began to tremble as he thought hard about what to say next.  

I had just broken the news that Dad wouldn’t be home to cook dinner. And he was afraid.

“But what will eat?” he squeaked.

After just 11 years on this planet, my son had enough experience to know that with Mom in charge in the kitchen, there was a reasonable chance that he would go to bed hungry.

I grew up in the 1980s, the heyday of the superwoman, sparked by the tidal wave of divorces, and the stampede of newly-single women into the workforce, including my mom. At the age of 38, with two exasperating pre-teens at home, my mom cut her hair short like Suzie Orman, went to work at a gift shop, and went back to school to become a certified financial planner. The jingle for the Enjoli perfume commercial became a battle cry of sorts for my generation. “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan….” My friends and I belted out the lyrics on the school bus, oblivious to the ridiculous idea we were perpetuating — that we could be it all, or even wanted to.

Home-cooked meals made from scratch became scarce when mom went to work, but we certainly never went hungry.  Microwaves had become ubiquitous by then, and so had convenience foods that could produce a meal in minutes. 

I never bemoaned  the cardboard consistency of the Totino’s frozen pizza crust; I loved the bright orange gelatinous substance that I squeezed from the pouch for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I felt empowered, even if that power only entailed unwrapping packaging and pressing the button that said “on.”

When I moved into my first apartment after college, Mom gave me the culinary bible, a paperback copy of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, a 1,285-page tome published in 1896 that includes instructions on everything from how to hard boil an egg to how to whip up Baked Alaska. But I was way too drained trying to bring home the bacon, to deal with frying it up in the pan. For the next decade, climbing the career ladder up and down the eastern seaboard, my kitchen repertoire consisted primarily of one meal with three ingredients: a can of black beans, a cup of charred white rice, and a handful of pre-shredded mozzarella cheese.  

My cooking did not improve when I got married. My husband loved to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and luxurious snacks in between. He did it joyfully, efficiently, and always successfully. The emptier the refrigerator was, the more sumptuous his creations turned out.  I watched him with awe, and made middling attempts to rise to the occasion, inspired in part by books like Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte. But I was embarrassed by my ham-handedness. I felt defective not only as a working woman, but as a full-grown human. 

This was before the internet, so when I didn’t know exactly what words like “saute” meant,  I couldn’t discreetly Google my way to the answer. We had a strict policy against “unsolicited free coaching” in our house, so my husband limited his interventions to occasions where there was the possibility of an imminent danger, like chopping off a digit or burning down the house. Which was often. But investing time and hope on recipes that ultimately tasted awful got old, fast. Ultimately, I threw up my hands in the cooking department, applauded him, and promised to deal with the dishes. 

By the time I hit my mid 40s, it was generally accepted as the universal truth that the whole “you can have it all” superwoman fantasy had been a dangerous lie that most women my age had wasted a lot of time on. The modern parent’s lifestyle of working like we don’t have kids and parenting like we don’t have jobs had been called out to be the fool’s errand that it is. I had embraced the credo of a friend, a working mother of two.  “You can have it all,” she said, “you just can’t have it all at one time.”

Many fellow working moms copped up to their own culinary shortcomings. We commiserated on the sidelines of the soccer field, and resolved to stop feeling bad about it.  We may not be able to cook, we reasoned, but we could get the kids to write thank you notes, make sure the taxes got filed, and spreadsheet the heck out of the summer schedule. At least we had each other. Besides, we all had husbands who loved to cook. 

That was all fine until that fateful day in the kitchen, facing down my son, who was genuinely afraid of going to bed hungry.

There is some sense of primal failure about not being able to feed the child you brought into the world. “Practice makes everything easier,” is our family motto, and our son had reached the age when what my husband and I did made a much deeper impression than what we nagged him to do.  I prided myself on being a lifelong learner. I had learned to ski and knit as an adult. A sign commanding “Find a way or make a way” hung in our shed. I could do this, I told myself. I didn’t need to attempt a Julie and Julia-style assault on classic French cooking, I just needed to master some basic blocking and tackling, like cutting an onion, or putting dinner on the table when it was not noodle night. 

My son, like most kids his age, is a picky eater, who sticks closely to dishes that consist of tomato sauce, cheese, and some sort of simple carbohydrate. I warned him that if I was going to evolve, he was going to have to come along for the ride. “If I’m going to try to cook,” I said, “you’re going to have to try to eat it.”

The Buddhists say that how you do one thing is how you do everything, and my tendency to attempt too many things at once has revealed itself in vivid technicolor in the kitchen. 

I often try to make dinner while packing lunch, feeding the dog, responding to a work email, and trying to arrange playdates, and forget something basic, like thoroughly cleaning the cutting board after cutting garlic on it.

Which is why when my son protested that “the apples tasted all garlicky,” I felt completely mortified. God, I thought. I can’t even clean up after myself. Who left me in charge?

So far, my Achilles heel has proven to be my bad habit of recipes and getting halfway through them before bothering to check whether I have all the ingredients. Invariably I’m missing something critical. This explains how I managed to fail sheet pan vegetables with chickpeas, which promised to be effortless. I had spent 30 minutes bitterly chopping the vegetables when I discovered that I was missing the paprika, oregano, tamari, and thyme. At that point, any other reasonable person would have probably paused and gone to the grocery.  But because I’d already sunk so much time into chopping, I decided to improvise. I added balsamic vinegar and a few grinds of sea salt, as if I had some intimate knowledge of how these ingredients interacted. Then I forgot about the meal in the oven, and let it cook for 20 minutes too long.

The result of this “effortless” recipe was a 26 x 18 mound of mushy chickpeas with shriveled, charred vegetables that tasted both sour and salty.

Knowing how intimidated I feel in the kitchen, my husband offers patient support. He treads carefully before offering feedback, or gingerly posing questions like, “I wonder what would happen if I added some nutmeg?” He doesn’t say a word as he dashes across the kitchen to turn on the fan above the stovetop, with just seconds to spare before the smoke alarm goes off. 

There have been small victories that have given me enough courage to keep going. Recipes with instructions like “open two cans of” seemed to be my sweet spot. Chilis and soups, which leave plenty of margin for error, go smoothly enough to earn compliments that I don’t have to beg for. A batch of blueberry muffins marked a major developmental milestone —an unsolicited request from my son for an encore. I am surprised at how satisfying these teensy triumphs feel, and how much they give me a sense of arrival as a parent. 

I cannot say that I love the process of hovering over the oven to see if something is done. I will never shed my distaste for spending time and money grocery shopping and vegetable chopping on a dish that has an 75% chance of failure. But I do love the feeling of baby-stepping my way towards proficiency at a task that I have long dismissed as impossible.  

I have learned to approach my first attempt at any recipe as a rough draft, to be refined over time. Every time I muster up the guts to persist in the shadow of a culinary catastrophe, I feel like I’m inching closer to something that feels more like adulthood.

It’s a messy process, and my cooking will forever be a work in progress.  But an Olympic moment arrived a few weeks ago, while I was nudging along a dish of chana masala. My husband walked into the kitchen and asked “what’s that smell?” in a tone of voice that was noticeably vacant of concern. I girded myself for him to open the kitchen windows and leave the room, which is the sequence of events that typically follow that query.  

But instead he popped a question that I was entirely unprepared for.

“Can I have some?”

Jen Van Allen lives and works near Portland, Maine, with her son, husband, and their dog, Buster. She has co-authored four books. Find her here.

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