I’ve discovered that cooking is good self-care. It doesn’t have to be about others, or the way into a man’s heart or a chore.
I have never enjoyed cooking. I’ve never been the chick who gets all excited when asked to bring something to the potluck. Instead I try to figure out where I can buy good prepared food.
I used to like baking. Cookies, cakes, and especially pastry. Baking pies, especially apple, the smell of cinnamon like a warm hug wafting through the kitchen. A platter of chocolate chip cookies for my girls once they helped themselves to lots of cookie dough. Cakes topped with whipped cream like Grandma used to make and of course, brownies from the box. Dessert in a pinch.
When I converted to Judaism, I tried to find my ‘specialty.’ How could I set myself apart on Passover or Rosh Hashanah or Chanukah? What dish would have my extended family delighted? As I experimented with recipes in the Jewish Holiday Cookbook, I read “Miriam’s Kitchen” about a woman and her mother-in-law and preserving memories of the past. I thought about the memories I wanted to preserve with my daughters, knowing tuna noodle casserole was a shaky claim to fame. I eventually became known for my vegetable kugel–a sweet dish with carrots and sweat potatoes that my children and their cousins adored.
But the act of cooking, day in, day out, what to have on hand for a quick breakfast, school lunches and dinners where everyone had different tastebuds? I hated it. Sundays were easy, we would get a dozen bagels and scallion cream cheese in the morning and at night we had Chinese food take-out. The weekdays were impossible, and I know now that part of the reason I decided I hated cooking is because I resented the assumption that I must be the one responsible for satisfying my family’s hunger. I did not want to be relegated to the kitchen, and thought something must be wrong with me. Didn’t all women find fulfillment in the kitchen?
Well for sure, some do. But many don’t.
And here I am at 61 understanding that there was something else going on. I rarely cooked just for me. Including today, in this marriage. I think of my husband first. What protein should I serve? What sides does he like? He has to have a salad and loves arugula, and so on. He’s never told me I had to be in charge of this, mind you, but somewhere along the way, I learned it was a woman’s job to provide comfort to her man, and that was through his stomach.
The irony here is that Rob and many men I know including my son-in-law and favorite uncle, enjoy cooking. These men are great in the kitchen too.
This pandemic has amplified my distaste for cooking (pun intended). The endless planning of meals, grocery shopping and then the cooking hit me a few weeks ago. It hit me right around the middle too in the guise of my quarantine five.
My dearest friend and Aunt, Beth, sent me some few recipes she had tried, and we texted back and forth about becoming vegetarians. I love veggies and fish. Fruit, heavy dishes, not so much. In fact, we have a joke here. When I tell Rob I’m really hungry, he says, ‘want an apple?’ knowing that fruit just doesn’t do it for me.
Rob and I recently talked about meal planning and preparation and decided to change things up. Now we each take one night a week, designate another ‘fend for yourself,’ enjoy leftover night, and round it out with takeout or at eat outside at a local restaurant.
I felt relieved, but it wasn’t long after we made this decision that I realized I needed something else. I wanted to cook food that I like, and not cater first to what I thought my husband would enjoy.
I kept hearing about this diet that was primarily vegetables and fish, so I did some research and ordered myself a cookbook, The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook. Food shopping for ingredients to try some new recipes did not feel like a chore. I was surprised to find I was excited! Kale, radicchio, halibut, sweat potatoes, feta cheese and orzo filled my cart. I bought shrimp and good olive oil and kalamata olives.
And something strange happened.
Cooking began to be something I looked forward to when it was my turn. New recipes that sounded delicious and were healthy and filled me up hit the table. I fell so madly in love with my kale salad that I ate it for lunch five days in a row topped with toasted pecans. I made gazpacho earlier this week and banana bread from scratch.
Who is this woman? Where did she come from?
I’m still me, but I’ve learned an important lesson.
I’ve discovered that cooking is good self-care. It doesn’t have to be about others, or the way into a man’s heart or a chore. Cooking can soothe my own spirit when my appetite is satiated through my favorite vegetables, spices and fish. Having food I enjoy has made the act of preparing and eating a meal feel like an Italian experience. I savor each bite.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not want to throw dinner parties or bring the main course at pot luck dinners once this pandemic is over. I haven’t morphed into that woman.
No. I just want to eat food I like, food that makes my belly feel happy, food that I can create with my own hands.
Turns out I love cooking when I don’t have to do it.