My mother cooked dinner every night for a family of four, without fail. She threw elaborate dinner parties and cooked holiday dinners for eight, fifteen, thirty people. She would always say, with an irrepressible smile, that she enjoyed cooking -- it was how she expressed her creativity.
Sorry, not buying it. I’m willing to believe that her dinner parties were creative endeavors, but no one is going to convince me that Shake-n-Bake drumsticks and frozen broccoli is how she got her artistic yayas out.
I can’t remember ever thanking her for the endless cooking. I’m sure we said the words, because she was as much of a stickler for manners as she was for family dinners. But I can’t remember being conscious of the sentiment, of being truly grateful for the significant effort she put into nourishing us. I’m not too hard on myself about it -- what teenager is overwhelmed with gratitude for a plate of string beans? But still, I wonder now if she felt unappreciated. If perhaps she just accepted being unappreciated as a mother’s lot, part of the bargain she had struck in which my father made the money and she was the homemaker.
As a grown woman with a family to feed, I’ve often wondered why my mother never taught me to cook. I imagine the first reason was probably because I wasn’t interested. But I don’t recall that she ever tried very hard. I think she always knew that my creative expression would lay elsewhere.
When I met my soon-to-be husband, I was nearly 30 and could do little more than make a tuna sandwich. The first time I cooked dinner for Scott, I went to my married friend’s house and had her give me nice dishware, a detailed shopping list and a chicken-for-dummies recipe that couldn’t fail. The meal was a success, but I made sure that he knew it was an anomaly. I think it’s fair to say that when he married me, he expected very little out of me in a culinary sense. I think it’s also fair to say that I’ve surprised us both.
Over the past nine years, I’ve developed a fair-weather friendship with cooking. There are times that I’ve approached it with genuine passion -- I’ve been inspired by local farmers, I’ve gardened and canned and pickled and preserved. And there have been droughts when I really can’t stand to do much more than make a pot of chili or order out. I can tell one of these is coming on when I seem to nearly cut my thumb off every time I chop vegetables. My enthusiasm depends on the ebb and flow of my work and also the ebb and flow of my son’s needs. But sometimes it’s not about either one of those things. Frankly, I sometimes just don’t feel like it. And so I don’t do it.
There are drawbacks to my occasional refusal to cook. We eat fries more often than I’d like. We eat mac and cheese more often than I care to admit.
There are certain points on which I try not to compromise too often. It’s important to me that my family eats whole, nutritious foods and that we support an organic and humane food industry. It’s important to me that my husband and son feel taken care of and nurtured. And it’s equally important to me that I feel capable of nurturing them. It’s important to me that I feel like I can, without too much grief, whip up a simple curry or a yummy spaghetti sauce. And to that end, I’ve been successful.
As a wedding gift, my mother gave me a book of family recipes that she compiled herself. It was one of the most touching things I’ve ever received. I enjoy taking the book out and looking for the perfect appetizer to bring to a party, or pulling out the worn, stained page with the paella recipe that I’ve made a million times. I believe it would make my mother happy to know how much I use it, how much I treasure it.
I believe it would also make her happy to know just how often I leave it on the shelf and order a pizza instead.
Jillian Lauren is the author of the new novel, "Pretty," and the memoir, "Some Girls: My Life in a Harem." Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, musician Scott Shriner, and their 3-year-old son. She blogs about motherhood, adoption, writing and being a rock wife at http://www.jillianlauren.com/blog/.