The High Holidays, also known as “The Days of Awe,” have traditionally been a time of taking stock and introspection. During this time of year, it is customary to look in the mirror and take ownership of the times when we failed to live up to our ideals and expectations. While some of these missteps are the result of poor decision making at the spur of the moment, other times they are about long periods of time when we failed to do right by our ourselves or, even worse, by others.
My wife and I never had that conversation, the one where an engaged couple sits down and talks about how they are going to divide labor in the new home that they are building. Still, there was every reason to think that we would not be one of those families in which the wife does most of the cooking. I’d grown up in a home where my father, who would never have described himself as a women’s libber, did a large amount of the cooking. I can still remember waking up on Friday mornings, hearing my father whistling a favorite tune, or listening to jazz on the radio, as he prepared food for the Sabbath. He wasn’t exactly a gourmet chef (heck, I don’t think he ever followed a recipe in his life); his cooking was like good jazz: ad-libbed and creative. Even now, nearly 10 years after he passed away, I can imagine the taste of his meatballs, a staple at our Friday night dinners.
Additionally, my elder brother, an engineer by training, was a serious cook. I don’t think I would ever used the word “foodie,” but he was a pro. Unlike my dad, who never made the same food the exact same way two times in a row, my brother followed recipes with precision, and always achieved the hoped-for results. He could prepare meals that tasted like they came from a high-level restaurant. With those two as role models, my wife had good reason to believe that I would be good in the kitchen, too.
There was one problem, and that is the fact that I am not much of a cook. Sure, I had spent a summer working in the kitchen at a camp, but, thankfully for the campers, I had not been in charge of preparing actual meals. I was mostly in charge of cleaning up and of hauling heavy boxes. Things worked out for the most part, other than the one unfortunate time that I dropped a heavy machine I was trying to clean off an 8-foot porch. I came back from camp with larger biceps, but as inept in the kitchen as I had been before. I suppose that if my wife and I ever had the conversation about who does what as newlyweds, this all would have been made clear much earlier.
So here we are, heading into our 23rd Rosh Hashanah as a married couple, and much of the burden of preparing holiday and Sabbath meals still falls on my wife. While there are times when I prepare what my younger children call “Abba’s famous chicken,” which may or may not just be regular chicken covered in barbecue sauce (ah, but it’s the brand of sauce that makes all the difference!), most of the menu, and the meal preparation, is done by my wife, now with the assistance of some of our older children and, to a lesser degree, myself.
While this is the situation in our home, I can’t say it’s fair or that either of us is happy with it. Being in charge of menu selection and implementation is not an easy thing for my wife to do, even if she does so with few complaints. From my perspective, I know I should be doing better. Even if I can’t cook, I certainly could help out by picking out recipes, doing the food shopping or finding other chores to do.
I worry about the unspoken message I give to our sons and daughters. Whatever justifications I may use to convince myself that I am doing my best, I know they are just excuses. While I try to be involved in other parts of preparing for the Sabbath and Holidays, and look for other chores that I can do to make things more equitable, I know there is more I should be doing. It is my hope that this is the year, as I expose my foibles to the readers of the Forward, that I will take steps to bring about a better balance in our kitchen and, more important, our home.
Pesach Sommer is a teacher, writer and blogger. He lives in Passaic, New Jersey, with his wife and eight children.