On Becoming Comfortable in the Kitchen

Recently, I had dinner with K, a friend from college. We sat in her spacious one-bedroom apartment, where she lives alone, and we drank wine and ate steak, and talked about when we were 20-years-old, living in a tiny apartment in Amherst, Mass., thinking about whether or not we could afford to include fresh broccoli with our box of pasta.

I remember a lot of things about that apartment — the TV that didn’t work, the roommate who wore homemade skirts over her pajama bottoms, the dinner parties, my introduction to kale. It was also the first time I realized the repercussions of having never been taught to cook. K and my other roommates dealt with food with confidence; they had things like knife skills and knew the difference between baking soda and baking powder.

My ignorance in the kitchen stems not from my feminist politics, but from the fact that, as a child and adolescent, I was purposefully excluded from any activities in the kitchen (with the exception of eating). My grandmother, who did the bulk of the cooking in our house, was determined to keep me from having to do anything remotely domestic (this included babysitting; she feared I’d be co-opted by the parents into doing chores as well). She herself had gone to work at the age of 9, as she liked to remind me, and I think she was trying shield me from anything similar — even if it meant that I would be effectively neutered when it came to basic tasks generally associated with self-sufficiency.

This lack of familiarity with the kitchen followed me beyond my college apartment. Years later, I was working in the Jewish community at a college in the Midwest; my employer prepared Shabbat dinner every week for more than 100 people. Again, I was surrounded by capable people, who could operate within an industrial kitchen. I felt useless and ashamed and I was angry. How could I have be expected to take care of myself without knowing these things? I’d never had the chance to associate cooking with drudgery, but I understood now that my grandmother did. I saw (and now see) it as an expression of joy and creativity.

I am afraid of a lot of things: airplanes, mice, losing my teeth and being completely, involuntarily dependent on other people. Not realizing the last thing on this list meant that I would have to teach myself the things I didn’t know, the way I’d taught myself to find jobs and apartments and speak in public without throwing up.

I cook now, in the same way I do everything else — compulsively, moodily, in large amounts. It’s an exercise in subsuming my pride and confronting my self-consciousness. Every time I screw up or don’t, I think about feminism, and how all my time in the kitchen is teaching me how to be braver, more reflective and more in control, even when I burn things.

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On Becoming Comfortable in the Kitchen

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