Many of the women I know have soft, nostalgia-laden stories of learning to cook and to love food from their mothers and grandmothers. When you live in the world of food media and scholarship, as I do, that number of people multiplies tenfold. I can’t throw a stick without hitting someone whose entire motivation for writing about food – or for studying it academically, or for cooking it professionally – doesn’t trace back to the root of having learned to love it under their mother’s tutelage. I’m not one of those people, and I don’t have any of those stories.
I did not grow up learning beloved family recipes, nor did I inherit well-thumbed recipe cards stuffed into boxes. I do not have memories preserved in amber of learning to make my grandmother’s famous ginger snaps or some such nonsense. If the food writing trope of “Grandmothers, amirite?” went away yesterday, it wouldn’t be soon enough for me. You see, as someone working in food media, I can tell you that this world is dominated by people who lap up those stories because they see themselves reflected there, no matter the grandma, no matter the food. As someone who came to know and love the kitchen as an adult, those stories make me sigh a world-weary, 110-percent-done kind of sigh.
I have a mom who hates to cook. She hates it because, as a young teen, she was unceremoniously ushered into adult domestic duties when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, eventually to become bedridden for most of my mother’s young life. With her own grandmother gone, and other close female relatives living hundreds of miles away, my mom taught herself to take care of a house, to look after her brother and my grandfather, and to cook as a means to survive. She learned in fits and starts, standing on a step stool because at first she wasn’t yet tall enough to reach the burners properly. On her first attempt at cooking Thanksgiving dinner, roasted a fully stuffed turkey, gizzards and all, because she never knew they were in there in the first place. (She was mortified.) By her own accounts, she does not have fond memories of this time. “I was burnt out on cooking by the time I grew up,” she says. I don’t blame her.
By the time she was graduating high school in blue collar New Jersey in 1976, it was assumed that a marriage would follow not long after. With the obvious paucity of womanly instruction in her life, some kind and benevolent (if greatly unaware) soul gifted her a copy of Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. Assuming she’d be starting a family before long, she accepted it happily, “so I could learn to cook for my husband,” she told me once, shrugging sardonically. I don’t know if she realized at 18 what a cosmic joke possessing that book would prove to be for her, but a few years ago, when she passed it off to me, she definitely appreciated the dark humor.
While I was growing up, my mom was mostly going it alone as a single parent to me and my older brother. She and my father separated when I was about four. She remarried when I was six, and divorced yet again, thankfully, when I was about 13. For my entire childhood, married or not, my mom spent as little time in the kitchen as possible. During her second marriage, having added another pre-teen stepson to the fold, food wouldn’t stay in the cupboard or fridge longer than a few days, so there wasn’t much point in being fussy about it. She relied on easy meals that would guarantee to be eaten with little complaint – chicken nuggets, Old El Paso tacos, Hamburger Helper, canned veggies, spaghetti and meatballs.
Even her best, mostly from-scratch recipe—chili, which I’m pretty sure my father taught her long ago—relied on canned beans, jarred tomato sauce, and Busch’s Chili Magic™ for its special kick. I didn’t know moms ever made cake or brownies not from a Betty Crocker box mix. When she separated from her second husband, my brother was just about to head off to college, and soon it was just her and I at home to feed, and too much effort seemed even more unnecessary, even to me. We subsisted on bagged salad mixes, Lean Cuisines, and lots of take out, to which I never really objected.
My mother, consumed with doing motherly things like protecting me from an abusive stepfather and putting me on a path to get a full ride to a great college, had no extra bandwidth for poring over pages of cookbooks to find a new and exciting recipe to try night after night. It kills me that she was ever made to think that she should be. And so Irma sat on a bookshelf in every kitchen we had, collecting dust, but always present and imposing.
I never once saw my mother use that book. She never minced words about hating to cook, never shied away from that assertion or the painful reasons why. So, as I grew up, knowing that book was ever present in our kitchen, I couldn’t help but feel like it was mocking her, guilting her for not relishing her domestic responsibilities, even before I had the feminist vocabulary to rail about it. And I couldn’t imagine the torture – a book that she carried like her own personal albatross, a reminder that, due to circumstances beyond her control but nevertheless damning, the very idea of finding joy in cooking was utterly laughable.
When she let me take the book with me when I moved into my first apartment, I found it to be bookmarked with clippings of hilariously dated recipes from Good Housekeeping and torn from the back of Jell-O boxes — dry, yellowing ghosts of a life of happy domesticity she thought she ought to prepare for, but never, ever had.
And yet I grew up – well-fed and never hungry and perfectly healthy, save an early onset coffee dependency inherited directly from her – to become someone who is building her life, professionally and personally, around food and cooking. I quietly marvel at how I ended up here myself most of the time. People who know my family well are less delicate in expressing their confusion. “Where the hell did she come from?” they ask my mom, thumb cocked over their shoulder toward me, at the stove, preparing a six-course holiday meal, cheese and charcuterie board and signature cocktail included. Usually my mother responds with an awe-shucks sort of response, just proud to have produced a child who loves to bring the family together for good food and a good time.
But when the inquiring guest looks away, I can see it in the wrinkled corners of her eyes as she squints at me, head cocked. She honestly doesn’t have any idea where I came from, and the disconnect between a mother and child (who she couldn’t possibly have inspired to such ambition with her frozen, canned, boxed, convenient upbringing) becomes apparent. It breaks my heart. It’s taken me a long time to put the pieces of my mother’s story together — in the way that we really only come to understand our parents when we start to understand ourselves as adults — but I blame this tension on that damned cookbook.
If only someone had told my mother at 18 that it was okay that she didn’t want to ever cook for other people, ever again. That it was okay to feel scared and overwhelmed and generally resentful of taking care of people before she could barely take care of herself. That it was okay to want more for herself than beige contentment in her home.
So this year, for Mother’s Day, I gave my mother a copy of Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book. It is a first edition, from 1960, and it contains quips and satire and advice that I think would have unwound the coiled tension in my mother’s chest when she realized she could never fake being a joyful cook. This book, arriving on the scene just before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique but well after Joy of Cooking, represents the turning tide of women leaving the cave of the home, discovering real suns and new opportunities, full of pent-up ambition.
This book, of which I was woefully unaware for far too long but which I think deserves a place in the American cookbook canon sandwiched somewhere between Julia Child and Barbara Lynch, was what my mother should have received as a graduation gift. Barely a dozen pages in, and Bracken levels with her reader, a.k.a. my mother in her truest form:
“It is understood that when you hate to cook, you buy already-prepared foods as often as you can. You buy frozen things and ready-mix things, as well as pizza from the pizza man and chicken pies from the chicken-pie lady.”
Aha! But there’s a catch, Bracken says. “But let us amend that statement. Let us say, instead, that you buy these things as often as you dare, for right here you usually run into a problem with the basic male. The average man doesn’t care much for the frozen-food department, nor for the pizza man, nor for the chicken-pie lady. He wants to see you knead the bread and tote that bale, before you go down to the cellar to make the soap. This is known as Woman’s Burden.”
And I’ll be damned if that statement wouldn’t have completely blown my mother’s mind. It would have blown her mind in 1976, and it would have made the intervening decades feel less like the true capital-B Burden that they were. If Joy of Cooking ever served to change my mother’s life, it’s only in that it made her feel perpetually inadequate. Bracken’s unapologetic rejection and condemnation of the cult of domesticity, conveyed with such a sharpness of wit that I think even today’s reader would miss some of her innuendos, would have utterly floored my mother in 1976. I’m hoping it still will now.
I had hoped that the small gift of The I Hate to Cook Book would smooth out the wrinkles in the fabric of my relationship with my mother that have been worried by her fears of disappointing me, and my fears of making her feel that she has. When I gave it to her on Mother’s Day, she squealed, and laughed the full-bellied, uninhibited laughs that I know mean she’s genuinely pleased. She giggled while reading the introduction, cackled while reading the headnotes to “Skid Road Stroganoff.” (“Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”) She’s never been a smoker, but she clearly saw herself in Bracken’s pages, wit and despair and utter boredom and all.
“So, you really don’t care that I was never a good cook?” she asked me, thumbing through the pages with a look of relief I’d never before seen on her face. This force of nature, this woman who put two kids through college and bought homes and cars on a single measly salary, this aggressively hospitable caretaker, this unrelenting cheerleader of anyone who needed one, was asking if I was ever disappointed in her cooking. Her goddamned cooking of all things.
“No, ma,” I laughed. “I lived, didn’t I?”