This is very unfeminist of me, I’m sure. Or is it? My beloved late grandma Chava was the exact opposite of a feminist. Her happy place was the kitchen. Her only place was the kitchen, actually – she spent her entire life there, or so it seemed.
She cooked there, starting early in the morning and finishing late at night. She ate her meals there, and she rested in her little kitchen – I can still see her sitting in her usual chair, listening to the radio, dozing off. She was tired, no doubt – now that I cook so much I know how physically taxing cooking is, and she was also overweight and probably suffered from sleep apnea, so nights were not restful for her. No wonder she kept falling asleep sitting in that chair.
Thirty years later, and here I am, in the kitchen, happy. In many ways, I am happy in the same way that grandma was happy in her kitchen. Cooking is highly creative and deeply sensuous. As my friend J. likes to say, it’s the only place where she can start a task, complete it within a reasonable timeframe, and savor its success (or mourn its failure, as the case may be). The act of cooking is therapeutic, the act of eating pleasurable, and being your family’s hero – priceless (“Mom, may I have seconds?”)
It took me years to succumb to my own foodiness. Of course, there were hints along the way, especially during my childhood. My weight: pre-adolescence, I was a slightly chubby girl – not quite overweight, but plump enough to be aware of it and to be achingly jealous of the rail-thin girls around me with their scabbed knees, jumping and running and doing cartwheels while I always preferred to stay home and read a book; the intense pleasure I felt when biting into a buttered slice of a fresh loaf of bread; the intoxicating aroma of grandmother’s cooking; the way I could never stop at just one cookie, or two, or five, especially grandma Miep’s chewy, moist coconut macaroons.
I was fiercely jealous of picky eaters because food did not have the power over them that it had over me, but I could never bring myself to have a few bites and push my plate away like they did. I liked eating too much. It never occurred to me that I was blessed, because I was deriving pleasure out of eating that picky eaters were missing out on.
Looking back, I now know that I was always a foodie. But as I became an adolescent, tall and lanky and still very fond of food, I also grew to be a fierce feminist, denying myself the pleasures of home-based activities and pursuing a career as an attorney, that as you can imagine left very little time for domestic pursuits.
It took me a decade to re-focus, realize that I hate being an attorney, change careers, and allow myself to admit that I like being at home. I love taking care of my children. I enjoy cooking, and especially baking.
Now, at forty one, I know myself better than ever. I know who I am, and what I want to do with my life. I am a foodie. I love food, cooking and baking. I wake up each morning at six thirty, curse the alarm clock, then remember the list of new recipes I was planning on making that day, and suddenly I am wide awake, and I am happy and eager to start my day.
I love chopping and slicing (even onions), sautéing and boiling and broiling and roasting. I enjoy mixing ingredients together, layering flavors and textures, sampling along the way, adjusting here and there. I love the way baked goods seem to rise out of nothing in the oven, a puddle of wet batter turning into a puffy, moist cloud of heavenly textures and tastes. I love tasting a stew, realizing that something is missing, adding a little cumin, a pinch of oregano or just salt, mixing, tasting again and sighing in pleasure. I love the creativity, the way cooking involves all of my senses, provides a much needed respite from a chaotic life. Have I said already that I love eating?
I am a control freak, and in a surprising way, the kitchen also affords me a sense of control. It’s not the full control that eludes me, that will elude me until the day I die and relinquish control fully and entirely. Anyone around my age has enough life experience, I think, to realize that any control we have in this life is no more than an illusion. We make plans, but we don’t really know what will happen to us in the next second, the next hour, the next decade. And it’s good that we don’t know our futures, because those futures tend to have bad endings (death, namely) and knowing them would paralyze us and prevent us from living.
But in the kitchen, during the time it takes to prep, cook and complete a typical recipe, I experience a wonderful sense of control. As J. says, for that brief period in my kitchen, I have a defined goal, I have a path to take me to that goal, and if things don’t go horribly wrong (and they do, of course, once in a while), I am there at my goal within the hour, reveling in the beauty of my creation, in its wonderful textures and flavors.
Obviously, as much as I like to think that I’m just like grandma, as much as I enjoy this surprising newfound connection with her, I’m not truly like her. Grandma belonged to a generation of women whose work in the kitchen was truly thankless. She worked hard for no tangible pay, and as much as we all loved her cooking, on some level we took it for granted. I, on the other hand, live in a world that allows me to explore areas of interest other than the home and the kitchen. Yes, I love cooking, but I also love my social media consulting business (most of the time) and my clients (most of them). And when I cook, I photograph my creations and document them in a blog, which adds an extra dimension of creativity to the process, and rewards me nicely with fans and followers and people who email to tell me I’m their hero.
After years of denying it, of fighting it, of pretending to hate it, I am finally where I belong, where I always belonged, in the kitchen, my happy place.