As I poured the remains of the Thanksgiving Day cranberry relish down the garbage disposal, I suddenly understood why people don’t like to cook. Weeks after the day I spent making homemade cranberry relish, two from-scratch (including the crust) pies, a turkey, mashed potatoes, noodle kugel , fresh haricot vert with sautéed almonds, I found the relish in the back of the fridge. It reminded me that I had spent the better part of two days making a meal that my children and boyfriend and I had eaten, even with spirited conversation, in about an hour. Sure, I made turkey tetrazzini with the leftover meat, and yes many of the other leftover things got pretty well consumed over the next few days, but I still dumped half a pie, a third of a kugel and that cranberry sauce.
I like to cook. For twenty years, without fail, I put a fresh-made supper on the table for my husband and children at least five and usually six nights a week; on the odd night we went out, or brought food in. I did not use frozen ingredients, I did not resort to cans. After a few years I really knew what I was doing with planning and could get a meal on the table in well under an hour. I was also one of those mothers who, after nursing each child for a year, transitioned to only organic milk for the next two, made my own baby food in a mill or food processor, and was adamant about fast food and sugar being very special treats. My kids grew up to be pretty good eaters, although my daughter now challenges me to learn vegan cooking. We had wonderful dinner hours full of sharing and conversation. Yet what I remember clearly is that most nights, as I was cooking, one kid or another would come into the kitchen, ask what was for supper, and roll his or her eyes when I told them the menu. I finally had to banish them from the kitchen and the question until they could learn to ask without offering a negative opinion.
It made me a little nuts, but I kept on cooking.
When my husband and I divorced and my son went to college, my daughter and I found ourselves making sort of pick-up meals; a salad, perhaps, with some popcorn chicken from KFC. Too often we would eat in front of Gilmore Girls reruns. On those nights, my 12 year old daughter looked at me, smiled and said “I like how we eat now that we are divorced.”
I should have felt guilty but I felt relieved. I felt like I was on holiday.
A few years later, re-married, I once again began the every-night-dinner thing. But I found myself balking at it more and more. Why couldn’t he cook? Why did I have to come up with something creative each evening? Why was I sliding back into the pattern I had been happy to get out of for awhile? I had no answers, I did little soul searching. I just cooked.
Now divorced again, I cook only rarely: when I have company, when my boyfriend is visiting or I am visiting him, when my kids come to stay. It feels a little different. As though it is my choice, not my responsibility. But the truth is I struggle with it the same as I always did. As I cooked and baked my way through the holiday, I felt a simmering resentment that all my work would be gone in an instant, that I would have to deal with leftovers for days, and that, really, would it all be appreciated? I think it was, but would the time spent with my family have been just as lovely had I gotten a pre-made dinner from Fresh Market? Who knows?
My boyfriend, the divorced father of a teenage daughter, pours over cookbooks at the beginning of week that his daughter will be living with him. He peruses recipes, writes out the ingredients for them, checks the pantry for what he does and doesn’t have, and writes a grocery list. He posts the week’s menu on the refrigerator. He will even get out of bed a half hour early in the morning just to chop and prepare things to put into the slow cooker he uses a couple of times a week. He relishes the leftovers, which he carefully packs for his lunch during that week.
But on the weeks when his daughter isn’t with him, he admits to pick-up meals, too: an old leftover perhaps, a sandwich, chips and salsa, a frozen pizza. Like me, he knows that cooking for one isn’t much fun. So, even though cooking doesn’t cause me anxiety– and I can put together a decent fresh meal from the pantry and fridge in under a half hour–I do understand that the drudgery of cooking every evening, after a long day of working or taking care of children, can unravel people. And the mess is an issue if you are standing at the sink at eight o’clock doing dishes. I get it, I do.
Yet I persist. I remember that as a divorced woman in her fifties my mother lived alone and for many years cooked for herself. She might make a whole batch of chicken breasts one evening and eat them through the week, but she fixed healthy meals for herself and she kept food in her refrigerator. It was the lack of her shopping and cooking, the empty fridge and pantry that first signaled to my sisters and me that there was something wrong with our mother. Months later her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s confirmed it.
I don’t imagine that my continuing to cook, even sporadically, will prevent me from coming down with her disease. I don’t imagine that anyone will give me a reward for my good cooking or even that, at this point, cooking for myself will keep my weight where I want it to be. I can’t even promise that I will cook for myself on a regular basis. What I do know, though, is that cooking for other people remains a way for me to show them I love them. And no amount of dumped cranberry sauce is going to stop me from doing that.