How to measure up to my mother’s kitchen? That wood-paneled heart of the house, where the fridge overflowed with vegetables and juices and nourishments of all sorts, and when she heard me open it she’d tell me not to spoil my appetite.
Dinner was as close as we got to religion. Less the meal than the idea of it: sitting down around a table to eat together, to commune. We didn’t say grace, we perfunctory Jews, but it sometimes felt like we did, and the looks that friends assumed when I mentioned I had to make it home for dinner were the same looks I expect one receives after mentioning their membership in certain questionable sects. We didn’t even eat the same things, so different were our diets, but my mother cooked for all of us, often three dinners a night — a meaty entrée for my father and brother, a meatless one for me, and an equally meatless non-entrée for herself, like an undressed salad, or cottage cheese with half an avocado and a few squirts of Sriracha — all after coming home from her own all-consuming job, a feat of selflessness that I now apprehend in its properly herculean proportions.
My mother was a more versatile chef than I am. She knew a diner’s worth of staple dishes, though I only remember the vegetarian ones — fried rice, gazpacho, tacos, pizza, chili, quiches, and frittatas. I was never much a fan of these latter, egg-based options, but only now, in my latent adulthood, do I understand her passion for them. It’s hard to top a quiche in terms of conveying a maximum of refinement with a minimum of effort (which is, after all, the height of refinement).
She got her vegetarian recipes from the Moosewood Cookbook, which I always associated with an older, greener, paisleyer San Francisco, until I found out that Moosewood hails from Ithaca. Or maybe it was that my mother foreswore meat during her Berkeley days — all the vegetarian signifiers swirl and meld, form a stock. Still, she cooked meat for my father for thirty-odd years, never shying away from the blood and pulp, never once wrinkling her nose. It’s that, I think, more than the culinary itself, that I want to live up to — the selflessness, the maturity, the facility with ways of eating and living other than my own — but it’s one of those recipes that doesn’t get written down, that only gets passed down by example or word of mouth if anyone bothers to formulate it all, and besides, I haven’t asked her for it. When my younger brother left home, she told me with a great, relieved sigh — like someone setting down a heavy pot, something boiling and spitting inside — that her kitchen was finally closed.
One thing about financial independence that no one ever teaches you — or taught me, at any rate — is how to cook. They say that making your own meals makes for a healthy budget, a healthy you. Are these two different things? I used to think that they weren’t, that financial and physical health went hand in strapping hand, to the point that distinguishing between the two became unnecessary, impossible. Now I’m less sure. I imagine a healthy budget and an unhealthy me easily. If I made more money, I’d dine out every night until my arteries swelled like sausages. And the opposite I don’t even have to imagine because I’ve done it: forgoing meals because it was cheaper, easier — saving money and time, which as they say is also money, though I think that depends on whether anyone ever pays you for your time, which they often don’t.
That’s why I turned to cooking in the first place, a surfeit of time and a deficit of cash. It was the summer after my first year of college, and I was in LA on an internship that was paying me in experience, naturally. My only funds came from a small stipend that my university reserved for arts internships that didn’t pay anything, which seemed to be all of them. But this money barely covered a summer’s worth of rent, in a spartan guest room within a bungalow that was otherwise bursting with kitsch and tchotchkes of all sorts.
This bungalow, the first place I’d ever lived that wasn’t my parents’ home or a dorm room, was also the place where I first learned to cook. In those early, inexperienced days, my culinary ambitions far outstripped my kitchen skills. I would plan elaborate meals that I had neither the experience nor the ingredients to create correctly: curries, roasts, chalupas. The finished dishes were inevitably inedible, sometimes barely finished — it took me a while to figure out that “wet” is rarely a desirable description of one’s cooking — but I chowed down without complaint, taking it as part of my culinary education. Still, after my host/landlord let me in on the fact that I could cook rice less effortfully by using the rice cooker, I realized I might be better off mastering the basics.
With single-minded dedication, I set out to perfect two dishes: rice and beans, and fried rice. (I had already mastered the rice cooker.) But I began honing other aspects of my craft as well: the ideal spices to enhance the beans’ humble profile, the proper form for dicing an onion, the stove setting for warming vegetables without burning them. Effective kitchen technique, I learned, was mostly about proper time management. Sure, you could spend twenty minutes setting up your mise en place, but it sapped from food prep any trace of excitement, flavor, or nourishment, like boiling vegetables. I preferred the race against the clock, the thrill of peeling, chopping, mincing, and measuring all while time was running out, the food beginning to singe.
Over time, I got pretty good at whipping up something exceptionally edible out of a few pantry standbys. Cooking became a lesson not only in efficiency but in attitude, realistic expectations. I used to think of dinner as a kind of romance unto itself, or myself, concocting elaborate courses that I would then consume alone. Later, I viewed cooking as an experiment, with the food as the control and I the variable: no matter if I ate the same thing four times a week, I was going to get the dish right.
Eventually, I realized that cooking was neither an art nor a science, but a basic mark of self-sufficiency. I used to belabor it because I had no conception that my labor would one day be directed elsewhere. But for someone like myself, an amateur chef on a negligible budget, there could be no higher goal than satiating myself without breaking too much of a sweat. That way I could save myself for other kinds of work: maintaining a body, a bank account, a brain pickling in its own juices, not to mention a relationship.
Indeed, between the year I left my parents’ house and the year I met my boyfriend, what I actually got good at was not cooking, but cooking for myself. It was before I understood that the real joy of cooking, the real hard part, is doing it for others.
When I first met Jake, he owned essentially zero cookware. He had a skillet, deep enough to hold a box of pasta and the water to boil it, but no colander. He also owned a sheet pan on which he would heat frozen pepperoni pizzas. Those were the only utensils he owned, and thus the only two dishes he would ever make: pasta with store-bought pesto and frozen pepperoni pizzas. This diet, he said, was a consequence of law school, which left him no time for delicacies, anything requiring forethought or attention. These qualities I imagined I could supply.
One evening, I had a notion to make us some tacos. Nothing complicated, I thought, just some sweet potatoes and black beans, a little shredded cheddar on top. We bought the ingredients together, walking down the aisles of the Portuguese grocery, past bulging sacks of rice, breads, and cakes still warm behind the bakery glass, past the pyramids of onions, bright white as fluorescent bulbs. We passed families pushing carts, their children riding up top with the delicate produce. I was thinking of that Ginsberg poem (“Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!”), while Jake was thinking of, I don’t know, evidentiary procedures, or whether one day we’d be pushing carts bearing children of our own. I didn’t ask — I was thinking about it too. Somehow this shopping trip felt more adventurous, more intimate, than any of the dates we’d gone on before. We compared prices against our respective budgets, planning our future, what we might like to consume in the hours and days ahead, and on the walk home we split the load.
When we got back to his apartment, he went back to his textbooks, and I started cooking. The potatoes I intended to roast, so I turned the oven on and started peeling the spuds. Or trying to — he didn’t have a vegetable peeler, nor a cutting board, nor a kitchen knife. What we had were potatoes. Using a dully serrated piece of flatware, I whittled their earthy skin away, revealing the waxy orange flesh beneath, like picking off a scab piece by tiny piece. Then, with the same knife, I started cutting the peeled potatoes, like trying to dig a grave with a soup spoon. The potatoes wouldn’t cleave unless I got up on my toes and pressed all of my weight into the knife’s handle, which I did for about twenty minutes. Then I arrayed the fluorescent chunks on the sheet pan, buried them in salt, pepper, cumin, and chili powder, and slid the tray into the oven.
The first gift I got him (for Valentine’s Day, a few months later) was a set of cookware: a pot for boiling pasta; a colander; and, crucially, three cutting boards and a chef’s knife. The presents were a necessity, which nagged at me. Who were they really for? I was reminded of one of my mom’s birthdays, a few years back, when my dad got her a vacuum cleaner. Top-of-the-line, certainly: sleek lines, no cord, dampened sound. Still, she wasn’t pleased.
Housework was far from her primary vocation, although it was primarily her responsibility. There were practical reasons for this division: my dad worked in the legal division of one multinational conglomerate or another, instructing foreign partners on the immorality and/or illegality (to him an immaterial distinction) of bribing and accepting bribes. His jobs often required him to travel for days or weeks at a time, a lifestyle that accustomed him more to pointing at menu items than to preparing his own food. And when he returned, he’d only want to eat a home-cooked meal. “Home,” by default, meaning “wife.”
Still, practicality aside, it’s hard to ignore this system’s Friedan-esque overtones — a tad ironic, given that they met at Berkeley. But while my dad sweated and occasionally cried in a law library carrel, my mom joined a vegetarian co-op made up entirely of female grad students, who split the cooking, so as to free up time to study. Cooking, for them, was a chore, but also a means to community, the basis of a shared ethics. My mom gave up meat while a member of the co-op, since everyone else already had—simple practicality made her join in. In fact, the whole endeavor smacked of practicality. These educated young women, though not yet a part of the “real world,” already understood that their studies, and later their professional lives, would likely need to coexist with other, more domestic concerns, and that preparing to maintain this balancing act might itself constitute a kind of studying. I’m not sure if they would have considered the distinction material.
Browsing through more or less identical sets of utensils, I wondered if I was merely reiterating my father’s thoughtlessly thoughtful ideas of appropriate gift-giving. His gender politics, at least, I thought I would avoid simply by dating my own gender. But even Jake and I weren’t immune to the older divisions: he would study, and I would cook, and do the dishes, and try to clear out some time to work on my writing when I could. When I couldn’t, I was reminded of that Elizabeth Hardwick essay, “The Subjugation of Women”: “A lifetime of chores is bad luck. But housework, child rearing, cleaning, keeping, nourishing, looking after — these must be done by someone,” she writes. “Bachelors are notoriously finicky, we have all observed. The dust pile is revoltingly real.” In Jake’s case, it was a pile of Corgi hair. Still, she had a point.
Clearly, we had moved beyond what Hardwick considered an ineluctably gendered division of labor — I was a man doing housework, so what. But we had scarcely moved beyond the idea that labor must be divided, between (as Hardwick puts it) the immanent duties of keeping a home, of maintaining what is, and the transcendent activities by which man, and only man, surpasses his animal nature, and reaches toward what might be: he “makes choices, decisions, has projects which are not confined to securing the present but point to the unknown future; he dares, fails, wanders, grabs, insists.” I chop vegetables. I tell myself the arrangement is temporary. After Jake graduates law school, completes a grueling internship at a prestigious firm, breaks his back over several decades worth of 80-hour work weeks, and finally secures his lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, I won’t have to cook alone anymore. He’ll help out. We could get takeout, I imagine. Then I go back to chopping.
“These must be done by someone.” If they must, they must. Still, I wondered if that someone was necessarily me. I thought often of Susan Sontag’s famous dichotomy, between the husband and the lover, which defines not only different kinds of men but different kinds of writers: one dependable, generous, intermittently charming, a bit of a pushover, and the other passionate, selfish, volatile, brusque. Though by Jewish heritage I was supposedly designed for husbandry, I dreamed of becoming the lover, and yet I feared I was neither. It seemed at times as if I had assumed my mother’s mantle at age 24, that I had absorbed and come to embody the role of the wife, a thought that distressed me doubly — first, for voluntarily auto-emasculating, and second, for putting any stock into the notion of “the wife,” or even of emasculation, in the first place. A real man, I thought, wouldn’t care that he’s not a real man. No, wait. A real man would know that there’s no such thing as “a real man.” A male-identifying person would take no issue with assuming the duties historically relegated to female-identifying persons, knowing that the gendered distinction between types of work is repressive, retrograde, and ultimately immaterial. There.
I knew all these divisions — between housework and real work, between husbands and lovers, between husbands and wives — were for me approximations at best. At worst, they were relics from a bygone era, like Tupperware parties, or sodomy laws. Still, I kept thinking of them — if the divisions were relics, why was I the one doing all the cooking? And why did I generally get even more annoyed whenever Jake attempted to help? The simple answer to both was that, having had more practice at cooking, I did it better. And although I wanted him to become a good cook, I begrudged him for asking the eminently sensible questions that would help him get there, whose answers I’d once had to figure out for myself: how much salt should I put in this? How do I cut a carrot? How do I know when the rice is done? (He didn’t own a rice cooker.)
In part my resentments stemmed from seeing in Jake a reflection of what I must have looked like when I was first learning to cook, most of which still applies: floundering, improvising, outright making shit up, yet always insisting on getting things right, always expecting to impress. Still, my irritation could also be traced to the ways in which Jake’s lack of kitchen proficiency revealed other differences between us: I had projects, aspirations toward transcendence, just as he did, and I didn’t let these get in the way of taking care of myself, or of Jake when he needed it. But this didn’t mean that I wouldn’t appreciate getting taken care of every now and again. Indeed, few things turn me on more than someone else doing the dishes for me.
And my anxieties over the division of labor wasn’t only a matter of turn-ons and -offs, but of how I saw myself as a writer. Like Sontag, Hardwick believes it’s possible to draw a straight line from a man’s boldness and virility as a partner to his daring and productivity as a writer: “the same aggressiveness, greed, and command” that characterizes male sexuality enables him (as Hardwick quotes Simone de Beauvoir, approvingly) “to disarrange, to investigate, to explode,” both aesthetically and literally —disarranging settled attitudes and also the living room, exploding at authority and, later, at his lover. I wasn’t sure the equation was quite so simple, but still, every time I abandoned a piece to go chop or stir or turn off the smoke alarm was a chance for thoughts to spoil, a pinch of self-doubt to creep in. Even when I returned to writing, my mind would be half stuck on something Hardwick wrote, about why (male) writers are, or feel themselves to be, particularly unsuited to the “dreadful work” necessary to sustain a home or a life:
If artists could save a man from a lifetime of digging coal by digging it themselves one hour a week, most would refuse. Some would commit suicide. ‘It’s not the time, it’s the anticipation! It ruins the whole week! I can’t even read, much less write!’”
Hardwick wrote that hypothetical in 1953, a time when even a modestly talented male writer might still expect his wife to take care of the mundane drudgery that would otherwise distract from his intellectual labors. But that has never been the case for women — as writers have been pointing out since at least Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own — and still isn’t. Certain women (such as Olga Tokarczuk and even Woolf herself) have been lucky exceptions, forging relationships that revolved around their writing, rather than leaching from it. But most have not, and will not. The only thing that’s changed is that this now applies to male writers in equal measure, or at least those without six-figure book deals.
And anyway, that’s the heterosexual case. I didn’t want a housewife — I wanted a partner, someone who supported my work as much as I supported his. At first, making a meal for Jake had felt both loving and sensible — I had the time, and he didn’t. But eventually, this solution came to feel like a sacrifice I hadn’t signed up for, as if I had decided that my writing was less important than Jake’s studies, and thus less important than cooking for him. Leaving a piece to go mind the stew didn’t make me any less of a writer — but I still felt that way, like a chef with pretensions toward authorship, rather than a human being who occasionally had to feed himself.
Perhaps, however, it’s possible to insist on this binary a bit too strongly. Hardwick’s correct to note that writing offers a transcendence not easily found in other forms of labor, and certainly not if your existence consists entirely of unasked-for chores. And yet at times, I’ve found some fleeting transcendence — of the self, if not of everything else — in the living of a double life, switching from lover to husband, husband to wife, wife to writer, and back again. In the right frame of mind, I can find something to savor in walking away from an unfinished essay to go make a meal, or even procrastinating by clicking idly through the Times’ cooking section. Plus, the trade-off goes both ways: there is something equally delicious about my mind serving up a new idea for a piece while I am otherwise glazed over, chopping vegetables.
And then, there’s the transcendence that comes from placing others’ needs above one’s own. Sometimes, while Jake and I are sitting down to a dinner I’ve just prepared, me eyeing him, him eyeing his textbooks, I’ll mention my next idea for a piece. He doesn’t always like the ideas, though he always likes the food — but when I told him I was planning to write about cooking for him, he looked at me with the same face he makes when he bites into something delicious, the one that tells me I’ve made something right.•