Back in the day, I used to cook.
The older kids sometimes have flashback memories and think it was just a dream.
I also used to bake fresh bread every day.
When I cooked, Chris was working six days, sometimes seven days a week. He was beginning his new career in personal training after leaving the IT department of a mutual fund company. I had just had our second child and decided to stay home.
For a few years, I did it. And then came the third and then the fourth. Then one day, in our new home, I made the declaration:
I will no longer be cooking dinner.
I sat down and went to sleep on the couch with the latest newborn. The kids promptly figured out how to assemble a makeshift dinner without cooking: apples, leftover popcorn, and cheese. People often ask me how I survived those years with littles and Chris working.
Apples, popcorn, and cheese.
If I have to cook lunch, there will be minimal cooking involved and if there is cooking, I will only use one pot or pan to heat up leftovers.
When Chris travels, the girls rotate cooking and the boy helps. The last time I HAD to cook dinner, it was a rice noodle dish on which I had sprinkled a dash of contempt and a pinch of irritation. The kids choked it down and one whispered to the other, “It tastes bitter and salty…if you know what I mean.”
So that was the last dish I cooked in this house.
I also tend to cook the same thing if I have to cook. I man not a fan of variety. I can have a fried egg with rice for dinner every day. I can also have it for breakfast. And for lunch. Pretty sure I once made it for every meal in one week in a time of desperation. My kids know this too. If they leave it to mom, she will buy four dozen eggs and a bag of rice and call it a day.
Today I watch my kids make their food and I am so happy that they are happy doing it. #5 announces he is making a smoothie and asks who wants some. I watch him be creative. He was once the pancake master and made pancakes for a month straight using different flours and ratios. (The yuca one turned into dumplings.)
One day I will probably cook again. When it’s just for me. When there is no expectation. When I can experiment. I took a raw vegan cooking class from friends of mine which reinvigorated some of my curiosity with food. And then when I went home, I realized I had to cook for six people and I turned into Kitchen Eeyore again. It’s no fun to spend hours prepping and dehydrating bushels of kale, a hundred bananas, papayas, and rambutan only for it to be inhaled in thirty seconds.
I think it’s the prep work that gets to me. All that chopping and blending and marinating. I never learned how to see it as a meditation like my husband does because I always had the kids with me while I cooked. I was either wearing one or had one on my hip. There was one crying at my feet or one banging the pots and pans.
And for those “parent” books that say let your child help cook? Yes I have done that and then I am busy teaching and watching carefully the use of knives and making sure a food fight doesn’t ensue while I make sure nothing burns which always ends up happening and we order pizza. It’s not fun to “include” all of them when you have four under the age of six starving and now you want to ask them to help chop the carrots?
I think you have to choose your battles. Lunch time prep – a lighter fare with little sandwiches and cut up veggies – yes, they can help. Dinner time when all my will power and patience is gone from holding it together most of the day? No. Get out of the kitchen little people and watch that show you have been begging to watch all day.
I watch my husband cook and he is all Zen, playing his “cooking” music and most times he is alone in the kitchen unless there is a child, now that they are grown, who can actually help him. I am grateful I have partner who finds his joy in cooking, It truly is a meditation for him.
Not for me. I still have kitchen PTSD. The kitchen had been a battle zone – “don’t go into the pantry,” “don’t open the fridge,” “stop waving the knife at your sister,” “what did you just eat off the floor?!?”
Baking was different because it was always early in the morning. I would have just fed the baby – there was always a baby – and put them back down to sleep. It was that awkward time of 4:30am when there would be no point going back to sleep so I started to bake.
Baking is precise. You follow a recipe, measure it out, and voila, you have exactly what you thought you’d get. Most of the time anyway. I liked that. And the ingredients were simpler. A flour, an egg, maybe butter or milk and sugar. I liked not having to be creative or improvise or figure out how to stretch a recipe that said 2 servings to 8 servings having only enough ingredients for 4 servings. Ugh.
I could be exhausted and knead the dough and let it rise. I could mindlessly follow a recipe and mix. I made chocolate chip sweet potato muffins so much that it became a ritual for me. And then the smell of baked goods in the oven somehow made everyone float down the stairs with a smile on their face – even the other Eeyores of my house.
Bread making also became a thing for one of my children. At three years old, it was the only thing she looked forward to in life. THE ONLY THING. Every other thing led to a tantrum or a battle of wills. But she was mesmerized by the act of making bread. From watching the yeast do its thing to kneading the dough to shaping it into different forms – rolls, spirals, loaves, bagels. She still loves to bake. The other day she invited friends over to make meringues because the sun was out. (Translation: Meringues require constant mixing which means solar power usage which means it is best to do it when the sun is out.)
It was our time together. And baking is an easy thing to include the littles. There is no chopping. There is adding and mixing and sometimes rolling into balls for cookies and then maybe decorating cakes and cupcakes. Much more relaxing for me than hot cast iron handles and sharp knives. And don’t get me started on the potato peeler and the cheese grater.
But during this time together, I am re-framing cooking. Slowly. I am spending more time in the kitchen during dinner prep – not actually prepping of course but sitting on the bar stool watching. I haven’t sat and watched in a long time. Watched the dance – the movement of my kids knowing where to be, how to crush a garlic, and how to check on the onions on the stove so they are just “sweating” and not caramelizing. They dance and sway and say things like “Excuse me” and “Can you taste this and tell me if it’s ok please?” So calm. So polite. So different than the screaming babies of my days of kitchen pasts.
Thank you babe for teaching our kids to cook with love and patience. Thank you to all the kitchen mentors in their lives – past and present – who have shown them a new way of looking at food…and healing them of some of the original trauma of eating fried eggs and rice for a week.