A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

For Whom the Cook Toils

Can cooking become a trap for a well-intentioned mother?

I cook. Not like the amazing mother I know who cures pancetta in her cellar, renders her own lard, and throws sausage-making parties on weekends with her husband. But also not in the stir-fry-a-bunch-of-vegetables-with-tempeh-and-call-it-dinner way I fed myself in graduate school. I love to make good things to eat: old favorites, recipes from the newspaper, dishes from cultures I've never visited in person. I'm not immune to the charms of any category; cakes and confections, stews and roasts, pastas and puddings: all of these and more deliciously commandeer my attention. I probably spend 40 percent of the time my children are in school either shopping for or cooking food. If I added in the time spent planning the meals for the week--or simply daydreaming about food I might one day cook--that percentage would probably shoot up alarmingly.

What I haven't entirely figured out is why I love it so much. I don't come from a particularly food-interested family: my parents seem to eat smaller and smaller quantities of food, and it's usually the old standbys. My mother is a competent but not terribly enthusiastic cook, and I don't think I'd offend her too much by remarking that her baking leaves something to be desired--perhaps her aversion to measuring ingredients plays a role in this shortcoming? My culinary heritage on a larger scale is, to be sure, a rich one: Greek food has long been extolled as both healthy and delicious if a little on the simple side (I remember a cooking show focused on a famous Greek fish restaurant where the chef took the viewer through multiple preparations, each of which was a slightly re-ordered version of grilling, adding lemon juice and sprinkling on "a touch of oregano"). But while I feel a nostalgic pull towards Mediterranean flavors, my exposure to Greek food has been mostly through the mediocre-to-indifferent cooking of basic beachside tavernas.

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This relatively recent passion for cooking has also dovetailed neatly with my transformation into a stay-at-home-mother. When my girls were toddlers, I sought refuge from witching-hour madness at my cutting board, chopping vegetables for some over-complicated dish while my children pinballed around my legs like tiny lunatics. After we moved into a home with an open kitchen, cooking became the perfect way to be with the children without actually having to get down on the floor and play the millionth game of pretend or dress-up or whatever activity it was I was most sick of. I was there, wasn't I? I could (mostly) pay attention to what they were doing while not actually having to do everything with them. Plus, whenever my resolve to stay above the fray faltered, I could reassure myself that I was still doing something worthwhile, whether or not the dish I was immersed in was one they'd actually consume. Isn't it good for children to see their parents providing delicious home-cooked meals, even if what they themselves end up eating is a defrosted (organic) hotdog?

And honestly, the new social awareness about food and its impact on children has done nothing but stoke my fire: the more I read about America's hopelessly derailed food culture, the less comfortable I feel taking shortcuts in feeding my children. I may not render my own lard (yet), but I did go through a phase last spring of grinding my own meats--yes, "Food Inc.," your tragic story of a child dying of E. coli pushed me over the edge! It's pretty much the same as my feelings about breastfeeding: if you really can't do it--if your temporal, physical or emotional constraints are too binding--then don't, and to hell with the haters. But if you can--well why wouldn't you?

Yet, being the ambivalent kind of over-thinker I am, I do worry that I'm shoveling all my creative energies into this orgy of home-cooked meals largely for...myself. It's a way to keep busy, a way to actually produce something, a way to eat up those daytime hours I used to spend, um, working. For a paycheck. Now that my children are in school full time, cooking is less an escape from them than it is from the questions about whether I should still be at home. Certainly, I've fashioned myself into a super-productive member of society...if by "society" you mean my family of four.

So where's the rub? If I abandon the cooking insanity, who will provide really good meals for my family? I just don't want to--can't!--return to a life of bottled pasta sauces and random stir-fries. But then again, who truly benefits from my passion? My children eat about 60% of the dishes I labor over, and my husband actually complains that I make too many desserts. Not to mention that there are plenty of perfectly well-nourished children whose (working) mothers don't spend all day making a perfect pie or schlepping to the Union Square Greenmarket to buy organic basil. I know there are those who will sensibly point out that there's a middle ground--dishes with shorter prep times, cooking a week's worth of meals on Sundays--but for now, I need to accept that I'm happy with my weekday spice quests to Kalustyan's, my ransacking of esoteric cookbooks, my quixotic production of complex dishes. I know it will end one day, whether I run out of interest or time, but for now I resolve to embrace it. It's too easy--especially as a parent, especially as a mother--to surrender to feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty.

I cook, therefore I am.

 

What I cooked this week:

 

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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