Top | First Person

Learning to cook

(article, Jamie Passaro)

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When we were first dating, Bob taught me how to sauté garlic, chop vegetables, and flip an omelet. (He made me practice the omelet by flinging a piece of bread in a frying pan repeatedly until I got the wrist motion just right.) After work, we’d walk to the grocery store, where we’d buy just enough groceries for that night’s meal and a bottle of wine. We’d spend the rest of the night cooking some crazy-good pasta dish that Bob — who had worked in restaurants in college and grad school — had invented. Food had never tasted as good as it did when Bob cooked.


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I’d grown up on Hamburger Helper, switching to Gardenburgers when I became a vegetarian in college. In my early adult life, I’d eaten whatever was convenient, an unimaginative diet consisting mostly of cereal, chips and salsa, and peanut butter and jelly. Cooking and eating with Bob felt like visiting another country. I imagined Italy or France.

One of Bob’s first gifts to me was a cookbook, [%bookLink code=0761504346 "The Art of Chinese Vegetarian Cooking"]. He left it on my desk one morning at the newspaper where we both worked. I was more taken with the idea of the gift (he’d called me “honey” in the inscription!) than with the gift itself. The unfamiliar recipes and their numerous steps, each recipe divided into preparation and cooking, intimidated me. Was bean curd the same as tofu? Where would I get coriander leaves or an anise bulb? What did those ingredients even look like? 

Bob, not I, cooked from this book. Ten years of marriage later, we still have it; the pages are stiff and splattered, the recipes for hot and sour vegetables and seared bean curd with sesame ginger sauce are dog-eared. And I’ve still not cooked a single recipe from it.

[%image reference-image float=right width=450 caption="Every cook has to figure things out somehow."]

Until recently, our nightly cooking ritual mirrored the routine we established in the early days of our relationship: Bob, the head chef, planned and made the meals, while I, the sous-chef, multitasked as the beverage getter, the compost dumper, the dog feeder, the dish do-er. I had brought a few recipes to the relationship (a Moosewood pizza dough, a beans-and-rice dish), and I pirated easy appetizer and salad ideas from friends and restaurants. But I was the less-adventurous cook, the less likely of the two of us to try something new. 

We were both happy with the set-up, and I was proud to have a husband who cooked more than I did. “Bob’s the cook,” I’d tell friends. “I’m a wreck in the kitchen.” It was one of those myths about our relationship, one of those things you repeat so much that you forget it isn’t entirely true. I enjoyed saying it, the subtext being: Look at us! Look at how we have transcended traditional gender roles!

But when our daughter, Olive, was born a year and a half ago, the meal pattern changed. I became Olive’s primary caregiver, working outside the house less than 20 hours a week. Bob went back to work full-time. Most nights, Bob gets home around 6:30, and he wants to spend time with Olive before she goes to bed. I’m ready for a break from childcare by then, and so it makes sense that I make dinner while we talk about our days and Bob watches Olive. 

Suddenly, it seemed, I was the head chef. 

I was uninspired in my new role at first, making easy dishes like tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and old standbys such as Gardenburgers, beans and rice, and homemade pizzas. I mocked the housewifey-ness of getting dinner on the table by 7, asking Bob in a sappy voice if I could get him a drink while he played with Olive or if I could pack him a lunch for the next day. 

My discomfort in my new role was due, in part, to the fact that it did seem so housewifey. But I was also intimidated by the kitchen. I had never seen it as my domain. It was, it seems to me, a uniquely Generation X moment. We Gen-X women are perhaps one of the first generations whose mothers didn’t teach us to cook.

While I was growing up, my own mother had worked hard running our family’s business and was often busy volunteering with civic groups. When she got home, she didn’t have a lot of energy for cooking. Though she’s always been a fantastic baker, cooking didn’t interest her. It wasn’t necessarily a feminist statement, as it was for a lot of baby-boomer women; it was just a fact of life. Mom couldn’t see the logic in slaving to prepare a meal for three that would disappear in less than 20 minutes. And so we ate meatloaf and spaghetti, Hamburger Helper and Tuna Helper; we ate pizza out every Friday night. 

I admire Mom’s business acumen and I’m proud of her civic values. But I think I inherited from her a certain impatience when it comes to following recipes with more than a few steps. And, following Bob’s lead all those years, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to improvise.

During Olive’s first summer, we walked to farmers’ markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I was surprised by how much pleasure this routine gave me, from selecting the produce and bantering with the farmers to walking home with berry stains on our faces and clothes, Olive’s stroller loaded down with carrots and melons and fresh greens. 

Sometimes we’d stop at the bakery, the fish store, or the market on the way home. I fell in love with the cheesemongers at the Kiva natural-food store, the way they described their Gorgonzolas, how it might be better to buy the cheaper one to crumble in the salad, or how I should go with the more expensive Parmesan for my pizza, since I only need a little and it will be worth it. I found myself lingering over the samples, asking needless questions.

That summer, I perfected a savory galette. It wasn’t a difficult dish at all — just a buttery, free-form crust, topped with a fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella, Parmesan, and basil — but it was a crowd pleaser, and a huge boost to my culinary ego.

[%image galette float=left width=400 caption="A savory galette is basically a free-form vegetable pie."]

In the fall, I learned to make pasta puttanesca from a friend, adding spicy olives for some heat. I began baking bread to go with it. I added yams and tomatoes to my bean-and-rice bowl, and started caramelizing onions for my pizzas. 

This winter, I discovered the rapture of homemade soup: The smells! The comfort! The leftovers! I made miso soup, tortilla soup, and a soup with beans, squash, and kale. I cooked a carrot-ginger soup for a friend during a hectic time in her life, and her enjoyment of that soup gave me an unexpected high for days.

I wouldn’t say that becoming head chef has been easy. I’m messy and slow and short on what you might call technique. Lacking an olive-pitting device and the foresight to buy pitted olives for a fig-and-olive tapenade, I recently pitted a cup of tiny Niçoise olives using my teeth. 

And there have been failures — some salvageable, others necessitating takeout or a quick batch of scrambled eggs. We have eaten burned pasta, dry pad Thai with crunchy, undercooked rice noodles, and dishes in courses that were supposed to be eaten all at once. We often eat well past 8 p.m.

Despite the defeats, I realized recently that I actually enjoy cooking. While that might seem like a small thing, it was a total epiphany for me.

I can’t help thinking there’s something culturally significant happening here, that finding a quiet joy in cooking is similar to the way so many women my age have found reward in knitting or sewing their own clothes, in domestic duties long-suffered by our foremothers and sworn off by our mothers. By acknowledging that these endeavors actually require thought and skill and creativity, it makes them somehow seem less housewifey, less worthy of resentment.

You could call this post-feminism (insert treatise and angry first-wave feminists here), but I think there’s something more timeless to it, some deeply rooted satisfaction in making something with your own two hands. 

This is not the sort of story that ends with me starting a cooking blog or wanting to become a full-time homemaker. Nothing that drastic. This ends with me trying out a new recipe for, say, dal while Olive toddles around and Bob hovers, asking what he can do to help just as I used to. I love asking him to get me glass of wine or chop some vegetables or feed the dogs. 

Even more, I love to watch his face as he eats. It’s a little bit like dating again. 

p(bio). [ "Jamie Passaro"] is a writer based in Eugene, Oregon.

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