On abdicating my role as family chef

"Young Chef" by Chris Ford. (Link to image below.)

“Young Chef” (New York City) by Chris Ford. (Link to image below.)

B. J. likes to brag that when we first got married, he was the one who taught me to feed myself: how to plan meals, grocery shop without buying all the things, and to cook food that didn’t take all evening to prepare.   On Friday nights when we were still engaged, he would walk me through all the steps he took to make dinner—usually Italian—and ask me questions about what I tasted, what I liked.  I still have vivid memories of his red sauce (a little sweet, made with freshly diced tomatoes and the littlest bit of cream…yeah, that was good stuff).

I didn’t have much of a vision for what’s traditionally called “women’s work” in my marriage-to-be during those days.   I was ready to build a home together, but I couldn’t even begin to explain what that meant in my 22-year-old mind.  (It mostly involved throw pillows, I bet.)  We habitually skipped pre-marriage questions about dishes and laundry and cooking, as most of us do.  And in fact I have yet to meet a couple who genuinely pours over those kinds of conversations before they get married.

We preferred principles over details, so we aimed for equal home keeping responsibilities to balance our equally demanding grad school workloads.   Charts were compiled.  Chore lists were frequently updated and revised.  I even made one of those “Home Management Notebooks” that you only see on homemaking blogs because, why not?  For all of my type-A sensibilities, a binder with sections like “freezer inventory” and “family vision for hospitality” made me feel like we had it together.

But as the responsibilities got divided between the two of us, I relished my role as family chef the most.  For nearly two years, I cooked every dinner our family sat down to eat.  I planned each dish and scheduled every shopping trip.  I read cookbooks and food blogs—I even discovered that food memoir was one of my favorite subsets of creative non-fiction.  Mastering the Art of French Cooking was suddenly a therapeutic book, not an intimidating treatise on cuisine française  Later, when we decided to try out the paleo diet, I did a lot of the grunt work of experimenting with recipes.  I took pride in saying, “I cook every meal at our house.  Don’t I sound so traditional?”

Don’t I sound so traditional?

There’s a lot of hubris bound up in that statement, isn’t there?  It shouts, “Look here, I fit your mold of womanhood, but, hey, I can do other things too! Go me!”  I was so proud that I had fit myself in the idyllic picture of women’s work, while still keeping up my serious scholar side, that I never considered whether doing it all was good for my soul.

It wasn’t.  This semester I hit the women’s work wall.  With three evening seminars each week, a new course prep, and about a dozen different writing projects (all with looming deadlines), I finally abdicated my role as family chef because, honestly, I’ve run out of domestic energy to play the cook every single night.

If there’s anything this year past has taught me, it’s that I’m not traditional—although all of my Austen-novel-loving, cute baby ogling, girly dress wearing, and carefully curated nail polish collecting might suggest otherwise.  Even though our culture’s definition of “traditional” is constantly in flux, I think most people would nonetheless agree that the wife doing the family cooking fits the mold of tradition.  And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m done with this tradition.  Cooking is no longer a quotidian mystery when you proudly carry the job like a burden of your gender, or when you use it as a measuring pole to evaluate whether your spouse is carrying their load. (Guilty.)

The thing is, sometimes is feels good to fit the mold.  That’s why it’s hard for me to leave this role behind.  It feels so good, for instance, to share a household responsibility with some of my friends who are stay-at-home moms and frequently cook all their families’ meals.  Suddenly, I’m not the academic for a moment: I’m obsessing about meal-planning and the cost of meat right alongside my friends.  I’m sharing a conversation about how hard it is to transform preparing meals into a spiritual discipline like Brother Lawrence.  Or I’m commiserating with a knowing friend about how so many crockpot recipes require the processed mysteries of cream of [something] soup.

To join them in saying, “I cook dinner every night for my family” makes me feel like I’m part of the club.  Now, of course I realize that having similar household chores is not the only way to relate to people, but I wonder sometimes if it humanizes me a little in their eyes.  I wonder also if it made me feel more human, to share these small but necessary household stories with friends who don’t feel the stress of seminar papers or the pressure of what some have called a “fast-track” career.

But do you know what makes me feel even more human?  Coming home after working from 8am to 7pm and meeting my husband in the kitchen.  He offers me a drink and I sit with him while he sorts through the meal prep.  We talk about our days and he lets me sit down (and stay sitting down) while he works.  This is my time to relax, he says.  Sometimes I’ll even wander upstairs to my office and read for a bit while he finishes dinner.  And then I do the same for him a few nights later—back and forth we offer one another a welcome night of rest as it suits our work rhythms.  This is balance.  This is peace.

This is having it all.

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