My mother is puzzled by the fact that I like to cook. She can’t figure it out, as if there were a gene for “liking to cook” and thus my love of recipes makes me some kind of genetic freak. It’s true that those three little words – “what’s for dinner” – make me want to hide under the couch, but I think that’s mostly due to the ridiculous eating habits my children have developed, which I’m sure they’ve done just to spite me.
I do, now, have a better understanding of why, after years and years of cooking for our family, my mother’s terse answer to “what’s for dinner?” was “hamburger glop.” Or “chicken glop.” Or sometimes just “glop.” Truth be told, it was never really that bad – hamburger meat goulash, chicken that was vaguely cacciatore, meat of some kind mixed with vegetables. And you know what? We ate it. Not always happily, but without the drama and head-rolling that my children offer me. (See earlier, on my Thanksgiving menu).
But I digress. This post is not about the distinctly mixed joy of meal preparation for the under-eight set. This post is about the (also mixed) joy of cooking a Big Meal – a Ritual Meal, like Thanksgiving. The cooking part gives me joy. The mixed part comes from … cooking in a New York apartment. You know, one of those apartments where counter space is more of a luxury item than a SubZero fridge?
Let’s start with something basic. A roasting pan, for example. Obviously, to cook a turkey, you need a roasting pan. And as it happens, I have one. After a few nasty mishaps with an aluminum roasting pan, I bought a sturdy black roaster. It’s kept in the weird little cupboard above the (not SubZero) fridge.
So to get out the roasting pan, first I have to root around in the closet to find the stepladder. (One year I tried getting out the roasting pan by climbing up on the counter and reaching over … not a good idea.) The stepladder lives in the back of the closet, behind the vacuum cleaner and in front of the ironing board (it’s never a good idea to have an ironing board in easy reach, or people will expect you to, you know, iron).
Stepladder retrieved, along with a mitten that had gone missing last winter, I begin Operation Roasting Pan. Up the ladder, grab the boxes of cereal and the lunchboxes that live on top of the fridge in front of the cupboard door; down the ladder, deposit items on counter. Up the ladder, lift down the George Foreman grill that lives up there too; down the ladder, shove over the cereal boxes and put down the grill. Up the ladder, ignore huge piles of gross dust on top of fridge, open cupboard doors. Remember that that’s where I’d stashed the cookie cutters last Christmas, along with the unused cookie tins. Down the ladder, stack tins and cookie cutters on the cutting board that’s perched on the stove because there are too many dishes piled in the sink to stretch the board across the sink. Up the ladder, make a few swipes with a wet paper towel at the dust monsters, grab the stack of small serving bowls (used for green beans, cranberry sauce, stuffing); down the ladder, realize that the counters are full, so put the bowls on the table. Up the ladder, another swat at the dust, finally grab the roasting pan without realizing that inside it I’ve stacked three small glass storage containers, which would be lovely filled with coffee, flour, and sugar – on a counter in a kitchen that I can only dream about. With much crashing and clinking, I haul the roasting pan down and balance it on the pile of dishes.
I’m totally winded at this point, and I’ve not even started mashing the potatoes.
Cooking soothes me, which I realize may sound odd, given the number of disasters that can befall you in the kitchen (the aforementioned aluminum pan incident; the time in an earlier apartment where I bought a ham too big for my oven, etc). Compared to other things that I do, however – teaching, parenting, and writing, primarily – cooking is finite. You get out the recipe or get inspired by something gorgeous at the Farmer’s Market and after some period of time, you’re finished. Finished – and with a product that (usually) brings people pleasure. As opposed to, say, explaining to a student why she got a D on a paper; or telling a four-year-old that no, he cannot have ice cream for breakfast; or staring for hours at a blinking computer screen, wondering when, precisely, the right words for the closing sentence will emerge.
The other thing about cooking, particularly cooking these ritual meals, is that the recipes draw together pieces of our lives – my mother’s dill bread recipe; Sue’s mom’s recipe for butternut squash-curry soup; the pies we first tasted at Robert and Mark’s apartment … we all have our own lists, our own ways of making present those who are, for one reason or another, absent.
Cooking helps me remember the connections that I have to other people – I mean, there’s a reason why Proust chose madelines instead of, I don’t know, shoes, or a painting, right? Someday, maybe, I will have one of those kitchens where people can hang out and chat while I cook; there will be cabinets within arm’s reach for everything (even the ironing board); glass containers of staples will gleam in the late afternoon light (because of course there are lots of windows in this kitchen); pots will lined up according to size on shelves that pull out on rollers.
Will it be easier to cook in that dreamy kitchen? Probably.
But you know what? When I think about the state of the world right now, a world that feels like it’s slipping ever faster towards utter chaos, my cramped, cluttered kitchen seems like a refuge; and our Thanksgiving table, filled with loved ones ranging from 20 months to 80, felt like an oasis, a small spot of light against the encroaching dark.
All that – and the top of my fridge could pass the white-glove test. At least for the next few days.
Hey – a girl’s gotta give thanks wherever she can find it.