This is not really a cooking story. Yes, I will be cooking. But there’s so much about cooking that has nothing to do with – cooking. First of all, something that is obvious in the 21st century – cooking has little to do with eating. In the fast-food-microwave world, eating can almost exist completely without cooking. I’ve always loved to eat, but I can’t in all honesty say that I’ve ever liked to cook.
Still, there is something to cooking despite all of my objections – and there have been many – that I’ve never been able to ignore. From Fourth of July barbeques, to Sunday lunches at Abuela’s, to Friday night Shabbas, the truth is, there is a lot of pressure in cooking.
When in 1992 Hillary Clinton made the comment “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but instead I decided to fulfill my profession” she furthered her image as a polarizing figure in politics. Regardless of which side of the political line you stand, she revealed quite a bit more to all of us. She showed how even a high-profile, powerful and highly educated woman is still self-conscious about the fact that she doesn’t cook.
I admit I am one of those women. I have masked my insecurities about cooking with a haughty disposition because I am a woman, a mom in fact, who does not like to cook. There I said it.
For years I refused to learn the fundamentals. I didn’t want to chop, baste, or broil. I didn’t want to be associated with the kitchen. I resented that the men in my family got to play outside or at the office until dinner was served without the slightest sense of obligation. I did too, in all honesty. I was never overtly called to come to the kitchen to prep or serve. But even in the presence of what I now realize was a tacit revolution, I still felt the pressure.
You know the pressure I’m talking about. It’s the one that says that no matter how many late nights at the office, how many degrees on the wall, you should still know how long it takes for an egg to harden or to keep the pasta from being too mushy.
For years I was married to a man who was kind, supportive and yes, cooked. Still within that post-feminist love that brewed in the late 90’s, I never felt truly free of the pressure. And no doubt, if even in the smallest of ways, the resistance in me to yield to so many kinds of traditional roles factored into that love’s demise.
Cooking is definitely a personal thing. That much I have always understood. There is no question that it is an expression of creativity and love. Yet, it’s taken me over 30 years to see it that way. In the past I saw it as something that got in the way of work or studying and even love. It’s true. There was always something in me that felt, worried really, that someone might just love me for the role I played instead of the woman I was. In a manner of speaking, I feared someone would love me only because I cooked.
While I still have many of my obstinate attitudes towards societal expectations, a lot has changed. For one thing, I’m now a single mom. That means I manage the household on my own and I have to account for all aspects of it from food to finance. Those things have definitely prompted me to rethink my attitude towards cooking, both financially and emotionally. So here I am after my first night using… The Pressure Cooker…
The recipe for Chicken “Ropa Nueva” was simple enough. As a matter of fact, the chicken is already cooked. But here was an opportunity to refashion it, make it my own and sit my kids to a meal I had prepared.
I realized a lot about recipes and cooking. One thing is that recipes don’t necessarily tell you all the things you’ll need. Sure, you have the ingredients, but it made no mention that I should have appropriate knives for chopping and cutting boards for all the chopped things I’d have scattered around the kitchen.
Mostly, I realized the pressure.
I realized that I had caved into the pressure over cooking in the same way I have caved into pressure in so many other aspects of my life. Since I didn’t think I could do it well, I just didn’t do it at all. In a life where I walk around often feeling like an over-educated nerd, cooking makes me feel dumb.
The pressure cooker hissed and steamed and I couldn’t see what was going on inside. My stomach grumbled and I got cranky. The kids kept asking if it was ready yet and the truth was, I didn’t know. The instructions weren’t clear to me and the glass of wine I drank to calm my nerves went straight to my head. Every time I turned around all I saw was another mess I’d have to clean and quickly this cooking thing was feeling like a really bad I idea.
After 20 minutes of heat and steam and pressure building in my brain, I took the cooker off the burner. To my delight, the chicken looked and tasted pretty good. To no surprise, I watched as my son Max picked away all the veggies and as his sister Sofi politely reminded me that she “reeeally” didn’t like tomatoes. The rice I attempted in the caldero was crunchy (apparently I need to turn up the heat).
They tossed their half full plates into the garbage and filled their dissatisfied bellies with the banana hazelnut dessert we’d made in the Empanada Maker. It obviously wasn’t a perfect meal, but it was fine. They didn’t stand in revolt or go to bed in pain from malnutrition. They hadn’t suddenly rejected me as their mother. And even as that bit of guilt rose in me from all the food that had been tossed away, I had a small moment where I realized – I can do this, as long as I get my head right, I can totally do this. It’s not an indictment on me, Hillary and all of womanhood that I now own a rolling pin. I haven’t given up my identity because on a Friday night you will now find me pouring over a stove instead of a computer or a new outfit to go out in.
The next day though I still needed to break away for a bit, so I met my friend James for lunch. I had set aside some of my food for him to taste. We don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, but we’re close in that way doesn’t require having everything in common. It meant something to me to have him see me in this way, this new Paola.
He sat across me at a picnic table in the park and I could see in his eyes how strange I looked brining him a hot meal, serving it to him.
As he sat there and ate the chicken and then tasted the dessert, I realized how little it mattered. He didn’t love me any more or any less because I cooked him a meal. I don’t even know if he really liked it and it didn’t matter. He was going to sit there on that day, like he has so many other days, and support me in this new phase because it’s not about whether I’m a woman who cooks or not. He just wants me to be me, he wants to be beside me, cooking or not. No pressure.