Most of my life, my mother has been of the mindset that one shouldn’t fuss over food. She grew up on an abysmally flavourless diet of grey meats, spongey potatoes, and runny greens, and quickly developed the conviction that food ought to be thought of strictly as fuel, never as an art or pleasure.
Her mother, a wino and a depressive, embodied the pressures that perpetually weighed upon the mid-century housewife. Married at 19, she was an abominable cook and housekeeper, and eventually dulled the shame of her domestic failure by taking generously to the bottle. In marrying my father, my mother took these sore lessons of her childhood with her. She committed to being uncommitted to the domestic kitchen, and for a number of years, served Oreos for dessert with pride.
During the 15 years that my mother and father were married, the kitchen never played more than a minor role in our family lives. Both of my parents worked, and so when the question of what to have for dinner arose, the answer was always what was quick and easy. Day in, day out, we alternated between potatoes, meat cutlets, some variation of vegetable, and large plates of spaghetti. Occasionally, my mother would bake a cake – borrowing the recipe from Betty Crocker – and no one would notice when she glued its broken pieces back together with icing. In those times, the kitchen was a simple, no frills place, where my mother could find peace when she sought it.
When my parents divorced in 1999, something about my mother’s relationship to food and the kitchen changed. As a single working mom she had even less time to prepare meals for her children, and was forced to turn to frozen dishes and take-out more frequently to fill our bellies. On weekends, she responded to the guilt of not being able to prepare a week’s worth of home-cooked meals for her children (though meat dishes and spaghetti still remained), by feverishly cooking and collecting recipes. Books like The Joy of Cooking and Canadian Living were suddenly piled on our countertop flagged with colourful post-its; baked goods (always dry or undercooked) made their way into my lunch boxes; and runny eggs Benedict and roast dinners found their way into our Sunday routine.
Conflating the failure of her marriage with her failure to reproduce an archaic ideal of womanhood, cooking became both an obsession and a source of repulsion for my mother. While at dinnertime she fussed over what to make, agonizing over whether the final product was “too salty” or “too dry,” she simultaneously scorned culinary goddesses like Ina Garten for taking too much of an interest in food. “Food is for energy,” she’d say, crossing her bony arms as we watched Garten waddle a tray of butter-cream cupcakes to her husband. “I eat to survive.”
Married, wealthy, and a stellar hostess, Garten represented an ideal of femininity that for my mother had turned the banal activity of cooking into a desperate personal drama. By breezily cooking five-course meals for her husband on television, Garten made the ability to cook and stay married seem contingent. She embodied that repressive old wives’ tale that said the way to man’s a heart was through his stomach. My mother protested this idea by hating her.
When my father re-married in 2004, his wife kept a kitchen that was permanently stocked with homemade casseroles and pies. I was convinced my mother would run over to their house and kick in the oven. Pretty, round, and a great cook, my stepmom was everything my mother had learned to despise. But perhaps from the realization that her marriage was effectively over, a sort of maturity dawned on my mother. Taking a bite of her own bitter and under-cooked pad thai one day, my mother burst out into laughter. “This is fucking terrible,” she said, and threw her hands up in the air.
Today, watching my mother in the kitchen is still entertaining, although not in the way that adjective would be applied to Garten. She still obsesses over which combination of ingredients to use, and warns us that her meals are going to be too spicy or too dry. The difference in her behaviour is subtle: she shrugs her shoulders when she misses a step in a recipe or when something gets burnt. But she’s more at ease with herself and with her kitchen. What’s more, she’s even come to like Ina Garten.