by Myra Bellin
I have a distinct early memory of watching my mother as she diced onions for a dish she called minute steaks and onions, a greasy, delicious mess of meat better known as butter steak smothered in fried onions. After peeling the onions and slicing off each end, she would settle the onion on its flat side and then crosshatch it with a sharp knife. Rolling it on its curved side, she then sliced through the hatches, creating a uniform chop. The process was accompanied by much eye tearing and hand wiping on the towel hanging from the apron tied around her waist. I now realize that watching her perform this chore launched the training for my role as a woman—a role constructed around the proposition that my highest and best use in life was to prepare dinner, hopefully for a husband with good income potential and the status that goes with it. An orthopedic surgeon would do.
These typical Old-World views crashed headlong into the culture of the sixties that birthed my adulthood—a culture that sought to liberate women from the kitchen and its chores. Absorbing this zeitgeist, I graduated from law school in 1975. That was only the second year that more than just a few token women were part of a graduating class of lawyers. The first was 1974. My first job was with a civil litigation firm. Although the firm was very small, its offices were on a floor with other law firms, and added together, the tenth floor of the Widener Building yielded a total population of about thirty attorneys. All male, needless to say. The only space available for my office was an interior space that had been used for maintenance supplies prior to my arrival. The door to my office was opposite the door of the men’s room. Every few minutes, at least one of the thirty lawyers entered or exited the men’s room—the male population of that floor seemed plagued by prostate issues. With each visit to the restroom, a man would peer into my space as if I were a new, rare acquisition, like a red panda at the zoo. I was pleasant and waved if I caught someone’s eye, unperturbed by the curiosity. But I was always perturbed by the bloviating, blustering opposing counsel who became part of my daily office life. Once I identified myself on the phone as the attorney handling the interrogatories, or the deposition, or the motion for summary judgment, opposing counsel often became far more obnoxious and aggressive than I had ever witnessed when they were dealing with my boss. It seemed to be a reflex reaction to a female adversary.
Sometimes, though, the aggravating phone calls were not from opposing counsel attempting to bully me. Several times a week they were from my mother, who was making sure, since I now was married, that I was not neglecting my primary duties. Hearing my voice and barely saying hello, she only wanted to know one thing—“What are you making for dinner tonight?” I never acknowledged the nuances peppered throughout that deceptively simply inquiry, but it certainly annoyed me. Now I see that the question was loaded with messages. The main message was that my professional life must not subsume the really important tasks involving dinner. I was in a no-win situation. If my professional obligations precluded tackling all the chores of dinner—shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up—I was not fulfilling my role as a “good wife.” But if I was not available to work on command, I was not serious about my profession.
I now understand that by relegating daily meal preparation to an unimportant status, I was rejecting a whole world, the world to which my mother had bitterly sacrificed her own life. So perhaps, too, layered deep beneath her question, was a lethal concoction of envy and rage—emotions generated because I had educational opportunities she had been denied. Even though I understood that I was fully justified in jettisoning the load of domestic obligations my mother had heaped upon me, somewhere deep down, as with so many of the precepts with which we are infused at an early age, the burdens of these obligations never quite fully disappeared—their barely visible shadows became the ghosts of my psyche.
These ghosts gave rise to a true love/hate relationship with cooking. On the one hand, I love home-cooked food—I love the way it fills the house with warm, delicious smells that signify comfort and respite from a world that can be cold and unloving. I love the taste of homemade chicken soup with just the right amount of salt, and beef stew that has simmered all day with carrots and onions and chunks of beef yielding a rich brown sauce. I love the refreshing zip of just-picked rosemary on roast lamb, and fresh basil in a tomato sauce. On the other hand, I hate how much time it takes to cook a meal, particularly when other activities beckon. And so, I find the expectation that I will spend a significant portion of my day every day to prepare a full-blown homemade dinner enraging.
There are, of course, all of the recipes touted on cooking shows and the Internet as “fast and easy.” One of the biggest lies about cooking is that there are meals that are “fast and easy”—they may be easy, but never fast. Preparing dinner involves more than just going into the kitchen, fishing ingredients out of the pantry, fridge, and freezer, and assembling them. Home-cooked meals must be planned so that the ingredients are there when needed. Someone has to order/shop for the food and put it away. Prior to actually boiling, braising, or sautéing, vegetables need to be washed and peeled and chopped or sliced (unless you are using, God forbid, canned veggies). Other ingredients also may need prepping that involves knives, mallets, or measuring cups and spoons. All of the bowls and boards and knives and cups used in prepping need to be washed and stored. After prepping and cooking comes serving and cleaning. Dinner chores made me feel like little more than a hired hand.
Since servitude was the lens through which I viewed cooking, I never understood why some people loved to do it. Some said they found it “creative,” but that concept never resonated with me. Creative cooks are the people who really understand food and flavors. My guess is that they are hardwired for such things. These are the people who have known since birth what spices work together. They understand the joys of fresh herbs and know how to use them. They know the temperatures necessary for deep-frying calamari and the oily mess that results when it hasn’t been reached. They understand how strands of gluten impact sourdough and the smoking point of different oils and why that is even important. They know when and how to caramelize onions and why butter needs to be ice cold for pastry to be flaky. These people can be creative in the kitchen because they know their ingredients and how they will respond to beating and mixing, pounding and rolling. In other words, creative cooks possess the requisite knowledge to combine foods and create something new.
I, on the other hand, know how to read recipes. For many years, I believed that anyone who knew how to read could create a home-cooked meal from scratch. My way of dealing with my kitchen obligations when I was a newly minted lawyer was to branch out. In spite of my workload, there were always weekends to experiment in the kitchen. I purchased a cookbook by a now forgotten cookbook author named Madame Wu (and even named my Siamese kitten after her, only to change the name of the cat to Piewacket when that marriage ended). Chinese stir-fry became part of my entertaining repertoire, an unusual move during the decade that everyone was making fondue. Back then woks were something strange and exotic, not a standard item on bridal registries. I painstakingly read about stir-frying and entertained for dinner by preparing two stir-fried dishes—usually beef in oyster sauce and chicken with peanuts—as well as deep-fried wonton as an appetizer. All managed by reading recipes. Is this creative? Not really, as far as I was concerned. All I did was follow directions.
My love/hate relationship with cooking did not change over the decades, although by the late eighties, my husbands did. My second husband is happy enough to open cans of tuna for dinner or order takeout, and more than happy to function as a sous-chef for elaborate preparations and to always clean up. He is even willing to go shopping, but my instructions must be explicit—he was not raised to cook, and so when faced with an array of fresh vegetables in the supermarket whose selection requires a certain degree of decision-making, he has little experience upon which to draw.
It was, however, through my second husband that Cousin Phillip entered my life. Cousin Phillip was a man whose expectations and attitude epitomized all of my resentment for cooking. I found Cousin Phillip to be completely self-absorbed and painfully old-fashioned. At least two decades older than my husband, Phillip was younger than my mother but still shared her Old-World expectations. When he came to town for the weekend, my freedom vanished. First there was the requisite Friday night dinner—chicken soup with matzoh balls, either brisket or roast chicken accompanied by a starch and a green vegetable, a salad, and dessert served with tea in a glass with sugar cubes in the saucer. As if making this all from scratch and running out to find sugar cubes wasn’t enough, custom demanded another hot meal midday Saturday after morning religious services. Although it was acceptable to serve leftovers from Friday night’s meal for Saturday’s lunch, I still had to prepare, serve, and clean up. One Friday night Phillip pushed away from the table, looked at me, and said: “Isn’t it a shame that you put in all of this time and effort to cook dinner and then, poof, in just a few minutes it is gone?”
“That does it,” I fumed later to my husband. “I have had it. I am leaving for the weekend the next time he visits, and you fellas will have to manage on your own. I’ll leave you some recipes. I quit.”
I never thought that anything could influence my ambivalence about the kitchen, particularly because it had been so ingrained for decades, but I was wrong. All I needed was a new perspective. It arrived unexpectedly in an email one day amidst the lockdown of the covid pandemic. Its author was a man who earns his living selling fish. After his wholesale fish business dwindled because of restaurant closures, Robert Amar pivoted to selling fresh fish directly to consumers from the back of his truck. He built his retail business by word of mouth, sending his growing customer base two colorful emails each week in which he pontificated about life in general, the fish industry in particular, and how to prepare the catch of the week. Around the Christmas holidays Amar articulated what attracted him to the food industry in light of his mother’s undisguised desire that he study law or medicine.
As a boy, he explained, his parents frequently invited people over for drinks and dinner. The men and women generally separated during these events, with the women in the kitchen gossiping as they prepared dinner and the men in the living room smoking and talking sports and politics. Initially he hung out with the men, but hearing snippets from the kitchen, he could tell by the laughter and excited voices that the women were having way more fun.
“It was not acceptable for boys to venture into the kitchen in [the seventies]. I knew that. There was a loophole in the rules and regulations, however. A boy COULD go in to help. And so, I would often go in to help peel carrots, shred parsnips, slice eggplant, take out the trash, etc. All this so I could hear the stories being told in there about who did what to whom, who said this to that, what funny thing so-and-so did the other day and so on. I loved it.
“…[A]s I got older, I started to see the experience in different, more layered ways… [B]y the time I hit 15 or 16 years old, I started to get the feeling that all of the stories that were being told in the kitchen while we were cooking and to which, by now, I was contributing as well, we were cooking INTO the food. And as we laid every course out for everyone to eat, we were all eating those stories of laughter and love and connection. That’s why the food tasted so good, I began to believe. And that’s why I got into the food business.”
I thought long and hard about this, delighted by the idea that what I had considered obligatory drudgery need not be that at all, but rather acts of giving infused with love and joy. What a wonderful lens through which to view cooking! This was a true revelation. Old attitudes die hard, but this new perspective is slowly creeping into my life. I have embarked on a culinary makeover—linguine with clams, roasted whole branzino (head attached), monkfish curry—without abandoning my old-time favorites like minute steaks and onions. I wish my own childhood kitchen had imprinted laughter and fun. But now, when I remember my mother, I ache for her burdens and all the tears she shed chopping onions.
Category: Featured, Short Story