Throughout the world, men are taking to the kitchen, most notably in African countries such as Mozambique where a program called “Men in the Kitchen” encourages gender equality through cooking.
Here, closer to home, an impromptu Facebook survey netted many comments from my friends about their own men in the kitchen, especially at Thanksgiving.
“In 26 years of marriage, I have never once cooked Thanksgiving dinner,” the mother of two grown children posted. “My husband gets up at 4:30 to make his own stuffing and put the bird in. He has never failed to serve between 12 to 16 people a wonderful spread with all the trimmings by 2 p.m.”
Yet and still – with absolute respect for men learning women’s work, and with all due support for any woman who would rather watch the Lions while her man checks the Butterball thermometer – cooking remains part of feminine history, tradition and lore.
Which is why, when my daughter finally took to the kitchen, I felt the completion of a circle.
I didn’t know if she, or either of her two brothers for that matter, would ever find joy in cooking.
When they were young, I bought them all little aprons, and stood them on chairs at the kitchen counter where we attempted chocolate-chip cookies and banana-nut muffins.
Which I hated.
Although I love other kinds of cooking, baking has always been too complicated for my right-brain self, all that precise chemistry. Add to the mix a gang of preschoolers appearing to pour flour into the bowl, which, for all I knew, could be baking soda or rat poison, and you’ve got a stressed-out mom doing more harm than good for the cause.
And yet I wanted them to experience the kitchen as richly as I do, as richly as I did when I was a child, when the kitchen was the center of the house, when long, slow cooking was necessary for survival.
Indeed, my growing-up memories are rife with these images, of one great-grandmother canning vegetable soup in her kitchen in the back hills of South Carolina, while my first-generation Lebanese great-grandmother rolled grape leaves in her oversized kitchen in the city. I recall my Mississippi grandmother on my father’s side laying out fried-chicken dinners on Sundays and large Thanksgiving spreads at the home of my grandmother on the mother’s side.
As for my mother, who eventually moved us from South Carolina to New Orleans where we learned the secrets of roux and Cajun spices, she prided herself on keeping the legacy, putting three complete meals on the table every day for her family of six.
I wanted my children to not only know the warmth of the kitchen, but to find the joy of cooking for themselves. Cooking – baking disorders aside – is a beautiful thing. Not only is cooking necessary for survival, it is an art. Not only is it a delicious hobby on an autumn afternoon, it is an expression of tradition and culture.
Occasionally then – and only as my children grew older – I would consciously ask for help chopping vegetables or measuring spices. Sometimes, I would hold a spoonful of a special soup or sauce to their mouths and ask them to guess the ingredients. These moments were sporadic. And I wondered if they were enough. Would my children ever take to the kitchen of their own accord?
Somehow, by osmosis or necessity, children do find their way. You don’t think they’re hearing you use swear words until one day they say “Damn!” really loud in the grocery store. And so it was that my boys began to cook. My elder son made his own pasta dishes and cakes; his younger brother, macaroni and cheese and milkshakes.
But it is my daughter who found the heartbeat of the kitchen.
Like her brothers, for a long time Emily showed almost no interest in cooking. And then one day when she was 18, I came home to find the table set for a friend’s birthday with tea lights and silver, cloth napkins and five of my best recipes on beautiful platters. Emily went on to make pies with fresh pumpkin and sauces for lattes.
A college senior now who lives at home, she experiments with different kinds of granola, breads and soups. She takes cookbooks to bed for pleasure reading. She even talks about opening her own restaurant or going to culinary school. “Mom, can we make gumbo together?” she texted me the other day.
I’d like to believe gender doesn’t matter, that my daughter’s newfound interest, and my joy in it, is not just because she’s female. I believe I would feel this way about any of my children who share my love of cooking.