If You Can’t Take the Heat
By: Yitti Berkovic
I don’t like to cook.
I said it.
I am a Jewish mother, and I don’t like to cook.
I don’t like to chop or mince or dice or stir. I don’t like to marinade or sear or braise. I don’t get excited about a new recipe, and I don’t get a thrill at the challenge of attempting a tried-and-true concoction with 97 steps. Most of the time, I just want to close my eyes and have dinner show up on my table, perfectly seasoned and ready to satisfy my picky children’s requests.
But it’s not that simple.
I don’t like to cook, but I’m also too cheap to buy takeout and too Hungarian to buy dinner from the freezer section. And supper comes around every night, so I spend a good chunk of my life plowing through dinner prep while dreaming about hiring a short-order chef to be on standby in my kitchen. (Know anyone who will work in exchange for articles or crossword puzzles? Yeah – I didn’t think so).
So, yes, I cook, and I cook all the time, and my food is perfectly tasty but also nothing to write home about. Most of the time, cooking feels like a chore – like doing laundry or polishing silver or taking the kids to the dentist. It’s not necessarily fun, but it’s what I signed up for when I was blessed to become a mother, and I haven’t yet found a way out.
But that’s not the hard part. The hard is part is that I feel like I have two choices: either I pretend that I looooooove to cook or I keep quiet about my culinary discontent. Because I often feel like a unicorn in my circle of friends and – really – in the frum community at large. Most days, it feels like I’m the only one trying to dodge my kitchen duties.
Wherever I go, I interact with women who love to cook. More than that, they love to talk about how much they love to cook – swapping recipes, whispering cooking secrets, and sharing spices they had shipped straight from the shuk. When Yom Tov comes around, they’re giddy about trying that dessert with sixty distinct ingredients – while I plan to serve sorbet that comes in a tub (it’s delicious!). It seems like everyone’s a food blogger these days – even my husband likes to whip up exotic foods! – so I’m the only one who doesn’t get it.
Riddle me this: Since the pandemic hit, everyone I know has developed a passion for sourdough, and I feel even more befuddled. I worry about feeding my children. Why would I take on the added responsibility of feeding my starter?
But as the odd mom out, I’ve been scared to say aloud that my kitchen does not spark joy for me. And I’ve played the game really well: if you stop by for a visit and peruse my pantry, you’ll think I am a gourmand. I have a wide variety of spices, every color, every scent, every country of origin. I’m not sure why I buy them. Deep down, I think I’m hoping the next spice will be the muse that changes everything; maybe hawaij will turn me into the next Susie Fishbein, I tell myself. Alas, hawaij just sits on the shelf, daring me to give it a whirl but probably going stale.
Speaking of Susie Fishbein, I also have almost every kosher cookbook, new and old, lining the shelves and begging to be used. My husband usually buys them for me (think he’s hinting at something?), and I love to read them. I love to marvel at the authors’ creativity. I love to scrutinize each picture, inhaling the beautiful colors in Hashem’s tablescape, in the rainbow of fruits and vegetables prepared to perfection.
I just don’t want to cook anything from them. I just want to pour duck sauce and paprika over my chicken and be done.
I can’t help but wonder: Where did my DNA go wrong?
Food is my mother’s love language, and she comes from a long line of matriarchs who said, “Es es mein kindt,” as often as they blinked. Like my mother, one of the cookbook authors wrote in her introduction that she hopes her children taste the love she puts into her food, and I nearly burst into tears.
Do my children taste the lack of love in my food? Do they taste my exhaustion when I rush to get supper on the table as I run in from work? Do they taste my frustration when my kids wrinkle their nose at my latest attempt to get them to eat their protein and their veggies? Do they ingest how meal prep feels like a chore to me, even though I know food is a perfect catalyst through which I can help my children be healthy – and yes – feel loved and nurtured?
But I realized something during this pandemic, especially on those days when I did have time to cook because I didn’t have to commute to and from work. When life slowed down, I still didn’t want to roll up my sleeves and make fresh pasta from scratch, but I realized I could make pasta from a box and use my free time to nurture my children in a million other different ways.
Sure, a lot of Yiddishe Mamas show their love in piping hot bowls of chicken soup, but other mothers show their love by staying up late to help their son do research for a science project or by playing Jeopardy with another son until one in the morning (don’t ask who won).
Many mothers remind their kids they are cared for by baking muffins in the morning and serving them right out of the oven, but other mothers drive their daughter to three stores to find the brand of potato chips she must have for snack that day and adds a note with a cringe-worthy pun just to cheer her daughter up after a long math class.
Some mothers use their kitchen for cooking fancy meals, but other mothers’ kitchens are used to blast music and host impromptu dance parties, to serve Shabbos parties with the very best nosh in the supermarket, or to review the vocabulary words for the forty-sixth time before her daughter’s big test without losing her cool.
There’s no singular recipe for showing our children we love them. There isn’t only one step-by-step approach to helping our children feel nurtured and cared for. The flavors of life are rich and colorful and diverse – and many of those flavors aren’t only found in the kitchen or in a pot.
So if you are a closeted kitchen-phobe like me, don’t let it get you down. There are more ways to reach your children’s hearts than just through their stomachs – and the real work of a Yiddishe Mama is finding the path that leaves everyone feeling satiated – full of love, full of connection, and full of genuine joy.