Published on June 25th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein0
The Joy of Mediocre Cooking
When the pandemic began, much was made of the empty baking-aisle shelves. There was no flour, no sugar, no cornstarch. Now those headlines seem downright quaint, but as the world burns, the idea that transformation could be as simple as sifting powder, adding butter, and applying heat seems that much more appealing.
I get it. In theory. But the meringue slid off my one attempt at a pandemic pie, and I would never dream of attempting to make my own crust.
You know what was never out of stock, though? Pillsbury Funfetti cake mix.
Like many families, I’ve been doing more home cooking since stopping for a slice of pizza on the way home from daycare ceased to be an option. Even though I’m still working full-time (whatever that means) from home, cooking for my family is a lot easier if I can preheat the oven or start sealing the Instant Pot at five. There’s no more mad dash from work to daycare, no more arriving home starving and exhausted at 6:30 and deciding we’ll just all eat yogurt in front of the TV.
Now, in the strange luxury of pandemic life, my five-year-old son Dash eats yogurt in front of the TV and my partner and I eat veggie burgers (see recipe 1 at the end of this article) or fish tacos.(2) This is to say that my cooking has gotten more frequent, but not much more ambitious.
“When Mom’s Zoom Meeting is the One That Has to Wait” is one of the most widely shared articles in my feed (and linked-to in MUTHA), so I probably don’t need to tell you that women are shouldering the majority of domestic labor during quarantimes. But there are a couple of factors complicating my otherwise firm stance of cranky feminism: 1) my partner is a woman, so I never get to blame sexism for our household-labor disputes and 2) I like cooking. Even if you wouldn’t know it from my cooking.
When my mom died in 2003, my sister and I inherited her recipe book, a flour-dusted notebook with brown calico covers. Taped to the pages, annotated with her neat, curvy handwriting, were recipes cut from the backs of boxes: noodle-box lasagna, granola-box muffins. Other recipes came from elsewhere but advised “Start with one box yellow cake mix” or “Start with one 16-oz tub plain Dannon yogurt.”
My mom is a hard act to follow on most fronts. She hand-sewed our Christmas dresses, improvised a home summer-school program, and seemed to find us delightful more often than she found us aggravating. She cooked six nights out of seven, mindful of health and budget. So it’s a relief that she was no master chef.
Dinnertime staples included salad made of iceberg lettuce and giant wedges of beefsteak tomatoes, dry baked chicken, tuna casserole, and boiled broccoli.
I was almost today-years-old when I learned via an NPR food show that broccoli, when overcooked, loses its primary cancer-fighting compound and releases other sulfur-containing compounds that make it smell and taste disgusting. Who knew? Certainly not a busy mom in the pre-Food Network, pre-internet eighties.
I am grateful to inherit this legacy. It’s the one area–outside of a few amorphous socio-emotional tweaks–where I have hope of doing better than my parents did.
When I went to college, my mom was mildly offended that I liked the dorm food rather than longing for her cooking. But at home I did not have the option of eating Froot Loops and pie at every meal. When I moved to an apartment junior year, my Asian-American roommates taught me how to stir-fry things: Put a little oil in a pan, and vegetables taste good. It was a revelation, and the foundation for all the cooking I’ve done since. It’s easy and it’s fun.
Most of the things I like, I am good at; many of the things I am good at, I like, because I like to feel good at things. But I like cooking in part because I don’t claim to have talent and I have minimal aspirations. The stakes are deliciously low.
These days especially, there is so much pressure. I heard Miranda July describe being a working parent as living inside an Instant Pot, and that is exactly right. On any given weekday pandemic afternoon, I might be editing a press release for work, G-chatting a coworker, supervising an online tutoring session (for the youth nonprofit where I work, not for my own kid; I’ve given up on educating him), and breaking up an argument between Dash and the neighbor girls about who got the most whatever. All of this simultaneously. The steam presses against the lid of what is humanly possible. My voice tightens. Sometimes I feel like an Olympian. More often I feel like a failure.
Then the meeting ends and the neighbor girls go home and I pick up enough toys that the floor becomes visible again and the pressure valve opens. Dinnertime means there will be bath time, and bath time means there will be bedtime. Once a week or so, I try to make something from an actual recipe. Once a week or so, we order pizza. But most nights, it’s me and no more than two pans or a toaster oven, working our magic.
Last night I made French toast(3). The night before, I made couscous with corn(4). C.C. and Dash loved the former and ignored the latter. I get it. Couscous with corn isn’t really a thing. It’s starchy but not decadent the way starchy foods should be. But the act of putting ingredients together, applying heat, and seeing what happens is an experiment (this is why I’m not a baker; baking and uneducated experimentation go together worse than couscous and corn), and the only other time I get to play like that is when I’m writing. Writing requires thinking, though, and at dinnertime I have no brain cells left.
I have hands, and there are open mouths. I’m a mama bird, and what I’m serving up may not be that much better than regurgitated bugs, but feeding the mouths taps into something fundamental. It’s proof to myself that even though I’m chronically grouchy, even though YouTube is my co-parent, I’m fulfilling one of the major requirements of motherhood. With help from Trader Joe’s, my other co-parent.
“You make the best chicken nuggets,” Dash enthuses.
I know food-as-love is fraught: for every personal essay waxing nostalgic about a grandmother’s cookies, there are two about eating disorders that grew out of being required to clean their plates, or having their emotional outbursts shushed with dessert.
I have my own food issues, and at some point I unconsciously made the decision to prioritize Dash’s emotional relationship with food over his nutritional relationship. I don’t make dessert a reward. I don’t make him finish his food, I don’t talk about “good” and “bad” foods, though I do tell him that eating five cheese sticks might make it hard to poop.
This is how I can give Dash a lollipop with breakfast and call it a parenting philosophy.
I like cooking because I like feeding my family, but I also like cooking because it’s 90 percent just for me. Dash has his lollipop. C.C. has been known to pull up the Postmates app on her phone on the sly, and I often don’t know about it until steaming containers of restaurant ramen arrive at the door, upstaging my sad attempt at pad thai. (Who could have guessed that lemon-and-pepper flavored tuna wasn’t a good substitute for chicken?) Most days, I don’t take it (too) personally.
In 2011 I had what amounted to a months-long, slow-moving panic attack following a miscarriage. People advised “be in your body, be in the present,” but my body terrified me. Being in it meant thinking about it, and the ways (I was certain) it must be breaking down, must have killed my babies. I’d always been a planner, taking refuge in an imagined perfect future, and then that way of being utterly failed me.
What saved me–well, what saved me was therapy and Zoloft and time–but what got me through the day was planning what I would cook for dinner. It was planning and the future, but on the smallest possible scale. I remember a night when I drove home from work screaming with grief and pounding my steering wheel, but determined to make gazpacho. And I made gazpacho. And I lived to tell the tale.
Right now, the country is as scary as it’s been in my lifetime. Sometimes it feels like the dominoes are falling, and I just have to hope one won’t fall on my life. I try to remember that people have outlasted regimes.
My friend Suzie, who lived with her Armenian family in Syria until she was ten, recently posted: “I would like my child to learn that you do not always get to experience life in the way you expect, but that doesn’t mean that your alternate experiences aren’t meaningful…. I know that the sheltering-in-place is becoming harder and harder, particularly because many of us are not only deprived of contact with family and friends but also of celebrations/commemorations of milestones and significant moments in life like weddings, funerals, births and graduations…. Some of us who have grown up outside of the U.S. or in war-torn countries have missed some of these experiences and celebrations because they were just not feasible, but we have survived, lived, enjoyed life and made meaningful memories regardless.”
(Suzie also happens to be one of the best cooks I know, so when her daughter starts eating solid food, she’ll be much better fed than Dash.)
For now, food is artificially cheap and abundant in the U.S., though it still isn’t affordable for many. For now, I can’t take Dash to the playground or even his grandparents’ homes. Zoom school has slouched into summer; I won’t be taking him to the community pool or concerts in the park. But meaningful memories are still possible.
Some blistering summer night, years from now, a grown Dash will walk down the street near his college (or the labor camp that all members of the 99% will attend, depending how things go) and he’ll catch the scent of hot dogs cooking on an open flame. It will take him back, Ratatouille-style, to that strange quarantine summer when his mom served him hot dog tacos. And he’ll think, That was weird. Hot dog tacos aren’t really a thing.
(1) Pan fry veggie burgers. Place on bun. Add a pineapple slice for tropical flare.
(2) Cook fish sticks in toaster oven. Place on warm tortillas. Top with salsa.
(3) Soak bread in egg and milk. Cook in pan. Serve with syrup.
(4) Follow directions on couscous box. Cut corn off cob and sauté. Put corn on top couscous. Leave ample leftovers in fridge for a week. Determine that teriyaki sauce does not improve them. Discard. Order pizza.