I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into the room, looked around, and realized I had no idea where I was or what I should do first. Everything felt so foreign to me. I may as well have been standing on a busy street in Abu Dhabi.
But I wasn’t.
I was standing in my kitchen.
Here I was in my tiny apartment kitchen, full of empty cupboards and a fridge stocked with not much more than milk and sweet tea, and I didn’t know what to do.
Maybe it’s stereotypical of me to say it, but I believe most people, women especially, know their way around a kitchen. I’m 39 years old. I’m the mother of three young sons who for now still nibble and turn their nose up at most foods, but who I know soon will be eating their way through the pantry in seconds flat.
The meltdown happened about a year ago when I moved out of my seemingly picture-perfect life and into a tiny two-bedroom apartment. Divorce pending, world reeling, stomach-wrenching life plopped into my lap. And there I was, standing in the poorly-lit kitchen with someone else’s stains on the floor, wondering what to do next.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I can count the number of times I’ve prepared a home-cooked meal for my family. It’s not many. Cooking to me all these years has consisted of one thing, mostly: thawing. It’s sad but true: I have no idea what to do for dinner.
I was talking to a friend of mine around that time, the time of the meltdown, and I explained to him how strange it was to go from a fully stocked home with a husband and three kids and a yard to this. This barren, quiet place where I’d have to find my way. I was practically on a full-raging rant by the time I threw my hands up and said to him, “I don’t even have a whisk. I have nothing.”
I remember hanging my head in shame, fighting the tears.
The next day there was a red whisk in a bag hanging from my car door. He arrived silently and hung it there, the sweetest gesture from a sweet friend. He was trying to help.
But help me? I may be a lost cause. I appreciate the help, really, I do. But I think I know the problem.
I never found my place in the kitchen.
I am the only one to blame, I know this. But looking back on my past, it all makes sense. As a young girl, my parents always cooked and my three sisters and I just sort of stayed out of the way. There weren’t many years where we sat down together to eat, but when we did, mom and dad cooked. I certainly don’t blame them for not taking us all through the process step-by-step. They had kids to feed and limited time to do so. They didn’t need us all in the way. I’m a mom. I know what it’s like to need personal space to get something done. And let’s just be honest—I wasn’t begging to watch and learn.
Then came the many years of eating fast food. My parents owned their own business so we became a family of mallrats, so to speak. We all hung out at the mall and my sisters and I played hide-and-seek in department stores and ate tons of greasy takeout food. It was usually pizza or burgers and fries, but sometimes Chinese takeout. We were kids, so of course we loved it. We didn’t know any better. Years of this lifestyle is likely another reason I never learned how to make Mom’s meatloaf or Dad’s goulash.
In college, again, fast food. I worked long hours in the student newspaper office, eating anything I could afford, which was mostly tacos and pizza. I never complained.
Life was good.
Fast forward to “adulthood,” and I got lucky. I found a guy who liked to cook. He figured out his way around the kitchen quickly after we were married. He enjoyed what he did and usually said he didn’t need my help. So while he chopped vegetables and prepared our meal, I would sit at the table and talk about our day, what our kids were doing and not doing, and how many dirty diapers the baby had. I wasn’t an active player in the preparation of dinners for my family, and at the time that was normal. I didn’t enjoy not having a place in preparing meals for our family, I just accepted it. I didn’t know what I was doing and he did. So I stood aside. I found I could make myself most useful by helping with cleanup or simply keeping kids—and myself—out of the way.
So here I am in my tiny kitchen that needs lots of TLC and I realize my place in the kitchen has almost always been on the outside looking in. I did help in little ways, of course, but scraping plates is nothing compared to preparing a full meal from scratch. My mom and dad still amaze me to this day when they whip all the ingredients out of the pantry and cook up a lovely meal without ever even looking at a recipe.
It’s nobody’s fault but my own that after a busy day of work and with little time, I stand here today (and most days) trying to decide whether I should order pizza or thaw some fries and chicken nuggets. It’s the place I’ve allowed myself to get to. It makes me wonder how many other people out there haven’t found their place in the kitchen yet. Or for those who have sideline jobs, are they happy with that? And for those of us who want to learn to cook, really cook, where do we even begin?
For me, I begin with actually caring to try. Wanting to try. I want to do better for my kids. For me.
Now I suppose I should be fair to myself, because I rarely am, and admit I do know my way around the kitchen when it comes to baking. I can make a mean whoopie pie (in fact, I’ve toyed with the idea of starting my own whoopie business) and I scoff at Snickerdoodles from a box. I love baking and I’m good at it. For years I’ve wanted to invest in a standing mixer, and not just to add color to the kitchen counter.
But whoopie pies for dinner? I think that may not go over well with child services.
My cabinets are mostly bare. I have some of the basics, of course. Pots and pans, a baking dish, a cake pan (of course). I’m starting to work on adding spices one at a time to my pantry. After poking around on my Eating Well app, I now realize eggs aren’t just for baking, so I try to keep them in the fridge at all times. I even bought cage-free brown eggs. (Made myself smile at that one.)
It’s time for a change. And it’s coming in steps. As of late we’ve been spoiled with some great home-cooked meals. And now we want more. The kids and I have been introduced to things like leeks, kale, quinoa, heirloom tomatoes and crepes. Crepes made from scratch no less. And we’re learning. The boys tried to make them for me for Mother’s Day—all by themselves. I had to smile when I stepped in to help and they actually turned out OK. We sat down and ate them together on our mismatched plates.
Life is good.
Maybe we’re only making baby steps. But you know what? That’s all we can ask for at this point. And it’s working.
This week I plan to make spaghetti sauce from scratch. I hope it smells like home.