On top of spaghetti, all covered in cheese...
April 24, 2011 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Tom Junod writes about cooking, his mother, and mashed potatoes.

"I used to wonder why my mother hated cooking so much. I used to wonder why she cooked salmon fillets for two hours and pot roast for one. I thought for a long time that it was because she was a bad cook, because she rejected cooking as a way of rejecting us, because she was, at heart, a liar. Now I understood that she hated cooking because she didn't know how to do it and so had no idea how a meal might turn out. I understood that she simply wasn't cut out for it, and yet, because she was part of the postwar suburban vanguard, she knew she was going to be judged on it — and so she demanded to be judged on it, meal after awful meal."
posted by WalterMitty (14 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Tom Junod, on his father and fashion. (Possibly the 'flattering profile of [his] father for a magazine' mentioned in the cooking essay.)
posted by WalterMitty at 7:24 PM on April 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

My mom wasn't a very good cook either :-( My wife is though!
posted by no1nose at 10:12 PM on April 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank goodness for good comma placement.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 10:19 PM on April 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

Indeed, this stands as an example of the importance of proper punctuation.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:14 PM on April 24, 2011

I found this to be pretty moving. I grew up in a family where my dad did most of the cooking, in no small part to make my mother feel even more guilty about being a succesful career woman who spent less time with her kids than she would have liked.

All that bullshit you don't think your kids are capable of picking up on? Yeah, they understand. Or else they will at a later date.
posted by bardic at 2:18 AM on April 25, 2011

Yep, my dad did all the cooking in our family. Still does, for my mom and himself. I also cook about 300 days a year, for my partner and myself.

That piece hit a bit harder than I'd expected, even with all its imperfections (and man were there a lot). The family situations were different. The betrayals were different. The overall results were oddly similar. And you really don't ever see it until you finally get some distance. That's when it's normally too late.
posted by This Guy at 5:46 AM on April 25, 2011

I don't think my mom was really that bad of a cook, but I hated her cooking anyway. Roast beef, meat loaf and cooked vegetables all. the. time. Oh and casseroles. Endless casseroles. PROTIP: Tuna, peas and rice don't taste good together.

It wasn't until after college, when I had both self-direction and money to buy food that I realized I actually liked to eat.
posted by DU at 5:47 AM on April 25, 2011

I grew-up with one of those "suburban vanguard" moms and she wasn't a great cook, either. But, she was better than she thinks she was. We definitely ate an over-abundance of over-cooked beef and potatoes, though.

Cooking on a day-to-day basis, year-after-year, for the same small group of people is hard. Doubly-so if one is also keeping a house clean, doing laundry, running after kids, or holding-down an outside job (or all of the above!) The current fetish for cooking, I think, avoids the actual, daily job of cooking for a normal family, in favor of some unreal fantasy where you're the budding Adria of the cul-de-sac, aimlessly wandering Whole Foods in search of the perfect heirloom leeks. And, if they don't have exactly what you want, you can always pick-up something from that new antarctic-fusion place.

Add to this the fact that, as the kids get older, their schedules start to blow holes into the concept of family meals, especially if any of your kids are in sports. You definitely start opting for meals that are quick and easy, and cheap. Or, you opt for a hot dog at the softball field, so you can watch your daughter play. Twice a week.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:47 AM on April 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

Thorzdad, I have no words. You're so right you couldn't be more right if you tried.

I love to cook. Love it. I'm really good at it. I used to do it professionally. My children are fantastic eaters and not particularly choosy. Cooking for them, every day, at least one meal a day (possibly two if they want cooked breakfast) and packing lunches, keeping house, keeping writing deadlines, and working another part-time job, makes me so stressed some days that I resort to things I swear I'd never resort to. Ramen for The Boy for breakfast, the 100th PBJ for The Girl. Take-out for dinner during the three-hour Taekwondo class marathon we have once a month. And yes, I do slow-cooker stuff and quick meals and I make lots of things from scratch, and yes, my husband does at least if not more of his share of house keeping. Still. Real life? Can suck the will out of a person so fast it'll make your head spin.

(turns out I did have words.)
posted by cooker girl at 7:01 AM on April 25, 2011

My parents were of the opinion that all kids should learn to cook, clean, sew, weed a garden, change the oil/tires in a car, and a few other such chores. I notice that both my brothers do a lot of the cooking in their households. Their actual chores split along more traditional lines - Dad did breakfast (because he woke up earlier, and had learned short-order cooking in the navy) and Mom did dinner because she got home earlier. And, I think because Mom felt very strongly about the importance of eating as a family. This sometimes meant burnt-outside, raw-inside meals, and some odd scrambling. We had a lot of "emergency chicken" (Mom would call from work as soon as we got home from school and have us pull a frozen chicken from the freezer, prep it by pouring a can of tomato sauce over it, and popping it in the oven as soon as it could theoretically be called defrosted. It was usually ready and edible by dinnertime.) But darn it, we were going to eat as a family as much as possible. The ritual was more important than the food.

When Mom couldn't cook, Dad generally grabbed whatever leftovers we had and made stir-frys or stews with wine and, usually, a burning level of black pepper. I remember being bemused when I finally had "beef bourguignon" and discovered it bore an uncanny resemblance to "leftover beef stew". Apparently his willingness to not only cook without complaint, but to cook leftovers, made him "a catch" after Mom passed (also, a friend's mom explained, because he was widowed and not divorced).
posted by Karmakaze at 9:53 AM on April 25, 2011

The first thing that I ever read by Tom Junod was that article that WalterMitty links to, and it was brought to my attention by someone at my library, who thought that it was the funniest thing that he'd read in ages. It colored just about everything that I've read of his since then, good and bad.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:15 AM on April 25, 2011

That was heartbreaking. Even terrible cooks shouldn't die hungry, even if I know that many, many people do.
posted by sawdustbear at 2:34 PM on April 25, 2011

Growing up I thought my mom was a great cook, and because my parents placed a high importance on having dinner every night as a family, I always got a chance to be impressed with my mom's creativity in coming up with something delicious for dinner every night.

It wasn't until I moved out of the house and had started to learn to cook on my own--inspired by my mom's dedication--that I began to learn that she was actually not that great of a cook. Looking back, the overwhelming majority of food she made was prepackaged or processed. Hamburger helper, mac&cheese, frozen or canned vegetables, and of course, Potato Buds. Her method of cooking broccoli, which she still does to this day, was to steam it until it was limp with only the vaguest hint of greenness left. It's possible that the only reason I hated peas and lima beans growing up was because I had never tasted one that wasn't canned or frozen.

She has an entire drawer full of kitchen knives. Dull, stained, worthless knives from years of being washed in the dishwasher and used on the glass cutting board because no one ever knew how to properly take care of them. Not that it mattered, because she wouldn't know a chef knife from a santoku, or a steak knife from a paring knife anyway.

Not everyone is up to the challenge of cooking nightly for a family of six, but my mom made it look effortless. We had many great meals not because my mom had the best equipment or the best technique, but because we had the best company, we had each other. They tasted great not because of the quality of the ingredients, or the simple fact that mom's cooking was all we had known, but because she made every meal out of love. And given the choice between a modest meal made with love or a fine one without, I'll take the modest one everyday of the week, and then wrap up the leftovers to eat on Sunday.
posted by sambosambo at 5:47 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up thinking all food was evil unless it came in "lean cuisine" or "weight watchers" microwaveable form. Had no idea what to do when I had to start grocery shopping for myself. Two things helped me overcome my bewilderment: I took a job cooking organic lunches for two year-olds (they like things BASIC), and spending some time with boyfriend's family. They've got it right: a basic healthy meal always made from scratch, nothing too fancy, but real food made from real ingredients, to share with 6 people every evening.

Anyway, after that I want to read more of Tom Junod. Curious about what This Guy thinks the imperfections were in this piece...
posted by sulphur at 8:44 PM on April 25, 2011

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