One Person’s Chore is Another Person’s Pleasure

How-Mom-Cooked

One of my mother’s favorite ingredients.

I’ve been cooking for comfort. Nothing fancy, nothing colorful, nothing trendy. Food to read by. Food to hunker down with. I used to think of cooking as women’s work. I know activity has no gender; the person doing the activity is gendered (or agendered), but I steer clear of activities I associate as feminine. At home, I never saw men in the kitchen unless they were mixing drinks or washing dishes.

My mother did not enjoy cooking. She took advantage of the miracle of canned and frozen convenience foods to get dinner for four on the table every night. She believed that everything needed to be fully cooked to be safe to eat (including canned asparagus, frozen tater tots, and steak). My mother owned two infrequently used cookbooks (The Settlement Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking); most of her recipes came from the back of the soup can.

Growing up, I put home cooking in the chore category with sewing, laundry, and cleaning. It didn’t occur to me that it could be a pleasure. I left for college with no domestic skills. A barbarian baby butch.

My freshman year, I set up a mini-kitchen with a compact fridge, a double burner hot plate, and a broiler oven. The first time I cooked I blew the breaker for the electrical circuit. The next day I ran heavy-duty orange extension cords and put each appliance on a separate outlet. I ate bachelor food: spaghetti, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, ramen noodles, canned soup, and sloppy joes.

Leon lived down the hall from me. He was a skinny, long-haired, pot smoking, musicologist, and computer programming major. He taught me how to make a salad and how to shop for inexpensive fruits and vegetables at Haymarket. Instead of using glop from a bottle, Leon dressed a mixed green salad with olive oil, salt, pepper, and wine vinegar (in that order, tossing after each addition).  We’d smoke, listen to music, cook, and eat.

Jamie-and-Leon-CookingLeon preferred to improvise, adjusting by taste. I’ve always preferred to start from a recipe. He could take any random assortment of food and make a meal from it (a spaghetti sauce, an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich, or a composed salad). After a semester of hanging out with Leon, I re-gendered cooking as a masculine activity (or at least as a Leonish one). Cooking as experimental science. Cooking as a research project. I starting buying cookbooks and testing recipes.

I was determined to become a better cook to impress/seduce Donna. We became lovers before I mastered cooking anything. It was years before I understood the ingredients, the cooking method, when a dish was done, and what it should taste like. Now I can read a recipe and know whether it is going to work or not. When in doubt, I refer to my collection of cookbooks. I have over a hundred.

Last week, on a cold day, I decided to make vegetarian chili. Not any chili, but one that I ate, over 25 years ago, at a peacenik potluck at Donna’s apartment. I had filed it away in the “must make that someday” slot in my brain. I recalled it as the “Silver Palate Vegetarian Chili”, which was close enough for Google. I don’t own The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, but I downloaded the chili recipe from it.

It is a mainstream 1980’s recipe (no cilantro or dried ancho chiles). I made two changes (cut the oil in half, and used both cans of pinto and garbanzo beans instead of 1 cup of each to avoid the left over beans fermenting in the fridge). It came out exactly as I remembered it. It was worth the wait.

Home cooking remains the only traditional women’s art/task/chore that I enjoy, or am good at. I’m a little embarrassed that I had to drag it over to the masculine side of the gender spectrum to own it, but I’m glad that Leon gave me the opportunity to do it. Maybe one day I’ll hang out with a guy who knits…

Notes: Becoming a good cook was a rebellion against my mother. She did make a decent brisket (pot roast) and matzoh ball soup. I did not keep any of her recipes; the Eastern European dishes I make (borscht and mushroom barley soup) are adapted from my cookbooks.

While I was writing this post I remembered an article I read on Cooking with Muxes, Mexico’s Third Gender. It explains how to make iguana stew.

27 thoughts on “One Person’s Chore is Another Person’s Pleasure

  1. Lesboi

    I’ll have to check out that chili recipe. It’s one of the few things I cook. I hate cooking with a passion but I can do it because I like to eat. The few traditionally female chores I don’t mind are dishes, ironing and sewing (limited to mostly repair work, nothing fancy). I like my shirts crisply ironed and a crease in my pants and a neat kitchen. Somehow I’m ok with these things.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Two lazy luxuries I allow myself are that my “button down shirts” go to the cleaners where they are washed, pressed, and put on hangers (and delivers back to me) – and I drop off my laundry at another shop that does “wash, dry, and fold” (and delivers back to me). I never learned how to use and iron and I’d have to think of it as a military style tool to make it work for me (maybe they sell some in camo).
      The chili recipe is good for a vegetarian chlil and has no esoteric or expensive ingredients in it. It made over a half gallon (two quarts) so if you don’t like it you’ll be in trouble. I did have to add a little water when I added in the fresh tomatoes – either my canned were in thicker puree or my winter plum tomatoes didn’t have enough juice.

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      1. Lesboi

        I learned to iron as a kid believe it or not because I wanted my GI Joe uniforms to be nice and crisp and then later because I have always like a crease in my nicer pants. That and sewing on buttons and doing hems are the few girly things my mom ever taught me. Like you, I went off to college as a relative barbarian. I didn’t even know how to make a sandwich or coffee. Candace does all of our laundry because she’s picky about it and I’m not so that works out nice for me. I’d love to have someone come pick up my shirts, iron them and return them back but here in the boonies I don’t know anyone that does that. I’d have to go to a dry cleaners and pick them up myself and that’s more work than ironing them myself. I have to admit that it’s not a regular thing I do and I tend to wear my shirts un-ironed more often than not these days.

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      2. Fredrication

        My mum never ironed dads clothes. He usually saved up all his washed shirts until the closet was empty, then he turned on a soccer game or ice hockey to the Telly and ironed for hours.
        I learnt how to iron button downs the proper way by my gay uncle, so I guess ironing in my family is mostly a male occupation. Mostly because women in my family wouldn’t buy clothes that needs ironing and they refuse to iron anyone else’s clothes…

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  2. afish25

    You’re blog always makes me think. I cooked for the family for many years, enjoying it. Now retired and in Mexico, I don’t have the ease or ingredients to do anything too fancy or complicated. I’ve begun with muffins, experimenting and creating my own recipes. I have a few favorite cookbooks but they’re still packed :(. Maybe someday we can sit together. I’ll teach you to knit. All my yarn is still packed too.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’m not sure that I really want to knit (it looks like fun) – my knitter friend complain about the expense and that no one wants to be gifted anything she makes.
      Cooking in translation takes some getting used to. You may have miles of aisles in the supermarket, but I’m thinking about all of those mangoes that are coming into season. Are you going to start a vegetable/herb garden now that you are in your new house?

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  3. Curious and Curiouser

    Thankyou. I struggle with the cooking thing. I know it’s Good but it feels so mother-y and woman-ly (which is somehow a problem, despite answering to both those titles). Inspired by your example I will attempt to Re-gender Cooking and make something decent 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’ve often thought of it like jumping rope – you can picture yourself in a skirt and mary janes in the school yard, or you can picture yourself as a prize fighter training for the big match. Either way, you are still jumping rope. If it helps, try using Mark Bittman’s books (How to cook everything or Kitchen Matrix) or Kenji Lopez-Alt’s book Food Lab. Good luck!

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  4. RonaFraser

    I will check out the recipe! Re gender and cooking, when I was growing up, my mom did all the cooking and baking. Nothing fancy, but hearty British food (i.e. meat, potatoes, custard and cookies!). At that time, my dad had a big job and mom worked part-time. The only thing my dad made was soup or barbecue (the manly cooking!). But when my dad retired early and my mom was working full-time, he started to take over. It helped that he always thinks he knows better than everyone else… so surely he could cook things just as well or better than my mom. For the last – wow – maybe 30 years (he is 87), he has done all the cooking, and he is pretty good. Ok, his salads consist of lettuce from a bag, half a tomato cut up, and whatever dressing was on special, but he is good with the meat/fish dishes (even experimental) and even does the odd bit of baking now (as he does not like what my diabetic, gluten-free mom makes). I was so picky as a kid that I took to cooking as a defence (I don’t like what they are making so I’d better learn how to make things I DO like…). Have you ever checked out closetcooking.com? His recipes kinda seem manly to me… like they started with him wanting football-watching-type snacks and then evolved into more intricate but still hearty dishes. Not the healthiest (lots of cheese… mmm… cheese…) but still. I LOVE his Spicy Peanut Sauce. Delicious on rice noodles and stir-fried veg. Just sayin’…

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Nice that your Dad learned to cook – I can see how some men would just assume that it was easy (if women could do it…) and then muscle everyone else out of the kitchen. I’ll check out closet cooking – but I’m eating very healthy right now.
      Regarding the eggplant, you dice it and brown it in oil, and then it stews for a while. It softens up and sort of melts into the chili – I don’t think I could taste it distinctly, and the texture was fine (not at all like ratatouille).

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  5. genderneutral

    I am so appreciative that I grew up with a dad who loved to cook and did most of the cooking. He still does. He not my mom taught me how to cook, how to chop, how to spice, how to grill, how to appreciate diverse flavors. He Wallis definitely a culinary artist. There are a few of my moms mainstay recipes I do from time to time (potato salad) but mostly I follow the cooking instincts my dad nurtured in me and create. I’m glad your owning cooking and letting yourself find pleasure in it. I’m glad Leon came into your life. I hope u find another male cooking inspiration.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      You are lucky that your Dad shared his cooking passion with you. Neither of my parents had activities that they were passionate about (they played bridge with 3 other couples regularly and enjoyed it) – and my mother did the New York Times Crossword Puzzle everyday (in pen!). Neither was into anything particularly creative either, which is sad.
      Leon opened my eyes to a lot of things (music, pot, and cooking) – he was one enthusiastic guy.

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  6. Bunnies!!!!

    what’s the mushroom barley soup recipe that you make?

    I think of brisket as something different than pot roast, although in my mom’s house growing up, both were basically boiled shoes. I use chuck for pot roast and at this time of the year, I can cook it, set it out in a snow drift, and easily skim the fat after an hour or so.

    Brisket is more of a falling apart thing than pot roast, even good pot roast. I can rarely find the second cut though, so I mostly stick to pot roast. Tonight however is this, since after months, we finally have plums again: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017684-roast-chickens-with-plums

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  7. Jamie Ray Post author

    The recipe is based on Krupnik, from Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food” which is a good read and has a lot of old country pictures. You can probably get it out of the library. This is the same recipe.
    http://www.cyber-kitchen.com/ubbs/archive/SOUPS/Mushroom_and_Barley_by_RisaG.html
    I do saute the vegetables first, and I use an Idaho potato instead of turnips. Most importantly, is the search for real Polish mushrooms (Borowiki) instead of Italian Porcini. Makes a big difference. I get mine at Russ and Daughters (on a string) or at a Polish butcher shop on 1st Ave. (in a little cellophane package). A little goes a long way (6/8 oz is plenty).

    The chicken recipe looks good if you are into chicken; we are having penne with porcini mushroom sauce (Marcella Hazan) with a side of broccoli. Tomorrow I brave the market with every other nut in NYC who must buy food before a snow storm…

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      1. Jamie Ray Post author

        The ones that Russ and Daughters has are on a string and you buy them by the ounce (I usually buy 4 ounces at a time and the price is about 40$, but you get a lot). They don’t always have them, so in a pinch I’ve gone to either the Polish GI Deli (109 First Ave.) or East Village Meat Market (139 Second Ave.) for the ones in the cellophane packet (either 3/4 oz or 1 oz). They are a little crumblier but have the right taste in a soup and are a bit cheaper.

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  8. Fredrication

    It’s strange how a person, even a brief acquaintance, can make a big impact on ones life. For me that’s one of life’s greatest mysteries and joy.
    I learnt my cooking skills, how to compose basic ingredients and how to cook them, by my mother. She’s a good cook and rarely uses a cookbook, and neither do I. I believe the difference between us is that I enjoy cooking old, traditional Swedish meals that take between 1 and 2 hours to complete and my mother enjoy quickly cooked meals with Italian or Spanish background.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Mostly I cook “real meals” which like yours, take between 1 and 2 hours to prepare (hopefully with leftovers). In a pinch I have my “refrigerator pasta” which is basically a sauce based on what is in the fridge (usually olives, anchovies, tomatoes, capers, and oregano), it cooks while the water comes to a boil, and I make a salad while the pasta is cooking.

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  9. Kai

    I have that weird combination of not caring an ounce about cooking, but when I have to cook, my food somehow turns out spectacular. I make a good pasta e fagioli (pasta and bean soup) that has my Italian friends wonder how I can make “authentic” Italian food (because I strip out the American changes like sausage, broth and animal stock, and cheese, and stick with the tomato base and veggies most poor Italians may have used). I do use lots of jarred, canned, and frozen veggies, tho, because it can take weeks before I actually use those veggies. But to open up a can or frozen contain of already portioned veggies, take what I need, and put away the rest without making a fuss or mess is a lifesaver. The secret is, because they need to cook the least, they go in last, and thus retain their vibrant color and look and make the dish look good.

    Maybe I just hate cooking at this point because I only worry about me, but when I find the special someone, I might take a love of cooking for her and I. Happened once before. Just too much of a hassle to cook for one 😀

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I cook a completely different dinner (one pot and one bowl) when it is just for me than when it is for both of us. It is still good, but for some reason I wouldn’t serve it to Donna.

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