Cooking Lessons

vintage_retro_women_kitsch_50s_kitchen_magic_postcard-p239291731969492382baanr_400+(1)We hosted my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and in just a couple of weeks, we’ll be hosting my parents and my in-laws for Christmas. I’m perfectly fine with that. Really. One, it means I don’t have to travel with a 15 month old, a feat that requires a time consuming amount of organization and strategic planning. Two, it means I get to cook, which is one of my favorite things to do. I don’t remember exactly when I got interested in cooking. I started helping my mom in the kitchen when I was pretty small, doing things like peeling carrots or rolling snickerdoodle dough in cinnamon sugar. My maternal grandmother was an excellent cook who also helped nurture my developing interest in the culinary arts. I remember one time in particular that she came to stay with my brother and me when I was around seven; the two of us made it our goal to try every single recipe in this ABC Cookbook that my aunt, another great cook, had given me. I still use the B is for Banana Bread recipe, and it is still delicious.

By the time I was in high school, I was researching new recipes for our family to try and helping my mom with the grocery shopping every week. I gave out homemade chocolate chip cookies and biscotti as Christmas gifts for my friends. When Jason and I met in college, a significant portion of our courtship revolved around preparing meals together. We’ve come a long way from scrambled egg sandwiches with mustard and Aunt Jemima pancakes for dinner, or “brinner,” as we like to call it, but cooking and sharing meals together has been one way that we’ve consistently connected over the past decade, first through dating and then marriage.

Up to that point in my life, cooking was primarily a way for me to deepen relationships with people I care about, and that is still true. My mom and I continue to regularly trade recipes, and some of my best dishes, like the brisket I’ll be serving for Christmas dinner, came from my Grandma Pete. Jason and I collaborate just about every week on Saturday night dinner and Sunday brunch, and we typically manage to come up with some pretty tasty eats.

Many people have written much more insightfully than I could about the way preparing and sharing a meal brings people together, so I want to focus on the unexpected ways cooking has been about more than just food to me as an adult. Early on during the first year of my first real job teaching high school English, I started to realize that teaching, which for me meant trying to get sophomores to read literature well and write about it well, was this complex, ongoing, often recursive process that did not lend itself to tangible, immediate results. But cooking, at least for me, was different. At the end of a mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting day of teaching, I could assemble the ingredients for dinner, prep them, cook them, then sit down after a little while and enjoy the fruits of my labor. While not exactly offering immediate gratification, compared to teaching English, it was a relatively simple and concrete task with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. My mind was free to wander while I chopped onions and garlic, instead of constantly trying to be at least one step ahead of my students. The penne vodka sauce would not forget to turn in its homework, and the minestrone followed my directions. Cooking became therapeutic, something I could always muster the energy to do, even, and maybe especially, after the most draining days.

Perhaps surprisingly, cooking served a similar purpose after the birth of our first child, Jack. Motherhood made me feel so out of my depth, and I hated that. I had just spent the past six years working so hard to get to a place with teaching where I felt competent; I had given it up to stay home with Jack, and it was like that first year of teaching all over again, except worse, because I couldn’t get away from him like I could with my students. He was always there, needing me to take care of him, and I didn’t feel like I was doing a very good job of that. Again I took refuge in cooking. During those hormone-fueled, sleep deprived newborn days, I couldn’t wait until Jason got home from work so I could hand over the baby and do something I actually knew how to do—cook. I may have been struggling to maintain a sufficient milk supply, or stumped as to how to get Jack to nap for longer than thirty minutes at a time, but when it came to dinner, I was in familiar territory, and that was incredibly comforting at the time. Motherhood feels less intense now that Jack has reached toddlerhood, but like teaching, it’s a challenge, a marathon as opposed to a sprint, if you will. There’s a constant learning curve because kids are always growing, changing, and learning new ways to endanger their safety. I’m not sure that being a parent is a job I’ll ever feel I’ve mastered or completed. It makes me grateful for the comparative simplicity of a task like cooking.

So much of what we undertake in life is this long, arduous, process, and our work here can feel so overwhelming and unfinished. I believe that’s one of the consequences of living in a fallen world that’s still in the process of being reconciled to God, but I think preparing and sharing a meal can serve to remind us that in the midst of that difficult, frustrating, heartbreaking process of redemption, there is still space to find rest, enjoyment, and satisfaction in what Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection have already accomplished. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas—the fact that Jesus was born, entering into history and setting in motion this amazing story of rescue that we talk about every Sunday—and that’s what I pray I will be mindful of as I plan, prepare, and partake of this year’s Christmas dinner.