The meaning of dinner

When I ask myself the question, what does cooking mean to me?, I am instantly transported back to the memory of my very first Carribean cruise.  It was 10 years ago; I was engaged, but it had been almost one year with neither my then fiancé  or myself intent on setting a date or making concrete plans.  There was a serious point of contention that stopped us just short of jumping the broom or being carried over the threshold: cooking. Who was responsible for it and why?  We had vastly differing opinions. I was brought up in a progressive, liberal-minded Portland, Oregon home. We listened to the “Free To Be” record as much as we listened to Sharon, Lois and Bram.  It was engrained in me since kindergarten that: nobody likes housework, but if it has to be done, you do it together. That’s what my parents did; that’s what my married hometown friends did. That’s what I knew to be right, fair and true. However, the many married women on the carnival cruise ship that I found myself on in 2005 (including my mother-in-law and aunt-in-law) disagreed with my approach.

Cooking, I was told, was my job. Why on earth would I even consider it didn’t fall under my jurisdiction?  In fact, it was one of the many responsibilities that I not just took on, but took over when I chose to become a wife.  I’m still not sure how it happened, but the conversation took on a life of its own. Strangers were weighing in, ganging up on me, persuading me that this is the norm and that they were saving me a lot of bitter and tumultuous years if I would just hear them out. I remember an elderly cruiser telling me that she resented all the years she spent in the kitchen, but that I would have to swallow my pride and pick up a cookbook. I could, however, draw the line at not cooking the meats that I didn’t eat– she smirked the last bit of advice. Almost a plotted revenge tactic that she once used to dull her resentment.

Thinking back on that day now, I am as internally divided now as I was then. I love food. I care what I eat. I want it to be delicious. Satisfying. Healthy. I care what others eat. It wasn’t that I hated cooking; I hated that it became my job just because I was someone’s wife. It seemed so 1950’s foreign to me.  And the advice panelists from the cruise ship ended up to all be right: this was a major point of contention, and possibly a reason we weren’t married for another two and a half years.  I vacillated between trying to become the next Martha Stewart to all but picketing the kitchen and putting locks on the pantry in protest. And then came the kids.

It wasn’t until my third son was born and we took–wait for it– a cruise through the Mediterranean that a true relationship with food began. I fell in love with the Italian culture and how food plays such an integral part of daily life. We spent mere hours in Monaco and I can remember every step I took like it was yesterday.  We sat in a cafe on the beach, and a lonely, dark gym sat behind us. Virtually empty, all the action was in this cafe and on the beach. Life was going on. Not preparations for life goals.  Not the harried, overtired, stressed, productivity above all else energy I was used to being American. A carefree ease flowed through the Provençal lavender-scented air. Food is for friends, family, living. Why did I relegate it to a political stance?  Isn’t it so much more?  Why not embrace that food is something I have always loved, and spend real time trying to love to cook. Not to please a husband who thinks it’s my duty as a wife. Not to cave to societal pressure. Not even to micromanage every bite that goes into my kid’s mouths. But to look at each of those seeming obligations and see them at their core the way the Italians and French do; as an integral part of being a family, having friends and living a loving life.

My political stance hasn’t changed.  I still don’t think cooking is a woman’s job.  But my perspective has changed abundantly.  No, it isn’t my job as a wife and a mom to cook for my family, but we all have to eat.  If I choose not to cook, which I did for many years, then someone else is feeding my family, myself.  Those become lost opportunities to share the life-giving messiness that cooking truly is.  Instead of an obligation, I have come to consider it a privilege to have a family to cook for; friends to invite to dinner.  And a life, albeit sometimes harried, productivity-centered and stressed, that is mine worth living.  And relishing in the privilege that it is just to have it.