“This is inedible!” My mother announced, after dipping a spoon into the pot and pulling up a clump of half-braised beef from the watery tomato broth. She had called home from work a few hours earlier to ask me, her only child and a straight-A high school senior with a penchant for Plath, to put together the pot of sauce for dinner that night. She sighed deeply and started breaking apart the meat and tomatoes with a wooden spoon. I would take another hour to finish cooking and thicken, aided by my mother’s practiced hand.
“I prepped everything this morning,” she had said. “It should take you five minutes.” I surveyed the ingredients and then dumped the raw meat in clumps and chopped onions into a bath of canned whole tomatoes, then gave a few shakes of spices, and turned the heat to medium. My mother hadn’t felt the need to give me a recipe—she knew that I had watched her, and before her my Nani, make the same pot of sauce nearly weekly in my previous 17 years. So many times I smelled the meat, browning in olive oil before the garlic and onions were added, intensifying the distinctive aroma of Nani’s kitchen, which lingered even years after her last pot had been simmered. Yet I didn’t know how to cook.
But what did my mom expect? Both she and my late Nani had always praised and encouraged my good grades and scholarly instincts, and neither had encouraged me to do anything in the kitchen other that set the table. Nani never taught me to forage for burdock or can tomatoes because “you won’t need to,” she said. Cooking was something else the modern young woman wouldn’t have cause to do either, it seemed. So, I focused on my career.
What had stuck with me from those hours in the kitchen watching my mom and Nani cook weekly Sunday dinners or nightly from-scratch meals was not the recipes for beef bracciole or manicotti, but the conversation. “Go to college,” I was always told, “have your own money and don’t rely on a man.” Although the term feminist was never used, I clearly identified this taught worldview once I read Paglia and Freidan. Despite the importance that food had played in my Italian American family rituals, what I would eat on my way to becoming the first woman president, as Nani wanted, would be takeout.
I loved college, where I met women who knew their grandmother’s lasagna recipe by heart and also played rugby and majored in biology. Yet, I still wasn’t convinced that cooking was for me. Returning to my hometown for Christmas, my dad made the pot roast and scalloped potatoes, but I was happy to sit with my cousins and share tales of study abroad in Oxford, my contribution was loading the dishwasher. It felt very progressive to be cooked for while I dealt with scholarly concerns. Yet, despite my years of pride that I had resisted domestic duties, my first attempt at cooking came in a decidedly non-intellectual way: I wanted to impress my boyfriend.
“Mom,” I asked, years after that first ruined dinner, “what’s your sauce recipe?” This time she dictated the ingredients and gave instructions for browning the meat and softening the vegetables. I added the crushed tomatoes and spices and let it all simmer for hours. My roommates floated through the kitchen as I cooked, warming frozen pot pies, microwaving day-old pizza. I was surprised that I felt more accomplished, not less, at having dinner on the stove. My boyfriend’s tipsy smile showed appreciation as he polished off his second helping, but what stuck with me was the moment when I returned to the apartment after slipping out to buy wine. I smelled the sweet tomatoes and pungent garlic that had transformed my cheap aluminum pots and chipped thrift store dishes into Nani’s house. With those scents and flavors came memories of the dishes from my childhood—and also of Nani’s life as the manager of the family business by day, and her devotion to family on nights and weekends, where she would stand at the stove in a silk blouse and pencil skirt covered by an apron, having just kicked off her heels to cook in her stocking feet.
After graduation I moved five hundred miles away where I knew no one. Loneliness inspired me to try cooking recipes I was beginning to learn from my mother. Yet the more I cooked, I also struggled with whether this was what Nani would have wanted for me – to be wearing an apron rather than just a suit. Had I failed her teachings by willingly spending hours in the kitchen after she worked so hard so I wouldn’t have to?
Last week I found myself at the stove, making a pot of sauce that I wouldn’t get to eat. Now I can chop vegetables while my mind wanders, and I don’t have to measure ingredients so much as intuit amounts. With a wooden spoon I broke up the whole tomatoes, which I had preserved like Nani had, and fresh basil from the garden was waiting to be chopped. It was ten at night and we had already eaten dinner, but I was cooking food for my husband before I traveled for work the next day. After the sauce had simmered and cooled, I transferred it into Tupperware and wrote out directions for warming. My husband was certainly capable of feeding himself and had been doing it for a decade before he met me, but I loved that we spent an hour each night talking about our days over a menu I had planned with him in mind. As I stacked the dishes in the refrigerator, I remembered the similarly-wrapped packages in my grandfather’s freezer that my mother had thrown out only recently when he moved to an extended care facility. They had heating instructions written in Nani’s by-then shaking script, on the back of squares of thick paper cut from greeting cards wishing her a speedy recovery that would never come. She had stood at the stove until she could no longer, preparing meals to sustain her husband for long after she had gone. It wasn’t just physical sustenance she provided—food was the direct conduit of her love for him. And I made food for my husband not because I feared he would forget me, but because I wanted to connect with him despite my absence.
Cooking has become a favorite pastime, and I have become the main chef on family holidays. But I no longer feel guilty about wearing an apron over my work clothes. While I learned to be a feminist in part by not learning to cook, the ways in which I was fed—and how I learned to feed others—has also taught me much about how to live: fully and deliciously.
Suzanne Cope is the author of the book “Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food” and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Time, among other publications. She teaches writing at Manhattan College and lives in Brooklyn.