Essay :: Better and more

Little girl in Australia curtseying in a dirty black dress.

It was my grandmother’s wish that I not be taught to cook when I was a girl. It was more than a wish—it was her dictum. Because my mother was a good daughter and a strong woman, she bowed to her mother’s desire even if she didn’t fully understand the vitriol behind it. There was no drama to it; I was never actually banned from the kitchen or anything so strange as that. In fact, I was taught how to use the stove quite young out of necessity to warm up soup and boil eggs. (I was the child of a single parent, after all.) And in the by and by, I learned how to make a few fundamental dishes—roasted chicken and steamed vegetables; eggs, of course; a pretty little stir fry that would do for any day of the week. But no more.


For all the while, my grandmother actively discouraged me from cooking or any sort of fancy housekeeping: It was ever my grandmother’s feeling that once a girl learned how to cook and how to keep a nice house, everyone would expect her to cook and to keep a nice house. What followed after that, she observed, were husbands and children and the dull burden of domesticity. The life my grandmother wanted for me— what the women and the men in my family wanted for me— was an education and a career, a chance to step out in the world. Choices, she felt, were denied to her and her mother’s generation. So I was routinely shooed out of the kitchen and sent back to my books and to my lopsided secondhand piano; shouted back upstairs to my dance shoes and to my grandmother’s father’s kneehole desk, where I sat and wrote every single day, and where, if I sat quietly, I could hear the clink of glass and stainless steel and the small splash of warm water being heated downstairs on the stove.


I didn’t think much about the ways of my family, or that in our house, my grandfather, a robust and blond former football player in his youth, preferred to do the cooking in his elder years, canning preserved figs while he watched the ball game; rising before dawn to roast a turkey or start cornbread in the oven, humming tunelessly and happily to himself. At our house, we cleaned, but the room didn’t exhale the hot scent of bleach when you walked in the door the way some people’s houses did— our house smelled of books and dust and a little rust and soap. And when we were alone, my mother cooked sometimes and sometimes not—more often not, because there were plenty of foods that could be bought pre-prepared and warmed up without trouble, leaving one free to work or to read or listen to music or drive one’s child to dance classes four days a week at the edge of town. Or even take dance classes of one’s own.


There were things my grandmother said regularly that I didn’t put together until I was an adult. Her mother, she told me again and again, rose at dawn to make biscuits for her spouse and three children because her husband believed homemade biscuits were healthier than store-bought bread. Her mother, she routinely whispered as we sat side-by-side in the backseat of the car, had a college education but never complained a day in her life about the hard work she had to do when she married and moved out to the country. Her mother— my grandmother tapped my hand to get my attention—wouldn’t let her learn how to milk the cows because her mother believed that if her daughter learned how to milk the cows, she’d get stuck sitting out on a stool with those old cows every morning for the rest of her life. Her mother, she said, all the time, like a song, a verse, a magic word, wanted better and more for her daughter, my grandmother, and thus, that woman, my grandmother, wanted better and more for me.


Even as a child, I knew I had better and more because I could see strange developments for myself amongst the girls at school. Starting in kindergarten, some of my friends were treated at home like “little mothers”— expected to run after their younger siblings, called in to help in the kitchen, trained to clean and clean and clean after their brothers and fathers until their knuckles were red and raw like their mothers’ knuckles. These girls came to school with their jumpers pressed every day, and hair braided tight and straight as a picket fence, or curled in ringlets, if you can believe it. These girls smelled of starch and lavender laundry water and hard work. They looked tired. I stood behind girls like that in every schoolyard line— me, with my half-grown out pixie cut mashed wildly to one side of my face and my school jumper dotted with early morning schoolyard dirt; me, wearing my frayed hair-ribbon (I’d been using it as a lasso) around my neck like loosened-up necktie. I couldn’t help but gawk at those well-kept girls because they looked like the stalwart daughters in storybooks, the kind that were sent out into the forest to pick berries or take their sick grandmothers vegetable pottage in a basket, and these girls couldn’t help but gawk at me—there was no explaining me, I guess. Maybe I looked like the monsters in their storybooks, or like those other girls, the ones that didn’t listen, the ones that wander down the road away from the village and never come back.


It was my grandmother’s wish that I not be taught to cook when I was a girl. And I bowed to my grandmother’s wish, as my mother bowed to her mother, and on and on. But when I grew into a young woman and a working writer, I chose a man with a similar demeanor as her husband and her brothers— a man who liked to cook and to clean, a man who had an easy masculinity and an unworried brow, and then, I learned to cook from that man. It was all to a greater purpose: When my grandmother became very old and very small and nothing tasted good to her anymore, she would come stay at our house, where my husband would entertain her as I put out little dish after little dish of the foods she loved: the gumbo she used to make when she was young or a smoky eggplant caviar with a side of thin baked garlic crôutes; Hoppin’ John with apple-smoked bacon or chocolate pecan tartlets topped with crème fraîche. She’d say, “I can’t possibly eat that much!” But she did eat that much and more.


Tonight, it’s my turn to cook, and is my wont, I am making dinner while dishing up this story. My ink-wreathed hands are bathed in the steam of a turkey-and-roasted-shallot soup; my eye is on the pears and Mission figs poaching in a little pot; and my mind has wandered far off to the kitchen of my childhood, where my grandmother, my grandfather, and my mother are stepping around one another in a pas de trois of rattling pots and shouts and dinner plates. As always, I am standing just outside the door, and my grandfather has begun to sing, “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah. Someone’s in the kitchen with Di-i-inah. Join me, Courtenay!”