The other day I mentioned Svea, a woman I’ve known since we were both young, and that got me thinking about the one time during childhood I was invited to her house for dinner. Her mother was — presumably still is — a gourmet cook. This is what I mean by gourmet: Svea and I got sent out to the garage to get something out of the freezer, and the first package I ran across contained octopus. Gunnison, Colorado. In the early ’70s. Octopus.
I’m not sure you’re grasping how spectacularly exotic this really was. I have absolutely no idea where Svea’s mom even managed to source that, and while it wasn’t part of our menu (thank god), it’s my most vivid memory of that evening. That, and the ravioli she did serve was so spicy that I was taking large gulps of chocolate milk between every bite and getting laughed at by every member of this family. Whose heritage was more Scandinavian than Italian. (As if you couldn’t guess with a name like Svea.)
We did not eat like that where I came from, which was a few blocks north. Not in our house, not in the Baril house, not in the Bartleson house. And I’m okay with that. While Svea and her mom have a formidable reputation around town for their jams and jellies, no one in my immediate childhood orbit has gone down in the annals of cooking. (Mrs. Baril comes closest.)
There weren’t nearly as many TV channels when I was growing up (is four close to infinity?), so it’s hard to say if cooking was the big deal back then that it seems to be now. Of course, cooking — more to the point, eating — is a basic human necessity, but thanks to television, magazines and probably especially social media (“Look what’s on my plate!”), it’s now all about the art. Our arts center is in the midst of installing a kitchen to address these culinary arts.
But I come from what could be a long line of people who aren’t all about the cooking. I don’t even remember who I was discussing this with the other day, but my maternal grandmother was not a particularly good cook, and I imagine that had she lived in a different era, she would have opted out of it completely.
Left on her own with two small children, she became a member of the workforce in the 1940s. And even after she met and subsequently married the man I think of as “Grandpa,” she continued to work. The four of them (Grandpa, Grandma, Mom and Uncle Jerry) moved to Monte Vista, Colorado, where my grandpa set up shop as a tax attorney — with my grandma as his secretary. At least, that’s what she was throughout my childhood, and when we visited, we ate out a lot.
At one point in my own home, my mom was working at four jobs simultaneously while serving on a state board, so cooking was kind of an afterthought there, too. My dad knew how to make exactly one meal: hamburgers, boiled potatoes and beets, and if my mom was gone, that’s what we ate. We were very sad if she was gone multiple days at a time.
The first time I was assigned to cut up a chicken I got grossed out at the sound the knife was making slicing through bone, and I have never attempted to cut up a chicken since. Cooking was just not going to be in my stars. Nor particularly in those belonging to my sisters.
Of course, we all still eat, which involves food prep. Living on my own for 20-some years, from college until I met Lynn, I had to manage some cooking, but there is really nothing about it that I enjoy. It is hot; it makes a mess; so many things can go wrong.
My senior year in college I had a little hibachi that I used more than the stove, and one time I somehow managed to drop hot coals on a wooden porch that was only mine in rent. I didn’t burn clear through the porch, but I did need to spackle before I moved out (I didn’t have any paint to match, so it was still obvious it was a repair).
The microwave was my salvation. Quick, easy, a minimum of fuss and mess (I don’t believe I’ve ever exploded anything in one, either un- or intentionally) . . . who wouldn’t love rice in 90 seconds?
Well, lots of people, including, apparently, my mother, who no longer has any jobs or boards and spends more time in the kitchen than she used to. She seems to be some sort of rice purist, and these days it galls her that her children don’t share this same reverence for rice. But her view might change if she tried whatever brand it is that I “cook.” Rice in 90 seconds! Bonus: no pot to wash.
With all these cooking shows, entire channels, magazines, endless pictures on the social media I’m not usually on (although I suppose I need to consider what we’re doing right now “social”), I gather I should feel bad for not loving cooking. But I don’t. Did I mention that it’s hot and messy and can put holes in porches?
I don’t even love eating that much. I don’t know if my sister Terri still feels this way, but once upon a time we both agreed that if Willy Wonka ever perfected his dinner pill (the one that unfortunately turned girls into blueberries), we would be signing up.
Now I am aware that just by saying this I have horrified some percentage of my viewing audience. Maybe not just the percentage that likes to cook, but the percentage that likes to eat. And there are meals, like this morning’s breakfast that I will sit down to among friends, that wouldn’t have quite the same meaning if we all chugged a pill chased down by water, but I don’t hold a lot of reverence for food the way society wants me to.
I’d feel terrible, just awful, about this were it not for my family, where we have at least a three-generation preference for pretty much any activity over cooking. There’s a lot to do in the big, wide world, and eating is mostly a means of sticking around to do all these things.
I’m sure this attitude offends many, including Svea’s mom, if not Svea, but it’s mine and I’m hanging onto it. Especially if it gets me out of eating octopus.