A while back, I wrote a piece for Taffeta about getting a meal subscription kit for your teen. We’d gotten one for my son’s birthday a year ago, and it worked out beautifully. He loved cooking and learning something new, and we got to enjoy the bounty. It was like hiring a chef! And we needed one, because here’s my confession: I’m a mom in her 50s who doesn’t know how to cook.

Who needs to cook in New York City?

I used to live in Manhattan. I was single, I worked really hard, and I could have almost any meal delivered to my door, affordably. When I met my husband and he brought up leaving Manhattan, I told him—after I spent several months pretending I didn’t hear him—we’d starve to death or be forced to live on pizza and Chinese food. Yes, I had suburbs snobbery. But he cheerfully told me, “I cook!” and said he’d take care of it.

We moved. We moved again. We had kids. He kept cooking but it went from an activity he enjoyed to pure drudgery, and I let the guilt pile up for not contributing. I knew I couldn’t say, “But 18 years ago, you said you’d cook!” and not feel like a jerk, but I still didn’t cook. I used to bake multiple times a week and blog about it, but I stayed away from preparing meals, somehow convinced that it was too late for me to learn and everything I made would be disgusting.

And then I wrote that piece, and it nagged at me. I’m a parent in my 50s who loves food but doesn’t cook anything. Ever. Not only that, but we’re in a pandemic, so there are no restaurants to go to, takeout prices are way up, paid work is much scarcer, and any excuses I had lined up suddenly sounded really stupid. Why wasn’t I cooking? I told myself, click the damned button, Laurie, and make it happen. It’s just a website, not a personality change.

I clicked.

Cue the performance anxiety!

My 17-year-old son offered to be my guide/helper/supervisor/consultant. He’s heading off to college in the fall, so there was an extra incentive: I’d get to spend time with him, just the two of us. But I won’t pretend I wasn’t apprehensive about the whole thing. What if I wasted our money and screwed everything up? What if I hated it? What if our family now had to eat terrible food but pretend to like it to make me feel better? What if I started a fire? What if I talked in circles until I was paralyzed?

Or… what if I just opened the box?

I opened the box. And with the guidance of my son, I started making meals for our family for the first time in my life.

There were challenges

One thing I wish I could request when I pick out my meals for the week is a recipe card customized to my level of expertise (or more specifically, my lack of it). I’ve been baking for years, and those recipes are full of useful descriptions: what your batter should look like, what a finished cake should feel like—basically how you will know when whatever stage you’re working on has been achieved. 

But these recipes say things like dice tomatoes” and hello, tomatoes are really squishy and difficult to dice. That’s why you can buy them in cans! “Peel, halve, and thinly slice shallot.” HOW? “Cook until done” isn’t helpful either, nor is telling me what the internal temperature of the meat should be, since I have yet to buy a meat thermometer. I’d love beginner instructions that treat me like I’m the idiot I am.

So much to learn.

Here come the rewards…

First of all, my husband and son are loving everything. Last night I made Pork Bahn Mi Burgers with pickled vegetable slaw, Sriracha mayo, and garlic potato fries. They were supposed to be wedges, but I cut them kinda small since they sent me 8 tiny potatoes.

My long game is to find a dish I can make that my fussy daughter will love and ask me to make again. I remember being that kid, and I know she really wants to expand her palate. So far, she has enjoyed two dishes I’ve made, which made me feel like I’d just won an Oscar. I thanked everybody! They had to drown me out with loud music to get me to stop talking about it.

And after years of me doing the dishes after my husband cooked, it’s a pretty amazing feeling to hear him say, “I’ll clean up.” I don’t quite create the same kitchen tornado that he does when he cooks; my baking binge trained me to put ingredients away after I use them and to seize the available moments when something’s in the oven to tidy up. But oh, what a treat at the end of a meal to just leave the kitchen, smug and satisfied! 

Chef’s confidence? A work in progress. 

Admittedly, I’m still a little nervous. My son is trying to teach me confidence, which is an interesting twist. He’s nothing but encouraging, and particularly insistent when it comes to chopping with the professional chef’s knife our friend Bennett gave him when he first took up cooking. All that brought up a memory.

When I was 19, my roommate and I would sometimes buy fresh bread from a local bakery. I always asked her to slice it, because whenever I tried, I’d end up with jagged, crumbly, embarrassingly useless pieces. We had a notebook on the kitchen table where we’d leave each other messages, since we were both coming and going a lot. (Remember coming and going? Sigh…)

One day I came home to find a fresh loaf of bread and a note that said, “Slice straight downwards with courage and confidence.” I made that my mantra and learned not just how to slice bread without mangling it, but also to push myself past my own awkwardness and barrel on through, at least when it came to tasks that shouldn’t be so daunting. Somewhere in the intervening years, I forgot. And then here I was, decades later, struggling again. When my son tried to guide my chopping, I asked, “Slice straight downwards with courage and confidence?”  

“Yes!” he said. “Exactly!” He’s two years younger than I was when I first got that advice, and clearly a lot smarter.  

I have mishaps, and I overcome them. I was about to put a tray of sliced, seasoned potatoes in the oven the other night when we realized it hadn’t preheated. Turned out it was broken. We looked at those gorgeous potatoes and lamented their loss, until I said, “Well, if they’re french fries, can’t I just cook them in a pan?” Yes folks, I improvised. And while it wasn’t the healthiest choice, it sure was delicious… and made me feel like a master chef. 

About Laurie Ulster

A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.

View all posts by Laurie Ulster

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