My Journey from Zero to Mom Hero in the Kitchen

The lasagna my kids begged for the other night.

My stay-at-home mom cooked and baked all the time. My parents carefully managed every penny, so we couldn’t resort to eating out when she was too tired to cook anything or the week was too busy. Like most kids, there were dishes that I didn’t like that I’ve never been able to bring myself to eat again as an adult (it took years before I was willing to try new and improved recipes for preparing fish), but I also had my favorites. My neighborhood friends still mention their love for my mom’s homemade bread, fresh out of the oven, and every Christmas I wistfully recall tin after tin of cookies safely stored in the pantry.

But even with a mom who cooked all of the time, I spent little time during my childhood learning how to cook and bake. I occasionally helped my mom in the kitchen and there were a few times where she needed my help for a variety of reasons. I would help stir the dough for bread and then give up when it got too hard to mix the ingredients. My mom put me in charge of stirring the filling for fresh fruit pie, but I didn’t want to eat the pie so I would impatiently wait for the gel filling to clear. I loved eating my mom’s homemade mac and cheese, but I could barely be trusted to not let the roux burn on the stove. Looking back, I’m not sure if it was a lack of desire or a lack of training that kept me out of the kitchen. By the time I turned 18, I had spent more time in front of a play kitchen than in the actual kitchen.

I recently found these on the bottom shelf at Kroger. I don’t miss the days when this was considered “good” cooking.

As a result, I spent approximately the first three quarters of my life a notoriously bad cook. Looking back, it wasn’t that I was a terrible cook, I was just woefully lacking in knowledge and practice, bumbling along whenever I was forced to do things for myself. My freshman year of high school I exploded a pot of boiling water in my Foods and Nutrition class because I didn’t know the difference between a clear cooking pot and a casserole dish. When my mom was visiting my ill grandmother I nearly ruined an enchilada dish after spilling an entire can of enchilada sauce on the counter. My senior year burned my foot with hot pasta water as I carried it from the stove to the sink. After I moved into my first apartment with my college roommates, the best cooking we did consisted of chicken on a George Foreman Grill. Shortly after getting married I misread the directions (making mistakes with cup measurements) and added too much water to a “just add water” boxed meal; we ended up with soup instead of biscuits.

When I got my first teaching job, I was working in Illinois, my husband was working in Michigan (in a different time zone), and we were living in Indiana. Between our work hours and commutes, I didn’t have much time to teach myself how to be a quality cook. I made half-hearted attempts on the nights we were both home and I had enough energy, the bulk of my quality cooking taking place in a crock pot because it required few ingredients and little preparation. Looking back, I could probably count the number of times I used our oven on both hands.

Then we moved to Indianapolis. We were living and working in the same city, we lived less than five minutes from the school where I was teaching, and we started getting a little more adventurous. We bought a new grill and then an electric smoker and we learned how to diversify both our indoor and outdoor cooking. Thankfully, I eventually learned how to cook something besides Hamburger Helper, but the process was slow and sometimes painful to the senses. The trial and error became necessary as we also learned to love hosting friends and family, sharing the Thanksgiving and Easter dinner duties with our close group of friends, determined to outdo what we had prepared the year before.

Then parenthood and a difficult move made home cooking a necessity. It didn’t matter how busy we were or how exhausted I might be, we just didn’t have the money to resort to take-out two to three times a week. We had to eat at home and I had to make the money stretch as far as I could.

I learned how to look for different recipes and try new spices. Once I gained some confidence, I discovered that I loved the creative process of cooking. When I mastered one skill I could move on to the next, making adjustments to recipes to match our taste preferences. Jeff started mixing our own meat rubs, the result of hours spent looking for new barbecuing recipes and methods. Cooking together increased our marital communication and brought us together in new ways. Honestly, watching my husband chop and sauté vegetables is almost more sexy than watching him clean the floors, although admittedly I’m more likely to see him do the former than the latter. After all, when we were in college he wooed me with homemade cheesecake that he made himself, a skill he continues to use to impress friends, family, and coworkers.

When I was a kid, I begged my parents to take us out to eat, something that adulthood has taught me was quite the sacrifice for our family of six. But I consider it a compliment that our kids beg to stay home. They have their favorites and they make specific requests, but it is rare that they don’t like something that we have put on the table. Their desire for home cooking has forced me to ditch the boxed lasagna for homemade and cake made from scratch as opposed to a mix. We’ve allowed them to slowly learn how to make their own easy meals, starting with boxed mac and cheese and moving to barbecue sauces and baked goods.

Oh, we have to days and weeks when the act of meal preparation is more work than I can face. When the schedules overlap or we’ve had an exhausting week, suddenly pizza from our favorite local place or Chinese take-out sounds like a lifeline more than a surrender. Yet even during those weeks I hesitate to hand over the grocery shopping to my willing husband. While I may normally hate shopping, I love picking out the ingredients for the following week of meals, planning as I look for sales and the best looking available fresh food.

I’ve stopped seeing my kitchen as a place where my working mom homemaking skills go to die. Instead, it is a place where I can cook healthy meals for my family and bond with my husband or teach my children skills that will help them through college and beyond. It’s a place where we test the pulled pork fresh off of the smoker or eat the leftover pieces of baked pie crust that I cut off of the chicken pot pie baking in the oven.

Now I just need the gourmet kitchen to match.

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