I’m hosting 21 guests coming for Rosh Hashanah dinner. That entails an insane amount of cooking, especially when you’re doing it solo.
So, I’m writing this article while a few kugels are cooking in the oven and part of my brain is focused on issues other than the quality of the words: should I serve potatoes and rice? Should I make the salmon, even though I always serve salmon? Do I have to make a honey cake? Will there be enough food? What if there’s not enough food?
It’s times like this — because it’s become de rigeur for me to regularly host a mob of people for the holidays — that I stop and look in the mirror. There I see her: a traditional Jewish mother. Do I love her or loathe her? I’m never sure.
I grew up as the daughter of a professional mother who had no time for or interest in cooking. My mother was a doctor during the 1960s and 1970s, when few women in America were professionals. Yet when she came home each evening, she still had to perform what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called “the second shift.”
My mother balanced the two “shifts” by keeping dinner very simple. Each week we alternated between a rotation of steak, roast beef and hamburgers — those were the days when a family could eat red meat with impunity — with Birdseye frozen vegetables or iceberg lettuce tossed with Wishbone salad dressing. When she wanted to do something fancy, my mother poured onion and mushroom soup mix on a beef brisket.
During the weekends, we went out for dinner. We practically never had dinner guests and the only holiday we celebrated was Thanksgiving which was also kept very simple — packaged stuffing, canned cranberries, and frozen vegetables.
At an early age, I began helping my mother in the kitchen, molding the hamburger patties and monitoring the roast beef. I didn’t mind. I liked making food that others could enjoy. I expanded the basic menu to include vinaigrette dressing, Stifado stew, chocolate chip cookies and even, my greatest triumph, a spinach souffle.
It’s said that some daughters want to be what their mother wasn’t, and for me, that was being a woman who cooked.
In the privacy of my room, I pursued surreptitiously through glossy cookbooks and dreamed of the day when I would make those dishes for my future family. But I was highly ashamed of such urges. Real women, I was raised to believe, did not belong in the kitchen. And yet I couldn’t stop.
I made recipes from the Settlement Cookbook, upon whose cover was written the quote: “A way to a man’s heart.” Inspired, I whipped up a batch of chocolate chip cookies for my first boyfriend. After he took one bite, he said, “You used margarine, didn’t you?” I was crushed, but he was right; I should have used butter.
Cooking was a way to please people. Yet women weren’t supposed to spend time cooking in the kitchen. I was always swinging between these two poles.
The conflict sharpened when I married and had children. I resented that my husband left it for me to do all the grocery shopping and cooking. On those occasions when I couldn’t make dinner, I returned home to find my refrigerator filled with cartons of take-out Chinese food. When I complained, my husband said that he didn’t have the time for or interest in cooking. Did I, I wondered? Again, I wasn’t sure.
Then my husband became sick with cancer and eating well was literally a matter of life and death for him. All my anger dissolved as I whipped up Eggplant Parmigiana and macaroni and cheese to make sure he kept up his weight, which is critical for cancer patients’ survival rates.
There were benefits for the rest of the family. My son, then 13, told me that he valued having a homemade meal to come home to every day while his father was deteriorating.
“You’re saving this family through food,” he once said.
Unfortunately, my cooking wasn’t enough to save my husband. But after his death, continuing to have home-cooked dinners and holiday meals helped make our home feel warm and inviting, despite the recent tragedy.
I can’t say it’s a lot of fun to cook for large crowds. It takes hours of shopping and preparation that comes at the expense of other activities. But no one in my family has any sympathy for my complaints.
“Who told you to invite 21 people for the holidays?” my son asks.
The answer is no one. But I’ll keep doing it. Because watching people eat my food fills with something I understand is maternal love. And there’s nothing wrong with that.