I do not know how to cook. My mother didn’t cook. We grew up on Stouffer’s and Pepperidge Farm. On a creative night, dinner might be a tuna casserole with crushed potato chips on top. When our Congregational church put out a cookbook—a very thin cookbook—almost every recipe featured Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Cream of Mushroom soup was the holy grail of the suppers of my youth, the base for all cuisine. Whatever was cooking was invariably finished off with a slow burn. That’s how we knew when dinner was ready: The burn smell wafted through the house. “The day they invent a pill you can take for dinner will be the day I am a happy woman,” my mother would say as she threw another Revere pan into the sink, its copper bottom scalded black. My mother’s only cookbook was fittingly called the I Hate to Cook Book, and if she cracked it open, it was for the humor, not the recipes. (Historical note: Hilary Knight of Eloise fame did the drawings.)
So I didn’t learn to cook growing up, and once I grew up, I had other things to do (work, for instance). In fact, the first years on my own coincided with the second wave of the women’s movement, when not cooking was a badge of honor. Get out of the kitchen and into the workforce! Since I’d never been in a kitchen to speak of, it was no great escape for me. But there’s no getting around the fact that I associated cooking with mother wearing a starched apron and calling the kids in to dinner and nudging the husband out of his wingback and from behind the newspaper to wash his hands and sit down at the dinner table. And because in my early twenties I was hell-bent on never getting married or having kids, cooking was not on my to-do list.
OK, this is what I was eating when I was single and came home from work to my railroad apartment: Rice-A-Roni—I think you mixed it with hot water, and just like that you had something you could eat. Bisquick mixed with water made biscuits. Clearly I was not exactly rolling in dough, money or pastry, so my meals were as spare as my paycheck. The least I could have done was eat yogurt—it wasn’t as popular back then as it is now—or salads from the local deli, though I don’t remember seeing the kind of salad bars we have today. The truth is, I don’t remember food at all. I am, as one of my friends described me, food stupid.
I did cook once, for a boyfriend who said he wished I would make him just one meal. (I suppose men want a woman to make them a meal the way women want a man to bring them flowers.) Not having a whole lot of cookbooks lying around my apartment, I tried the recipe in that Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, and it was fish wrapped in foil, with other stuff inside the foil. It was almost edible but definitely not worth all the time and nervous energy I put into it. I don’t think I knew what ROI was then, but that was the principle that closed the case on my learning to cook. The “return on investment” of my time and energy for the result was not good math.
I did, however, religiously read a food column by a writer named Mary Cantwell that appeared in Mademoiselle, a long-gone Condé Nast magazine. Cantwell’s columns made me think the making and eating of food was as fine an experience as reading a great novel. She would talk about the patina on her dining table, which was squarely inside her kitchen, and about the smells wafting from the stove. I would be in a haze of almost delirious delight until I got to the recipes—and then I would turn the page.
While my career took off and I got married and had a daughter, I continued not to cook. My husband made most of what meals we had (the woman who introduced us said, “I have found the man for you. First of all, he can cook . . . ”). Later, my daughter’s English nanny fed us lots of shepherd’s pie and not a lot of vegetables. Eventually I thought we might all die of scurvy. So we hired a woman who left us premade dinners with instructions like “Turn on heat to high, boil water,” which sent my friends into stitches. They were the kind of instructions a wife leaves a clueless husband.