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.
After a while, I stopped working and moved to a house in the country. A house in the country comes with a country kitchen, and that surely would get me cooking. Not so fast. The vegetable garden we inherited (“Maybe you could open a roadside stand,” my friends humorously suggested), I transformed into a rose garden. I gardened like crazy, I hauled logs, I cleaned out underbrush in the woods. But when I came inside, I would open the refrigerator, and if there wasn’t a meal on a plate, all I saw was emptiness. Whatever objects were in there didn’t add up to food to me.
Then one day I saw the movie Julie & Julia, and it left me wanting to en croûte anything in my path. I read a recipe from a magazine all the way through. I read the instructions, I read the list of ingredients (I actually recognized all the items—no foreign things with an asterisk indicating you have to buy them at a specialty store), and I thought, for the first time in my life, I can make this. Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, even said I could: She kept saying, “How easy is that?” I still didn’t make the recipe; I just looked at it—the way I never did the exercises on Jane Fonda’s videos but just watched her, my mouth hanging open. And then a friend I’d made in the country was having a birthday. She’s a vegetarian, and the recipe I’d read all the way through was for carrot soufflé. I added pecan Brussels sprouts (six ingredients, two of which are salt and pepper!). Then I read a recipe for pumpkin roulade; the only fancy thing it mentioned was parchment paper, and lo and behold, I had a dusty, unopened box of parchment paper. I felt it was a sign.
I rewrote the list of things I had to buy at the grocery store about five times. I got into the car as if I were going to a hanging. My hands were damp; my heart was palpitating. I understood for the first time how people must feel when they are scared of public speaking (about which I am curiously fearless—just so you know there is something I can do). I patted down my jacket a couple of times, making sure the grocery list was there. My heart leaped three times before I made it to the store, certain I didn’t have the list on me. I clutched it in my hand as I crossed the parking lot. I got a cart. Once inside, I was surrounded by women who were tossing items into their carts like beanbags. They were pros; I was not. I didn’t even know the aisles. I moved slowly, an irritant to the careening carts around me, while I searched for ingredients. I got hung up on the pumpkin; Ina said it was to be not pumpkin filling but pumpkin something else. That took me about three minutes to analyze. And I needed pecans, but the sign said the nuts in the bin were walnuts. They didn’t look like walnuts. But were they pecans? To this day I don’t know. I bought nuts. When I got home, seriously sweaty, I laid out all the ingredients, checking them twice; I got out the measuring cups, the mixer, the bowls. My husband had counseled that if I got everything out, I would feel more in control (code: not in a panic). I put on an apron. I felt like the wife on Mad Men. I broke open the first egg.
And at the age of 58, I made my first meal. Really, I made two sides and a dessert; the rest I ordered from a fancy food shop. My plan was not to put myself completely over the edge with beginner’s anxiety—the birthday guests shouldn’t have had to go hungry if I blew it. Here was the small miracle: The food I made was not only edible but actually good. Even if it hadn’t been good, I was not going to apologize. That’s what Julia said: Never apologize. The smells in the kitchen, the pot holders thrown on the counter, the bowls everywhere, the friends who arrived to what I would earlier have called a mess but now saw as an iconic domestic tableau—and I, for the first time in my life, was in the middle of it. I understood, finally understood, what people mean when they say the kitchen is the heart of the home.
I don’t know if it was having the time I never had when I was working nonstop or having a friend I wanted to make happy or seeing Julie & Julia or believing the Barefoot Contessa when she said, “How easy is that?” or just the voice of age that said, “If not now, when?” But it all propelled me to a place I never thought I’d be: in the kitchen, the sun setting, the radio playing, the oven baking and me thinking, This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
Postscript The next time I cooked, I started a fire by leaving recipes I’d cut out of magazines on the toaster oven while I was toasting coconut flakes as a condiment for butternut squash soup. But that’s when I learned what kitchen fire extinguishers are for. And now that the recipes are charred and curled like antique maps, I’m treating myself to my first very own cookbook.
Nancy Evans, a cofounder of iVillage, seeks domestic bliss in Connecticut.
Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of More.