When I was a girl, my mother's cooking was legendary--as in, she told stories of how bad a cook she was. She relished telling people about the time she tried to boil eggs in a glass Corningware pot; every holiday season she told friends or relatives about the time she burned Christmas cookies, set off our fire alarm and put oven mitts on her face (to protect her eyes from smoke from the oven) and wound up with burns on her eyebrows. She was a self-proclaimed bad cook, and this part really confused me. I didn't know why she seemed to like telling people she was bad at something. Improvement, success, excellence: all these things were a big deal to my mom. I couldn't understand why she seemed to enjoy telling people that she was a bad cook.
The thing those friends and relatives never heard were the times when my mother stood in our kitchen and bemoaned her "weak" culinary skills. "I'm a terrible cook," she would say, standing in front of the stove, stirring, opening something frozen and popping it in the microwave, putting broken muffins on a plate in the center of our kitchen table. I thought my mom was a great cook. She made lasagna with shredded mozzarella cheese, ground beef and Paul Newman's spaghetti sauce (instead of ricotta cheese, fresh basil and bechamel sauce) and it tasted great. She made stuffed peppers with Manwich sauce (remember Manwich? that canned sloppy joe sauce from the 80s? I don't actually know if it was from the 80's but it seemed like the kind of thing that came out of the Reagan-administration-NASA-MTV era) and white rice--I didn't really like the peppers because green peppers were too bitter for me. But I liked the Manwich rice inside the peppers. There were foods she cooked that I didn't like, mostly for my dad, but most of the time I ate whatever she put in front of me and I was happy with it. She often pulled clean plates out from in front of me. All of the feedback she got from me said I loved her food; why she thought she was so terrible was beyond me.
Cooking has been different for me. I love to cook; it's one of the first things I learned to do that gave me a real sense of self-assuredness. My dad and I did a chemistry project about cooking, and little by little I learned how to make Kraft dinner, how to make barbecue chicken, until I was paging through cookbooks and exploring recipes with bewitching pictures. For a time, I even wanted to be a chef. When I put food down in front of my parents they made yummy noises and said they were grateful. Cooking was something I learned to do young, and I did a lot of it growing up to take care of my parents (and myself), and it became a way for me to express affection for others. It's probably also something I do to make sure I'm getting what I need: let me cook or bake my way into your heart. But whether it's a coping mechanism, a way of trying to buy love, an expression of creativity, or all of the above, I'm really comfortable cooking.
Which makes the fact that twice inside two weeks I've set off the fire alarm in my apartment kind of humiliating. Typically, this hasn't really been a big deal. In the normal, shotgun Chicago apartment with the 9-v battery-fire alarm, it beeps for a while and you open a few windows, fan your back door for 30 seconds and everything's fine. In the digs I'm in now, the place me and mine moved to not long ago, well, you're not supposed to disconnect the alarm. The whole building is wired to a big, fancy auto-report fire alarm. The hallway has fire doors that close automatically, and a signal goes off at a firehouse that sends the CFD hook and ladder screaming down the avenue. The first time I was making brunch. Bacon in a skillet, came out beautifully, but also woke my husband--whom I wanted to sleep in--with this horrible shrieking sound. Five minutes later we had three Chicago firefighters in our kitchen, one standing on a stepladder, disconnecting the alarm just like you'd do in a Chicago shotgun apartment. The Lieutenant pushed a couple of buttons and then hooked it back up. By then the apartment was freezing--we'd opened the windows and had every fan in the place running--and we were standing around him ineffectually, watching. I listened as he radioed down to the truck "Yeah, lady on three burned her bacon, I'm just gonna disconnect the alarm, get some air into it. Standby." (For the record, not burned. Cooked just fine, thank you very much. Still, filled the apartment with enough smoke to bring the engine company through my front door.)
Maybe two weeks later he was making dinner and it went off again. This time the doorman was on duty, and he disconnected the smoke alarm for us after it started shrieking, but not before the fire doors shut. Again, we filled the apartment with frigid winter air and heard a fire engine going lights and sirens toward our building. Plus, the woman across the hall came out of her apartment with a crooked look on my face as I went tearing out of my own, looking for the doorman. "Sorry," I whispered to her, wanting her to go back into her own smoky apartment (cigarettes, not food) and leave me alone.
So I've set off my fair share of alarms, but it's only a hassle for me; but here, now, it can become a hassle for the entire building. It rouses people above, below and around me. Everyone knows; and the reputation, well-deserved, for being an excellent cook, suddenly begins to look a little less sure. I think about this, about how mortified I was when the fire alarm went off and brought the fire department here, and then I wonder what difference does it make what other people think? I know I'm a great cook, even if the CFD or my neighbors may think otherwise. Then I remember how much joy my mother seemed to get out of telling others how bad a cook she was, but how really she felt insecure about her skills. What other people thought of my mother was really important, so she made the fact that she felt she couldn't cook work for her, rather than just say she was a rotten cook. Maybe it's because she operated in an antiquated idea of what a family, our family, should be, and she felt like she was shirking her responsibility by not being some apron-wearing, turkey-basting, domestic goddess.
So I suppose all the screaming alarms and the brave firefighters crashing around our building just present me with another opportunity to release the idea of caring what others think of me. Let Lieutenant FireStopper tell his people that I've burned my bacon; let Old Lady Smokes-A-Lot next door cluck her tongue at me as I rush down the hall. I know who I am when I step into the kitchen. I know I'm not cooking anymore to get someone to love me. Now I'm cooking because it makes the day slide away, or because that recipe looks really interesting, or because I've really had a taste for it, or because I want to show others that I appreciate them.
When I'm cooking for one, I know I care enough about myself to eat well, not to eat potato chips and frosting for dinner. I know why I cook.
It tastes good.