It Looks Like I Have to Share My Kitchen Now
I did think of it as “my” kitchen: It had been one of the reasons we’d chosen to buy our home 12 years ago. The previous owners had remodeled it three years prior, moving the old kitchen cabinets (and even a working sink) out into the garage for storage.
It had been a significant upgrade. The kitchen, in fitting with the decor of the rest of the house, was neutrally colored. Cream cabinets, sandy brown speckled granite countertops, and a travertine tile backsplash with a few subtle accents. The five-burner gas stovetop and warming drawer located on the kitchen island had me dreaming of the big parties and holidays we would one day host.
I wasn’t sure it was exactly what I’d choose, given the chance to design it myself, but I liked it. With an infant and a toddler in tow, just as important, I was happy that it had already been done.
I was a latecomer to cooking. In college, my repertoire consisted mostly of pasta and grilled cheese (featuring my dad’s favorite, Velveeta). After graduation, I lived in Manhattan, where I shared a typically tiny galley kitchen with one and sometimes two roommates. I don’t recall ever cooking what I could describe as a complete meal in it the entire three years I lived there.
It wasn’t until I lived alone that I finally started cooking. My apartment in Philadelphia during graduate school was gigantic by New York City standards. It even held a table with four chairs. I could make whatever I wanted (within budget) and I did. I discovered the freedom and independence of being able to buy ingredients and follow a recipe to make just the meal I wanted.
I was hooked.
Shortly thereafter I met my husband. I discovered it was even more fun to cook for two.
My husband does not cook, but he told me he could make crepes. I bought him a cast iron crepe pan one year for Christmas. He’s used it twice. Once he did cook an entire dinner for two of our friends the time I had a stomachache. The pain in my side became so great, I didn’t eat a single bite of the meal. I had my appendix taken out the next day.
We both agreed that the kitchen would remain my domain.
That was 17 years ago. When a place has been “yours” for so long you take certain things for granted — particularly that the ingredients you buy will be in the kitchen until you use them.
I have always preferred to do the grocery shopping myself. (Having one person shop and the other one cook is like allowing someone else to buy your clothes, and then having to wear them, even if they don’t know what size you are or didn’t realize what you really needed was pants.)
What I have purchased has always been there to make the recipes I planned — aside from snacks and ingredients for potential sandwiches and stuff that can be microwaved. Then in the last year, that changed.
Ingredients started disappearing.
Sometimes I would come downstairs a bit later than normal to make dinner and find that people had already eaten. There would be a pile of dirty dishes in the sink and not just plates and cups, but the pasta pot, the wok, or a skillet as well. Worse, my daughters weren’t hungry for the meal I’d planned to make. And the two red bell peppers I’d been saving were gone.
I had inadvertently created another cook in the house: my 12-year-old.
One afternoon, I came into the kitchen to find her making an enormous tofu scramble, using two containers of tofu, onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Just like she’d seen me make dozens of times. The garlic powder, turmeric, and nutritional yeast were all out on the counter. No recipe or cookbook was in sight.
She was pleased with herself and excited to feed everyone lunch. She was toasting bread to serve on the side.
I should have seen it coming. Lately, after dinner, she had asked to bake cookies. She made a layer cake for no reason. She frequently makes pasta and quesadillas. If the leftovers she has to choose from for lunch don’t appeal to her, she prepares herself a big salad instead. If she doesn’t want the oatmeal I offer for breakfast, she makes herself a smoothie. She frequently feeds her older sister.
Her coffee concoctions, inspired by TikTok posts and gleaned from Pinterest, rival those of the fanciest coffee shop. When she couldn’t locate the electric handheld milk frother, she used the French press to do the job instead. We started calling her our barista.
But something about catching her in the act of cooking, so freely and so confidently, stopped me in my tracks. My reaction was a mixture of surprise, disappointment, and pride. It wasn’t what I’d expected to find when I came down for lunch.
To be honest I was a tad disappointed because I had been planning to use the tofu for other dishes. Since the pandemic began, I changed my shopping habits and only go to the grocery store once a month. Her use of two pounds of tofu presented a minor problem from a menu planning perspective.
But mostly I was proud. Not just of her knife and cooking skills, but also in the initiative she took to do it. At 12, she had already surpassed my cooking abilities when I was twice her age.
I complimented her and reminded her to be careful when using the stove. Then I tasted it.
It was delicious, though not exactly like the one I make. It was hers. I thanked her for making the family lunch. It saved us all from eating leftovers.
I didn’t know what turmeric was when I was 12, let alone nutritional yeast and other ingredients my girls are familiar with.
The first memorable cooking experience I recall as a kid was when I poured boiling water into a crystal bowl in an attempt to make Jell-O. The bowl promptly broke in half and the water flooded the counter and dripped onto the floor. My mother was not pleased.
The second was a night I was assigned to make my brother pasta while my parents were out. I was more interested in watching TV. After 30 minutes when my show was over, I figured it had to be done and drained the pot. I fed it to my brother, who said it felt like he was eating dead worms.
I opted not to partake.
Perhaps these memorable (and embarrassing) experiences in the kitchen are part of what led me to decide I would raise children who could do better than I did. That didn’t seem like it should be hard to achieve.
When they were young, I compiled lists of kitchen tasks that kids can do. They set the table, added ingredients I’d measured out, and spun the lettuce to dry. In one of my cookbooks, I have a dated note by a recipe saying it was the first time they peeled garlic cloves.
I taught them the first things to always do: Put their hair back in a bun or ponytail. Put on an apron. Wash their hands. Next, read the recipe. Get out all the ingredients. I bought plastic serrated knives and let them cut soft ingredients on their own cutting boards. I advised them to always hold the bowl with one hand while mixing.
At some point, they tired of these easy tasks. Washing produce or using the salad spinner was no longer exciting. They’d rather peel the carrots or cut up the cucumbers. They insisted they could measure ingredients themselves. Slowly I had to give up control and hope for the best.
Eventually, to my husband’s shock, I let them use the sharp knives and the box grater. I assured him I taught them how to hold a knife the right way and it was safe. I hoped that it was.
The result, it seems, is that I have raised at least one cook. My older daughter is so far not quite as interested, but I have confidence that her skills too already surpass mine at 20. She might be more inclined if her sister and I both didn’t prepare food for her. Her sister made her pancakes while I was writing this.
We have had to set some ground rules:
No using the oven or stove after the parents have gone to sleep. While it’s not entirely terrible to be awoken at midnight by the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies (and, yes, taste-testing one), it still seems too risky.
Before deciding to make a meal, ask :Just to be sure the ingredients are not already earmarked for a certain recipe.
Clean up after you are done. (Still working on that one.)
Not everything has or will turn out perfectly, but in every mistake, there is another valuable cooking lesson learned. And that, I realize, is how a cook is made.
I have heard it said that as parents it’s our job to make ourselves obsolete. And, of course, I now realize, this includes what we do in the kitchen.
For now, I still cook for my family nearly daily, but I know I won’t forever. And now I know that my daughters won’t need me to. One day I hope they will each find as much enjoyment in preparing meals in a kitchen of their own as I have in mine. Until then, we will share.