Minestrone soup, lentil soup, turkey meatloaf, turkey chili. These are just a few of my signature dishes. “Alexa, play Miles Davis,” I’ll demand, and the sounds of jazz and cooking fill my kitchen: The clicking of cabinets, the whooosh of the gas flame igniting, the shhshhh shhshhh of the pepper mill. I feel focused, creative, free — and, honestly, pretty proud that I’m the kind of mom that actually cooks for her family.
I’ve always considered myself a good cook, but lately I’m filled with self-doubt. I know a reasonable person shouldn’t let her confidence rest on the taste buds of a child who dips his pizza in applesauce, but what’s the point of cooking if no one eats it? Isn’t one of my main jobs as a mother to nourish my two children?
When they were newborns, my miraculous body provided everything my kids needed. My milk-drunk babies grew and grew. So what if my nipples chafed and bled, and a breeze felt like kitchen knives against my chest? Life was easy when there was only one item on the menu.
But now my kids hate everything I make. They prefer food from boxes or fit for a toaster oven — macaroni with powdered cheese sauce, frozen bricks of breaded chicken, and frost-bitten mini taco wedges are just a few of their favorites.
You’re probably thinking I shouldn’t take it personally, that “they just like kid food.” But you’re wrong. My very particular 6-year-old daughter will inhale Trader Joe’s mini chicken and cilantro wontons, and my 8-year-old son can devour an entire wild mushroom and truffle flatbread pizza. But they won’t touch my chicken marsala or my teriyaki salmon.
But I keep cooking. I have subscriptions to multiple foodie magazines. I get several “what to cook” email newsletters daily. I read food blogs and recipe reviews. I watch the Food Network and all the reality cooking competitions. Cooking is my creative outlet and my stress relief. Still, in my deepest, darkest moments, I’ll think the unthinkable: “What if loving to cook and being good at it are two different things?”
What if I only think my food tastes good? After all, there’s always that one person who brings a dish to a potluck dinner that’s completely inedible. What if that person is… ME?
The other day my son stayed home from school with a stomach bug, and my Jewish Mother gene kicked in bigtime. I made a giant pot of homemade chicken soup. I even stopped on the way home from his doctor’s appointment to buy the parsnips. “It’s good mom,” he said with a fake smile. Then he pushed it away.
I had so much left over I froze three giant Tupperware containers of it and gave the rest to my friend who had pneumonia. I’m still waiting for her text telling me how delicious it was.
My mom tells me she loves my cooking — but she’s also the same person who told me I was good at my dance classes when I was little. I’ve watched those recital videos ; I’ve seen myself turn left when everyone else turns right. Then there’s my husband: His face lights up when I present him with a home-cooked meal and he always cleans his plate. But this is the same man who tells me I look beautiful when I wake up in the morning. I just don’t know who to trust anymore.
But I keep on keeping on, because a family must eat. Because I was taught to never give up. Because I made the varsity Pompon squad even though I’d kick high when everyone else would kick low. So I make turkey Bolognese, with mushrooms and carrots blended up so small my little critics won’t even know they are in there.
“What’s for dinner?” they ask, their voices a blend of anxiety and hope. I know they can smell something cooking. I know they hope I’ll tell them it’s just for Daddy.
“Spaghetti,” I say.
“Can I have mine plain?” my daughter pleads.
“No way,” I answer.
I scoop generous heaps of sauce atop nests of perfectly al dente noodles into two bowls. My daughter holds it close to her nose and smells it. I hold my breath: so many foods fail her smell test. Her nose wrinkles. She smells it again, and then dips the tip of her pinky into the reddish-orange sauce and licks the tiniest speck off her tiniest finger. I watch for any signs of disagreement. I wait for the words “I don’t like it” but I hear nothing. I try not to act happy. I try to feel nothing, show nothing. One wrong move and it’s all over.
I watch, white-knuckled, as both kids lift a forkful of wavy pasta. I exhale slowly as they slurp it up through pursed lips — the same lips that made me writhe with every painful latch. They take another bite. And then another. They finish their bowls.
“Can I have some more?” they both ask. I act as if it’s no big deal. I know if I show any emotion this miracle could evaporate like water left too long to boil. But in my head I’m doing high kicks , and the performance is perfect.