Being the Helper: Confessions of an Unenthusiastic Cook

‘Tis the season of baking, a time of anxiety for reluctant cooks like me. From mid-November to January 1, my social media feeds fill with delicacies I should be preparing: “72 desserts that are not pies” to “easy alternatives to green beans.”

Easy. I’ve fallen for that before. When well-meaning friends begin to recite recipes, what I hear is akin to the adult voices in the Charlie Brown cartoons: wah-wah, wah-wah, wah-wah.

Still, The Joy of Cooking sits on a kitchen shelf. It’s my husband’s copy, handed down from his mother. For him, it’s a handy tool, much like the chisels lined in his woodshop. For me, it’s 915 pages of potential failure.

As a perfectionist who finds it hard to multi-task, I find that cooking pushes all my buttons. In order to focus on anything more complicated than Cheerios with coconut milk, I have to reel in my too-busy brain and temper my self-judgment about “messing it all up” and “doing it wrong.”

In my 20s, I worked on a cruise ship and in hotels, where meals were provided. When I did have to cook, I made things I couldn’t really botch: baked potatoes, stir fries, pasta. And many bowls of cereal.

After a lot of practice, I can now complete a certain casserole without too much stress, my mother’s recipe. (If you’ve been to my place for dinner, you’ve had it.) But otherwise: I start to bake the squash. Then I start to read The Week. While I’m absorbed in an article about the discovery of Neolithic artifacts or an interview with Brandi Carlile, the squash begins to disintegrate … and I realize that I’ve neglected the other components of the meal. I try to deal with my mess. But I’m still thinking about the artifacts.

The truth is, I’d always rather be reading. But I worry that there’s something inherently selfish about this preference. (To make matters worse, I don’t care for gardening either.) Like being able to change a tire, cooking is a skill that makes one honorable, more evolved.

Of course, for women, cooking and “keeping home” have historically been expected duties. But it’s not just the feminist rebel in me that resists. I don’t like to be told what to do in general. That includes following the directions on the back of a box. When I finally relent, I get obsessive about the steps and measurements. I study the box, as though memorization will help. Next time, I won’t need the directions, and I’ll be “better” at making Annie’s Mac and Cheese.

I understand this is a privileged complaint. To simply have access to enough food is a blessing. But where did the complaint come from? Is it a generational ailment? I was born in the 1970s, the decade that brought Hamburger Helper (1971), followed by Tuna Helper, Fruit Helper (since discontinued), Chicken Helper, Whole Grain Helper, and Pork Helper (also discontinued). For the record, my mother says she never used any of these.

My mother cooked 99 percent of my childhood dinners, from pork chops to beef stew to meatloaf to occasional pancakes or nachos (my two favorites), when time was tight. But I did sense from her station in the kitchen a desire to be elsewhere. A voracious reader, she still finishes 10 books to my one.

I was her helper, and I didn’t mind. I chopped things, made the salads, set and cleared the table. My father washed the dishes. During one ambitious summer, my mother announced that my father and I would be responsible for one dinner each per week. My father made scallops in orange juice sauce, baked to perfection in the toaster oven. I made hot dogs and beans. But we lost interest and, two months later, my mother was back on call all seven nights.

I wonder if others feel un-Joy-ful, so I post online, “Reluctant cooks, what is it about cooking that you resist?” The replies come in quickly from friends of all ages:

“I never seem to have everything I need, even if I took a trip to the store first.”

“I get impatient and it never comes out right.”

“My cat will jump up on the counter to check out the lit burners. It’s just easier to get delivery or go out for every meal.”

“I have a fear of knives, specifically a fear of chopping off a hunk of my finger.”

“I’m afraid of lentils.”

“The time commitment. Once I see something will be 20 minutes or more my eyes roll back into my head.”

“The thought of trying to get everything to come out hot at the same time feels impossible to me. I’m very hard on myself and don’t want to let guests down. The stress is just too much.”

“The mundane repetitiveness of it: defrost, season, cook, eat, clean, and repeat.”

“Cooking for a family, day-to-day, is just plain depressing. You’re too busy and you can't please everyone.”

“For a long time I did this by myself every day: meal planning, shopping, cooking, clean up. I left that marriage. Now I’m starting a small business and supporting myself. I still feel resentful about all those years of taking care of everyone else and not me.”

“I resist every part of the process except shoveling the chow into my food hole.”

“I’m around a lot of people who love to cook. I hear them cackle with glee. But I just read all the other comments and I feel so much better now!’

I feel better, too. Though I’m struck by the themes that come up: fear of failure, anxiety, resentment, and tedium.

I ask Jeremy Rock Smith, Kripalu’s Executive Chef and author of The Kripalu Kitchen cookbook, for suggestions in overcoming these obstacles. He has good advice for perfectionists like me: “There’s no such thing as perfect, especially when it comes to food. The worst thing that can happen in cooking is that the dish won’t be any good. That’s it. If we go into the cooking process relaxed and not feeling that our existence is hinged on this one dish, we can chill, have fun, and make room in our heads to be more creative.”

If you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, “involve others who are eating the meal,” Jeremy advises. “You can make the preparation more of a social process. Then everyone is invested.” While prepping, put on music, says Jeremy. “It always helps.”

For accurate timing, always start roasted veggies or grains first, says Jeremy. “They can cook while you’re doing other things.” (Like reading The Week.) “Next, get the main dish going. Always do the steamed veggies last, as they take the least amount of time to cook.”

For those feeling stuck in a rut, “Go to someone else’s kitchen and watch them cook,” Jeremy suggests. “I always learn something that invigorates my practice.”

What about trying to please everyone at the table? “Any meal that has been thoughtfully prepared by someone else—even a grilled cheese—is always enjoyable for me,” he says. “When I’m freaking out about what others think, I often realize it’s all in my head. They always enjoy it.”

My Facebook friends also have suggestions:

“Get a crock pot. Throw in your ingredients, turn it on, and forget about it. When you come home in the evening, dinner is ready. Notice that I use the word ‘throw’ to acknowledge your feelings about cooking. Oh, and throw in some love too!”

“I’m taking a course on ‘cooking for one’ at my local senior center.”

“I've found a lot of healthy, quick recipes on Instagram—minimal ingredients and fast. I’ve been cooking more than ever because of that.”

And my favorite: “I let people who are good at cooking and/or enjoy it do their thing and let myself do the things I do best.”

I’m still the designated helper. I open the fridge and see nothing while my husband sees the same ingredients and whips up a delicious, healthy meal with no apparent stress. I put on music and chop things. I set the table and wash up.

It’s just as well. My husband recalls one of our first dates. I invited him over for soup, which I bought pre-made and frozen. As we chatted, I neglected to turn up the burner, and so the soup still had icy blocks when I dropped it into his bowl.

He’ll always remember the soup, for obvious reasons. But to prepare a meal is an act of love, I often hear. It was that, and he knew.

Find out about cooking programs with Jeremy Rock Smith at Kripalu.

Lara Tupper writes, sings, teaches, and chops in the Berkshires.

Lara Tupper, MFA, is the author of two novels, Off Island and A Thousand and One Nights, and Amphibians, a linked short story collection forthcoming in 2021.

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