You Don’t Have to Cook

Photo by Chris Lawton

“When I get married I want to teach school or do something besides being a housewife.” – Kent Doty Wolfe, 13 years old, 1960


My mother knew herself, even if she didn’t accurately predict her future in the eighth grade. She did not become a teacher, possibly because she realized her lack of patience made her unsuitable for the job. She majored in business and worked for a state agency until she married my father and the army gave them their pick of posts. Young and curious, they chose somewhere new to both of them – Germany. They weren’t ready to start a family, but I was born anyway, which didn’t stop them from traveling all over Europe while they had the chance. They moved back to South Carolina and had three more children. Mom never took another job, but she sure as shit wasn’t a housewife.


“Even though the housewife may buy canned food . . . and thus save time and effort, she doesn’t let it go at that. She has a great need for ‘doctoring up’ the can and thus prove her personal participation and her concern with giving satisfaction to her family.” – From a post-war market study quoted in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, 1963


After World War II, manufacturers of household products needed to get women, many of whom had enjoyed employment during the war, back into the home. They did so by selling the idea that creativity at home (and in the kitchen) was the only way to be a good wife, a good mother, and a real woman. Mine didn’t fall for that trash.


She managed the family finances. She taught me about the stock market and made sure I knew about saving for retirement. She prioritized humor and made us laugh until our stomachs ached. She was always in the middle of a book and made sure we knew our way around the library. We read whatever we wanted, and she never questioned the age-appropriateness of our choices. (I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique when I was 11.)


She demonstrated the importance of giving back by volunteering countless hours helping people in need. She played a mean game of bridge. When it was her turn to host friends, she served lemonade made from frozen concentrate, grocery store wine, mixed nuts, and Whoppers malted milk balls. On those nights, I sat at the top of the stairs and strained to hear what it was that the ladies were talking about in low voices that made them laugh so loud the house shook. I couldn’t wait to be an adult, so I could host fabulous parties and laugh with my friends until way after bedtime.


Mom fed us healthy(ish) food, and made sure we did our dishes and cleaned our rooms. She would have snort-laughed and rolled her eyes at anyone who dared suggest she should prioritize creativity in the kitchen.


Mom hated cooking unapologetically – because she had nothing to apologize for. Her meals were more than good enough, and she and my dad taught us to say “thank you” at least twice at every meal: once at the beginning to show our appreciation for the effort, and once at the end. We also learned to say the meal was good, regardless of our actual opinions.


We had dinner together every night and I have countless memories of wildly entertaining family meals, but I couldn’t tell you what we ate. Mom rotated a few standards: spaghetti, vegetable soup made with kitchen scraps, chicken divan, mac and cheese, pot roast. I didn’t learn how to roast a chicken until college because I never saw it done. Thawing frozen chicken breasts and marinating them in bottled Italian dressing was easier and less messy.


So, logically, I became a food writer and recipe developer. My mother loved my cooking, which didn’t change the fact that food wasn’t her thing. She happily continued to do the responsible minimum. She was thrilled that I enjoyed my work, and she was far more interested in my writing than my recipes.


These days, everyone’s a chef and a food critic. People who can’t create Pinterest-worthy tablescapes and serve meals made entirely from scratch are subtly (or not so subtly) made to feel like they aren’t worthy hosts. They’ve been led to believe they “can’t cook,” but cooking is no more than the act of taking something edible and heating it.


Can you heat some frozen mini quiches? Microwave a breakfast burrito? Toast a bagel? You can cook. Who says you can’t get takeout for a dinner party or serve the same casserole you make every week because it’s easy and tastes fine? Sitting around the table and talking about what everyone’s reading makes for a great meal, no matter how little time or “creativity” it took to prepare.


I cherish my time in the kitchen, but that’s me. If cooking bores you, your time is better spent reading a book, doing macrame, bird watching, or whatever it is you like best. There’s no shame in not knowing a damn thing about how to sous-vide, and you can certainly replace the manchego cheese course with homemade cotognata, in favor of a block of cheddar and some wheat crackers. In fact, many an eater may thank you for doing so.


Put the springform pans away, because everyone loves Oreos for dessert. Food is sustenance, but it doesn’t have to be your hobby. Use your time however you want, and you’ll eat just fine.


Did You Know?

  • Nearly ⅔ of moms today are breadwinners. (The Washington Post)

  • Over 40% of working mothers make most or all of their family income. (The Washington Post)

  • In the 1970s, only six men in the entire United States self-identified as a stay-at-home father. (Huffington Post)


Wanna Dig Deeper?


Background, Context & Reference


Notable People

  • Betty Friedan: Writer, Feminist, Women's Rights Activist


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