I’m gonna start this piece the way I start most days: by blaming my mother.
Well, first I’ll list some of the things she excelled at: protecting us from harm, explaining adult concepts in ways that didn’t terrify her children, organizing treasure hunts in and around our home, pretending her hand was a pet alligator named Ally, and defending us at parent-teacher conferences (you haven’t lived ’til your mom has told your middle-school theater teacher she has “no sense of true art”).
She taught me the concept of a mental-health day in second grade. She made every weeknight an act of rebellion and every weekend a safari through the city, and the only people she ever got angrier at than us were those who didn’t recognize what she believed, despite any clear evidence, was our Mensa-level genius. “Average intelligence my ass!” she screamed as she ripped up my lengthy ADHD-testing report. She picked the chicest items in the Delia’s warehouse-sale catalog and the best nail polishes from Wet n Wild, and she modified McDonald’s orders so they had “more flavor, less filler.” She let me wear her sweaters as dresses. I may have been the last to lose my virginity, but I was the first to have pink hair. She was Cher in Clueless and Cher in Mermaids. She was magic.
This is all, of course, a lead-up to what she DIDN’T do: sit through school plays, listen when we read our poetry aloud, get off the phone, ever, or cook. She didn’t cook.
She will fight this assertion like a Long Island–bred samurai. She will say “I slaved over a hot stove just like my Russian grandmother!” She will remind me of the Chez Panisse cookbook that sat behind the answering machine, and she will ask, “Were you ever hungry? No, no you were not, because I COOKED.”
But her definition of cooking is wildly skewed, and therefore so is mine. Defrosting a hamburger patty for my father to pan-fry? Cooking. Frozen tortellini? I mean, if you talk on the phone then suddenly realize the water is boiling over in a blaze of expletives, it’s al dente! And, the worst offender of all, a snack of raw cauliflower paired with a cup of mayonnaise with cumin in it. (Even she can’t defend that one.)
I never judged her for it. Instead, I became obsessed with takeout. The joy of picking your variant of Chinese chicken, the luxurious reveal of the congealed contents of the carton. To this day, though I’ve had some beautifully appointed, home-cooked meals by caring and immaculate friends, nothing can match the thrill of a plastic bag of possibility.
In my twenties, it was easy to excuse the constant ordering. I lived alone, worked bananas hours, and often forgot to take my jeans off to sleep. For a brief but terrifying time, I even took to ordering a muffin and placing it by my bedside for the morning (cereal + milk = manual labor).
The circumstances of my life, combined with a penchant for using processed food as a sedative (that’s another article), meant takeout was my religion. I could have anything I wanted without speaking to anyone. Summer rolls AND a hamburger? I’ll take it all, like some willful child dictator sitting upon a throne of wrappers and receipts.
But as I started to spend time in more adult homes, it was becoming clear this was not the norm. I had been busy declaring home cooks to be people with random time on their hands while I comforted myself picturing working families picking up a bag from Boston Market. But it turns out that some of the world’s busiest people — people raising kids on their own while holding down two jobs —were finding time to shop for and make their own food, an approach that is altogether more sensible, not to mention affordable. And if they could do it, what was my excuse? After all, Jenni — someone whose career I have a pretty solid sense of cuz, you know, it’s a shared career — not only cooks for her children nightly but also cooks TO RELAX.