On Not Spoiling the Broth

Every time I turn around, some new authority is howling about how everything that’s wrong with our society — namely, obesity and fraying families — is because nobody cooks any longer.

All our problems will be solved, we are told, if we just shop organic, gather around the gas range while we cut, parse, steam and bake, and put a healthy dinner on the table. Oh, and that would probably be an attractively set table with good china, fresh flowers, and napkin rings. Lively conversation will ensue and everybody will get thin and happy.

Good grief. I know I am supposed to be deeply relieved by this new batch of organic wisdom. But I’m not. Instead, it flings me into a neverending shame spiral.

If the answer to the failures of the world is home cooking, then I might as well hang it up. I come from a long line of horrible cooks. In fact, I can’t quite decide which of my grandmothers was the worse cook.

I spent hours at my maternal grandmother’s table, going eyeball to eyeball with a slimy mound of okra, which I refused to eat. Eventually, I was sent to bed with an empty stomach, which was supposedly my punishment, but I never really saw it that way. My paternal grandmother spent most of her time chain-smoking Parliaments, which meant she was too preoccupied to cook, but at least we never had any okra faceoffs. Anyway, Granny’s idea of a vegetable was a French fry.

My mother’s cooking philosophy was to shove inexpensive pieces of meat into the oven and blast them at high heat till they resembled an old pair of shoes. We often went off to Sunday school, then church, on weekends with the oven roaring for hours. We’d return and Mother would peer into the oven and announce the roast beef wasn’t quite done yet. By then, it would have shrunk to the size and consistency of a molten baseball. Extremely well-done meat has always been confused with Methodism, in my mind. Also, Mother always tied string around her roast beefs; my sister and I never knew why, but this may have had something to do with Protestantism, as well.

I bring all this up simply to show that bad cooking is part of my DNA and you can’t argue with fate or genetic material. I have tried to cook over the years, God knows I’ve tried. But even when it’s turned out marginally well, I have always hated to cook. In my own kitchen, since my husband likes to cook, I am the designated sous-chef and scullery maid. This makes me happy. I don’t have to cook and I don’t have to think.

After a recent and lengthy call to action ye cooks of America in the pages of The New York Times, which suggested society should pay people to cook at home, for crying out loud, one courageous woman wrote a letter to the editor in protest. I hate to cook, she began her letter. Have I made it clear I loathe cooking? she reiterated midway through the letter, ending it with a simple, straightforward, I really, really hate to cook.

I was thrilled to read that letter, but then it got even better. On Mother’s Day, a charming and perceptive young woman wrote a Times op-ed piece entitled, My Mom Didn’t Cook. So What? Her family lived on the Upper West Side, the young woman wrote, and her mother excelled at takeout. She was a great mother! She didn’t have to cook!

Exactly! We are out here, I thought, nodding my head as I read. Yes, we are out here, the nameless millions who hate to cook. We have been shamed for too long by the Martha Stewarts, the Mark Bittmans, the hostess-with-the-mostess types. We can’t stand the heat, we’re thrilled to get out of the kitchen, and we’re not going back.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Here’s another non-cooking story


19 comments… add one
  • Love your descriptions of the cooked food! It is easy for we foodies (yes, I am guilty) to forget that this passion is not shared by all, and that we can be judgmental s.o.b.s Thanks for the slap across the face. In reality, most of the world is eating whatever meals they can to survive.

  • Jenny Meadows Link

    Hear, hear! I’m such a bad cook I can burn water. Thank goodness my husband enjoys cooking.
    If you asked me to cook one meal a day for the rest of my life, best to just shoot me now.
    I do love cleaning up, however. If you asked me to clean up after a cook, even a sloppy one three times a day for the rest of my life, I’d be ever so happy to do that. To my way of thinking it’s just another form of editing.

  • My Mom was an awful cook. She didn’t like to do it, and apparently had nightmares about nutritional deficiencies (she was trained as an RN and somebody along the line really got into her head about balancing meals and avoiding food poisoning) . She excelled at takeout/canapés as staples.

    I, on the other hand, love to cook and it has nothing to do with being a good parent or a good hostess either one.

    I love to cook because I love to eat AND I am a control freak. When I cook something for myself I cook it exactly the way I like it. I control the ingredients and the amounts and the doneness.

    No Stewart, no VB6 Bittman, no hostessing. Control, control, control.

    What I hate? Cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. If I could justify the expense and devastation to the environment I’d use disposable everything and simply wrap it up and toss it out after, pots and pans included.

  • My fiancé’s mother was a legendary bad cook. The stories they tell about her attempts to create edible meals brought tears of laughter to all listening. They loved her dearly and preferred nothing more than taking her OUT to dinner.

  • I have long thought that cooking is an inherited skill. If your mom couldn’t cook, you can’t.

  • Paula B Link

    We share this, as we share a love of quality icing. Speaking of, let’s get together soon over a meal that neither of us has cooked.

  • Christine Link

    My MIL is not a cook at all. Not everyone can do everything, nor should they! The description of your mother’s roasts is simply hilarious! I love to cook, but hate to roast; I’m sure my roasts are similar.

  • I’m with you all the way on this. Hate, hate to cook. I tried to buy a house without a kitchen, but do you know how rare those are?

  • Sorry, but your Methodist roast was medium rare. Well done was the crisp from a Presbyterian oven. (Especially in Amarillo where the sermons ran long.)

  • Have you tried The French Chef, the cookbook Julia Child wrote while doing her original PBS show? Someone gave it to me as a wedding present. I had moved to France, you see, where everyone cooks. Not hamburgers. That cookbook was my savior. It can teach ANYONE to cook, even you, Ruth.

  • Patti Parham Link

    I can somewhat cook I guess, because people ask me to do it more than once. But that in no way means I like to cook! I would rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than make a “meal.”

  • Paired with your lack of innate abilities, you had the talent to marry a man who likes to cook. Bravo!

  • I raised three children on five variations of hamburger, rotated daily. On Sundays, we tried to be invited to someone else’s house for a meal. Unfortunately, a family of 5 is rarely invited to eat often…My mother has very accurately pointed out that she has never used the oven in the last 3 places she’s lived. It may be congenital, but I think it is mere exhaustion. After cooking for a family for nearly 20 years, I figure it’s my husband’s turn to cook for the two of us. We’re not even yet.

  • Merr Link

    Add to cooking the shopping! That’s what gets me…by the time I am done shopping I no longer have the oomph to cook what I shopped for to prepare.

  • Sheryl Link

    Sometimes I think of all the other things I could spend doing if I didn’t waste so much time cooking…

  • Leslie Link


    I appreciate your commentary immensely!
    I feel compelled to comment on my dismal cooking lineage. My poor-sighted grandmother served scary food. She once bullied me into eating a homemade biscuit. The fire ant residing inside bit me on the tongue!
    My mother’s speciality was some kind of iceberg lettuce salad with Doritos as a garnish. I am happy to spend a large portion of my paycheck on food prepared by someone else.

  • Cindy Link

    My mom fried everything. Meat, vegetables, everything was fried. I don’t own a deep fryer!

  • Cindy D. Link

    I love the description “going eyeball to eyeball with . . . okra.” I don’t like to cook and I really don’t like boiled okra.

  • Oh my gosh, I’m pretty sure we had the same mom.

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