Tuesday, January 29, 2013

To Cook or Not to Cook?~That Is the Midlife Question

Last week, inspired by the reading (re-reading for the pure pleasure of absorbing her mouthwatering writing) of Erica Bauemeister’s marvelous novel of food and love, The School of Essential Ingredients, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time—I cooked. I didn’t just throw something together to satisfy a generic appetite with generic calories, but—taking in the aroma of oregano, the silky feel of flour on my fingertips , the sound of whisk against china as I whipped eggs to a froth—I mindfully, happily, actually cooked.

Within a single few days, I simmered white chili and stir-fried beef with bok choy. For brunch, I made my daughter-in-law’s crème brulee French toast casserole, a puff of souffléd challa over a foundation of caramelized syrup. Exquisite, my guests said. I brewed minestrone. Made butterscotch pudding from scratch. The kitchen gods (sculpted in stone and enthroned atop my fridge) smiled down on me. It had been a while.
I used to cook and be cooked for all the time. Ask any woman—having a man cook for you is a delicious turn-on. I have been wooed with soup, seduced by a stew, soothed with risotto. And I’ve cooked to express all kinds of love: baked a child’s birthday cake, simmered a family pot of chicken soup for cold nights. Also, for husbands and other close friends, made a simple sauce of fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil that spoke of summer in winter and asked for a warm embrace in a warm bed. And in summer, fixed crab cakes, seasoned with Old Bay—a sexy blend of spices. Crab, some say, is an aphrodisiac. Agreed. Cooking at its best is an expression of something higher, more abstract than zucchini. Call it love. Call it art.

Among many of my midlife friends, it’s become a lost art. “I no longer cook,” says a married one. “I heat and I arrange.” She buys ready-to-serve dishes from Wegmans or pre-marinated meats from Trader Joes and saves homemade for when the kids are in from college.  A divorced friend shrugs. “My mother told me that the fastest way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Wrong. The girlfriend followed a different map and snagged the guy. So cooking leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. ” She dines out often, or scrambles eggs or micros Lean Cuisines. I understand. I’m guilty myself. Still, reading Erica Bauermeister's book made me realize how much we-who-no-longer-cook are missing.
Eight times year I’m reminded of how food and its preparation connect us. Both the gourmet group and a couples book club I belong to have dinner as the evening’s fulcrum. And the spouses cook these dinners together, work side by side, chopping, sautéing, roasting, baking homemade bread. Toba may do the gazpacho and Andy his incomparable salad, but they’re hip-to-hip in the kitchen. Lenne glazes the cornish hens while Hal mashes the potatoes. PJ and Hamp work in tandem. These couples may be past the baby-making stage, but they’re still creating something lovely together, a feast at least, and taking pleasure in the process.

I know of a woman who brags that she hasn’t cooked dinner for her family in decades, except on holidays. Today this social worker has retired to halftime practice and usually dines early, on whatever, and alone. Her husband, a workaholic, logs in around nine having grabbed a slice of pizza at the commuter train station or yogurt from the fridge. Which he eats in solitary silence. How sad, I think. How symptomatic of a marriage gone as stale as a week-old bagel.
Cooking is love in the active sense. For lovers, it’s a dance together. For family, it’s glue made of sugar and butter and cinnamon. For friends it's a gift. Of course I have more half-baked theories. But right now there’s a meatloaf in the oven I need to check. It’s my mother’s recipe, with a sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and onions.  It will taste of love and memory, of laughter and lost times. And it won’t need ketchup.

Toby Devens

We would love to read your comments on the joys of cooking—or not cooking—at midife. And please share your favorite recipes.  One will win for its author an inscribed copy of my next novel, Happy Any Day Now, coming out this summer.


  1. First, let me commend you on improving your site so that I can reach it and comment upon your articles! Yay! I find that I am enjoying cooking more as I get older, but I'd like it better if my husband would eat more than just pasta and chicken. He won't eat soup, casseroles, or just about anything creative. So, I cook for me and guests, or to give away. I admit I'm not very good at it. I can bake successfully and I can make breakfasts of many different sorts, but otherwise, lack of practice makes me a lame cook. Lack of appreciation from fussy eater in the house doesn't help. Working full-time job doesn't help. Hoping to get better once I retire!

    1. I'm delighted that you got to post a response, Elizabeth. On the food front, it is challenging dealing with diners who have limited interest in culinary exploration. They usually want unadorned meat and, for heaven's sake, don’t mess with their potatoes (like adding sour cream to mashed or sprinkling tarragon on roasted spuds, which I do sometimes). I find, though, that these nothing-fancy folks are more open to creativity in the dessert department. It's a start, anyway.

  2. Mmm.. sounds like it might be time for us to come visit YOUR house! Michael and I love cooking and try to make time at least once a week to come into the kitchen together to make something together. It's not always easy, but it is always worth the effort.

    Love the blog!

    1. Glad you love it, barefairy. I love writing it!

      Good for you and Michael. In my parents' generation, the kitchen was usually (tho not always; my girlfriend's father made fabulous clams casino) considered female territory, Mom cooked and I have a feeling she didn't want Dad even near the stove. Though, come to think of it, when she made chopped liver (I can almost hear you gagging out there--it's an acquired taste), he got out my grandmother's wooden bowl and double bladed chopper, applied some male muscle and did the deed.

  3. Cooking in our family, in our home, is love translated into an ingestible state. Every Sabbath has its smells, every holiday its absolute, unchangeable recipes. Just try and not make one of the dishes I have served since my first child's infancy...there would be revolution in the Wolf family. As one who has taught cooking classes for over 25 years and now owns a custom dessert company, cooking is the artistic outlet that my other career as a CFO never allowed. Cooking is my private passion that now spills into the happy events of others. I create beautiful, whimsical fantasies from the wisps of ideas I am handed by my customers. People use my creations to make others happy...and that makes me very happy. When I make the birthday cakes for my grandchildren, I carefully sit down with them and write down all of their ideas. We speak about flavors and colors and all of the things that must be included. They share their thoughts, they share their time and I treasure every moment of the process. I did not have that time for their parents. I was a working mother with four children vying for homework time, extracurricular activity time, private time. Though I always tried to make their birthdays and events special, the time I now spend with my grandchildren is magical. I am the "cooker" to one granddaughter, the "bestest baker ever" to another. I am Nonna to all of them and they are the ingredients that make my life so much richer and fuller than I could ever have imagined.
    For years I have told my culinary students that "there are no mistakes in cooking...just creations!" The process of creating something from beginning to end is one that is fast disappearing from our lives. We live in a partitioned, compartmentalized universe where we perform our jobs as little cogs in the big wheel. We do our job, our portion...sometimes never seeing the bigger result. Cooking takes us into a place that can sometimes be perfect and other times unsure. It can be very measured or in some other areas, very open-ended. I like the fact that every day, at my age, in my late 50's, I am still a novice, learning technique on my own, challenging myself to do things I haven't done before. One day, very soon, I will steel myself to enter a cake competition. In the meantime, I will be happy to be "the bestest baker and cooker ever." And my husband and I will be happy to share our "Special K cereal suppers" so that I can complete one of my fantasies for someone else. It turns out that life in the kitchen has been the most liberating experience for this woman-child of the 70's!

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    2. How beautiful, Faith. I'm especially impressed by your noting how we live such compartmentalized lives and the way cooking allows us to experience a complete accomplishment. As you point out, too, when grandparents cook with grandchildren, they're leaving the little ones part of their legacy. In her final years, my mother wrote out recipes for me. Now, with her gone decades, I follow them (the original paper protected by plastic) and as I read her handwriting, I feel her presence close by in my kitchen. "Don't overdo it on the salt, Toby!"

  4. Toby-

    i loved your blog about cooking. I don't do exotics. Heck, I've never even cooked a brisket! But my mother taught me how to make (killer) chicken soup. And my sister improved on that recipe by adding a sweet potato to the veggies. And my mother loved me so well that she agreed to make a fabulous clear tomato soup that I'd eaten in Louis Szathamry's gourmet restaurant in Chicago. My mother's version was as splendid as the Chef's. Unfortunately, the recipe took about 7 hours to accomplish. My mother's rather tart words to me, her loving daughter: "Don't ever ask me to make this again!" I never did.

    The recipe for my mother's chicken soup is included below.

    Binnie’s Mother's Jewish Chicken Soup

    6 pounds cut up chicken
    2 large (each) turnips, parsnips, carrots, peeled and chunked
    1 large onion, peeled and quartered
    2 ribs of celery (leaves included), chunked
    ½ tsp. each dried: dill, marjoram, thyme
    1 large chicken bouillon cube
    1 sweet potato, peeled and chunked (optional)

    Put chicken parts; put into large pot. Add 5 quarts (20 cups) water.

    Set stove temperature to medium high; skim foam that comes to the surface. Add spices and bouillon cube, then vegetables. Let the chicken and veggies come to a boil once again. Turn down the temperature to medium-low; simmer for 2 hours.

    Strain soup. Save de-boned chicken for adding back into soup the next day or reserve for another use. Discard vegetables.

    When soup has cooled somewhat, refrigerate until the next day. At that time, a layer of fat will have formed, and should be removed. Warm the soup (it will be jelled) and taste it. Once soup is warmed, taste to see if seasonings need to be corrected.

    Freeze soup in quart zipper bags or freezer proof containers. Enjoy!

    Binnie Syril Braunstein

    1. Adding sweet potato to chicken soup. Now that's a new one for me. But why not? Gonna try it. Thanks so much for sharing your recipe, Binnie Syril.

      And can you think of a better demonstration of maternal love than your mom working seven hours to reproduce the clear tomato soup you craved? My mom was not a fan of cheese-- even the blandest varieties. And the thought of melted cheese made her queasy. I, of course, adored grilled cheese sandwiches which she, despite her aversion, made for me, turning her face from the pan.

  5. I have always loved to cook. I may get up from my writing stint of the day and putter around in the kitchen, creating something good. My husband of--um--50 years loves my cooking, although he draws the line at any kind of poultry. So I know very little about cooking chicken. He's NEVER cooked. I was shocked when he got into seriously making coffee ten years ago with a coffee maker that grinds beans before it brews.

    If I were cooking for one, I'd still do it, because I like to create in the kitchen, and I like the results better than most of what I can buy.

    1. I admire your interest and creativity in the kitchen, Rebecca. For me, part of the joy of cooking is "having cooked" and then registering the positive response to a particular dish from my diners. On the other hand, if what I cook turns out to be disappointing, I have only embarrassed myself.

  6. I love to bake and cook, which, at my age, means I tend to wear my food on my waistline. I've had to cut back, but baking with my granddaughter is one of my greatest joys. Not cooking to me is consonant with not caring. I agree that a grab and eat on the fly lifestyle is usually not great for relationships or diets.

    1. At around 2 1/2 or 3, the grandkids can help out and enjoy doing it. We started with "fix your own" ice cream sundaes and graduated to getting cookies dough made and shaped. (One granddaughter's favorite food is broccoli, but she has inherited my sweet tooth.) Whisking is a favorite activity for pre-schoolers, as is breaking eggs into a bowl. And setting the table is a fun activity.

  7. Even after the children left our household I continued to cook for my husband and myself. I preferred home cooked meals after a day at work rather than eating at a restaurant. I would cook ahead for a few days. However, since we have grown older and our appetites are smaller I have cut back on cooking and sometimes look for more convenient options. My husband likes a greater variety and finds it in prepared food and frozen dinners. He also likes going out to the restaurant where we will share a dinner. I used to enjoy cooking more in the past when we ate more. My family looks forward to visiting us and eating in our local restaurants Chinese, Indian and Jewish deli are their favorites. After dinner they return to our apartment for desert. by Gloria Miller

    Yesterday I bought a whole chicken and this morning I made the following recipe which I have been making for years. We get multiple meals and it is tasty. We have kasha or rice with the chicken and a vegetable.

    3 lbs chicken parts or breast
    1 cup of chopped onion
    1 tsp salt
    8 oz can tomato sauce
    3/4 cup orange juice
    1/4 cup lemon juice
    1/4 cup honey
    2 Tbps prepared mustard
    1/4 tsp pepper
    1/2 tsp dried tarragon
    2 tsp chopped garlic
    1/4 cup honey
    1 tbsp oil or cooking spray

    Cook onions in oil in covered pot over medium heat for 3 minutes
    Add chicken parts and saute in onions for 5 minutes . Mix remaining ingredients in a bowl. Pour sauce over chicken, cover and simmer until chicken is tender about 30 to 40 minutes.
    (you can remove skin and visible fat from chicken to save calories)

    1. Thanks for the comment and the recipe, Gloria. It sounds yummy and it looks easy to prepare. Question: you've included on your ingredients list 1/4 cup of honey twice. I assume you meant only once. Let us know, please.

  8. Here's the answer to your midlife question (to cook or not to cook?)......NO! end of story

    1. Concise and confident. A woman who knows her mind. Thanks for the vote, Judy.

  9. Our children (grown w children)have become very interested in the sources of the things they eat, their "carbon footprint" and buying local and in season.

    So we planted an organic garden.

    Organic, local, quick transportation to our backyard garden, ...but Gotta cook!
    I have started to use our freezer to store some of the goodies for the winter, so I have tomatoes for soup and sauces, zucchini for Zbread, corn and beans.
    It's a help with the "seasonal" aspect. and I do not have to cook in the heat of August/September at the height of harvest.
    I have always loved to cook; this is just a new way to approach what we cook.
    Happily, we both love to garden.
    We "grow" the gazpacho and the salad!

    1. Nothing better than fruits and veggies fresh from the garden, Toba. And that your produce is free from pesticides makes it even better. Growing your own is a wonderful trend. When strawberries taste "real"--sweet and succulent, not like those pale, tasteless imposters that ripened en route from distant climes--a bowl of them, naked, is the perfect dessert.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this post, especially since I am currently reading The School of Essential Ingredients. I love cooking with fresh foods, and between my garden and the local farmers' market, I'm swimming in summer bounty! Preparing meals allows me another way to express myself. It also allows us to eat well while watching our weight, because I know what's in the recipes.

    Recently I visited my aging parents -- my mother had a setback from a medical procedure, and we nearly lost her. She made it home, and I had the privilege of cooking dinner for her and Dad for their 63rd wedding anniversary. It was a profound experience that I will always treasure.

    1. That's a beautiful story, Nadine. Congrats to your parents on that wonderful anniversary, and I hope your mother is doing better.
      Yes, I think you really give of yourself when you cook for others. Food --preparing it and serving it to others--is a gesture of friendship and love in just about every culture. It strikes a chord deep within us. And you're right, it's a very creative activity. Enjoy that summer bounty!

  11. Hello Toby,
    What a great way to be introduced to your Blog! I saw the link on Erica's FB posting and after reading your posting I had to grab my copy of the book, which I read back in 2010 and totally enjoyed!!! :-) My copy is loaded with marginalia I wrote while reading this great book. Cooking is one of my passions as well as collecting cookbooks. My personal Culinary Library with over 6,000 cookbooks is a reflection of my Love for cooking!!! :-) I am a Puerto Rican, living in Atlanta for over 25 years and have been devouring cookbooks for over 30 years.
    Ana Raquel
    Culinary Dietitian and Bibliophile