Cooking Lessons

My mom was not a feminist. You could say she was a 1950s Donna Reed sort of mom, not the kind who had a job outside the home or marched in feminist rallies when I was growing up in the 60s.

She was a great cook, and because she made such fabulous, fresh meals, on time, every day, I never felt the need to learn how to cook myself. If I felt the urge to create something, it was more satisfying to sew a dress or draw a picture. A member of a 4-H club, I learned to bake brownies and cookies, and once, in high school, I spent all day preparing a ham dinner with all the trimmings—applesauce, string beans and dinner rolls—from scratch. For all my trouble, within 30 minutes it was gone, with only a few “gee thanks” left trailing in the air. To my teenage mind, it seemed like a massive waste of time.

In college I continued to feel ambivalent about cooking, helping to prepare salads during a raw foods phase and otherwise letting my roommate cook while I did the dishes. Yet when I married and set up a household of my own, it was clear to me that now was the time to learn to cook. I even remember a silly argument with my husband over who was going to cook and who was going to do the dishes—and this time I refused to slip into the passive dish-washer mode.

Why the sudden turnaround? Because I associated cooking with an expression of love. I was in love with my husband, and I wanted to cook for him.

In other words, while the way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, I was more struck by what cooking for my man did for my own heart.

My mom’s cooking inspired my sister in a similar way. She managed to rise to the top of a major corporation while raising two daughters—and always, always found time to sit down with her family for a home-cooked meal, prepared by herself or her husband. It was the foundation for their family time.

While cooking is not the only way to convey love to your children or your husband, it is certainly a practical one. We all have to eat. Home-cooked food is far healthier and less expensive than restaurant food. According to ancient health care systems such as Ayurveda, food cooked with love is the most nourishing elixir for anyone to eat.

And the ritual of gathering around the common table, sharing the intangibles of familial love and tasty food, is the binding ritual of most cultures. Even modern research has shown that kids who gather with their parents to share at least one meal a day (rather than grazing or foraging for food on their own) perform better academically and socially in school.

All of these thoughts ran through my mind in a rush while I was reading an interesting piece in the New York Times about a feminist activist’s daughter who, although she, too, considers herself a feminist and works for a living, has found time to cook and bake for her daughter—and to be available to her when she comes home from school. She does this, she says, because she wants her daughter to feel special, to feel loved.

The author’s own mother, it turns out, had spent 12 years as a homemaker but after a difficult divorce, found herself the single parent for two. At that point she did not want to end up like her mother (the author’s grandmother), who cooked three meals a day for her family—but felt bitter and trapped and took it out on her kids. Instead, the author’s mother embraced the budding feminist movement, focusing on her own self-development and her career as an artist and activist.

She succeeded in living a fulfilling and productive life as a leader in the feminist movement, but her kids were often left alone and unfed. The author says she not only felt physically hungry as a child, but worse, unloved and abandoned.

It’s interesting that the three generations of women in this family neatly represent three stages of women’s roles in this country: 1) the historical role of homemaker and caregiver (which left multitudes of women feeling trapped and yearning for something more), 2) the phase in the late 20th century when women broke free, becoming career women and feminist activists, sometimes rejecting their feminine role in the home altogether, and 3) the modern woman, who struggles to find time to have a satisfying career and be there for her children at the same time.

While understandably many women today are overwhelmed by the demands of trying to fulfill both roles, I do see a positive trend among young women who seem to have the energy to do both. In many cases these are the same women who are reaching out to empower themselves to stay healthy and calm—through yoga, daily exercise, healthy diets, and meditation. These are women who are not afraid to take a break from their jobs and families for some daily “me” time, knowing that when they come back, they will have more energy to devote to nourishing their kids and husbands.

Dr. Kumuda Reddy, a practicing medical doctor, book author and mother of three, says, “As a parent, I have found the Transcendental Meditation technique to be invaluable. In the past I led a busy life, returning home from my practice late in the day and facing a full evening with my family. I started the habit of meditating at my office before I returned home. This worked beautifully, because I could leave the stress of the workday behind. I found that I could create a much happier environment for my children and husband when I was more relaxed and more rested. I could really be the ‘200 percent parent’ that I wanted to be: 100 percent mother and 100 percent professional woman.”

The Transcendental Meditation technique has been shown in research to improve emotional availability and family life. It makes sense—when the stress is less, when the parents and kids are rested, it’s easier to give and receive love.

And love is the real food of life. It’s the primary nourishment upon which a child grows and thrives. Certainly, love can be conveyed in an abundance of ways—by making a meal, by giving a hug, by just being there to listen. But all of these expressions of love are based on a flowing heart. You gotta have it to give it.

As Maharishi, the founder of the TM technique says in his beautiful poem Love and God, “The fortunate ones use the instrument of deep meditation and probe deep into their hearts. Then the waves of love gain the depth of the ocean, and the ocean of love flows and fills the heart and thrills every particle of being.”

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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