"Is this like one of your first times?" my daughter asks me, with a look of empathy in her wide five-year-old eyes, and she's already nodding her head in expectation of my agreement.
She's talking about my making pancakes, and hell no -- it's not like one of my first times. Why before you were ever a thought in my mind I was Queen of French Pancakes, I want to tell her, the recipe still on an index card hand written in my 12-year-old script. One of my few cooking prides is my skill at pancake making. I want to tell her how disappointed I was when her father bought boxed pancake mix.
The pancake problem is this: I've put in yogurt and sour cream and high protein organic flour. But right now, in our house, Mr. Makes Pancakes From a Mix usually does the cooking. "They need salt," he critiques, right in front of my daughter. He's right of course, but couldn't he have taken the time to jot a note and slip it in my hand, or tell me in pig Latin in a whisper? Write it in French on the steamy window? Doesn't he understand that by acting the Head Chef he undermines my attempt to show that I do indeed have some culinary expertise?
"I like Daddy's better," she says.
A confident non-sensitive mother would just shrug and think, cool, Dad's taken over the kitchen -- got me more time to write (or substitute any verb here except cook). But as a Mother Worrier, I am not one of those people. I worry that my daughter will grow up believing (quite mistakenly, incidentally) that her mother doesn't do so well in the kitchen. While the ardent feminist in me rejoices in this switch on traditional gender roles -- wasn't his prowess in the kitchen one of the things that attracted me in the first place? -- I envision this inaccuracy perpetuating into the future. "My mother couldn't cook," she'll sigh as she tells her college roommates, "so my Dad did it all." Which is wrong, kiddo. He cooks because he wants to more than I do; it's where his creative needs are met and what calms him down. And yes, dammit, he's a bit better at it.
I cringe when a friend says, "I'm making shrimp paella tonight" while I've planned on steaming turkey hot dogs and half a bag of pre-washed carrots -- not that my daughter would touch pink curly seafood - too slimy, too yucky. I cook, conveniently and quickly: get in, get out is my motto, and don't make too much of a mess while you're there.
When we have dinner parties, my husband does almost all of the cooking; the kind with fresh garlic and sherry and flames, where guests sit around the kitchen counter and chat as he cooks. I stand next to him, boiling water for the kids' mac n cheese. But I do love to bake, from scratch; I've tried at least twelve brownie recipes in search of the perfect one. If it has flour and eggs in it, I do it. Which is why pancakes are not a problem. Despite the frying them up, it's just like baking.
Like an immaculate conception, the desserts show up, the homemade cranberry ice cream, the lemon biscotti with chocolate chunks, but she doesn't witness their creation. I ask if she wants to help -- shall we bake together? -- but I think she sees the kitchen as her father's domain and she'd rather do art projects or have me play piano while she sings. So I bake when she's otherwise occupied, the oven smells and sticky bowls not always as evident as Daddy's cooking -- his frying pans on the stove, sautéed scents lingering in the house long after we've eaten.
We made a chocolate layer cake when she was three, an experience of religious proportions. I guess it was simply the concept that something so sweet and gooey and full of chocolate could be created in her own home. I was a genius in her eyes; we mixed cocoa powder and eggs, the air thick with flour, sandy grains of sugar beneath her bare little feet. And then, later, we melted butter for the frosting, which she spread on the cake with her little plastic toddler knife and helped me glue the layers together, and she decorated the big circular cake sandwich with plastic farm animals who marched in a parade around the cake's rim. I let her lick the spatula. ("Can I lick the bachelor?" my own mother recalls me asking when we baked together when I was little.)
"Remember when you were three?" I ask her the day of the pancake incident. "And we made that chocolate cake?"
I want her to fall back on that culinary moment, how happy we were in the kitchen together, mixing and pouring in our matching blue aprons, chocolate frosting stuck to our chins. I want to run to the scrapbook and find the picture to show her. You must remember this.
We're on vacation with my extended family where a breakfast buffet is served. Miss Picky Eater actually tries the scrambled eggs - they're a sunny shade of yellow and fluffy like clouds. She takes a bite and yells, "Mommy, Mommy!" and my entire family looks up. "Yum," she exclaims. "Does Daddy know how to make these?"
"I can make these," I answer and I smile a huge -- isn't that funny -- grin to the rest of my family. And I vow to reclaim some part of the kitchen.
A deteriorating baggie filled with a squishy purple substance sits in our freezer. It's way past its prime -- over five years -- the cabernet glaze that I made in my pre-motherhood days to serve over the fresh strawberries from our garden. But I won't throw it out. It reminds me that I once stood over a stove, with cabernet, balsamic vinegar brought by friends on their trip to Tuscany, sugar, pepper, and seeds scraped from a vanilla bean simmering in a pot, which I stirred with a wooden spoon, reducing and reducing as it thickened into a sweet peppery sauce.
Tonight we're melting baking chocolate and sweet butter in a double boiler on the stove; her job is simply to stir with that same wooden spoon. Fire excites her. I turn up the flame, her eyes widen with excitement, and I'm hoping to ignite something else entirely.