March 22, 2013

I am old enough to have attended something called junior high school, a place that no longer exists. But back in the day, girls were expected to take a course called home economics, while boys studied industrial arts.

My mother, a young feminist, refused to let me take home ec, though I don’t recall taking industrial arts, either. She wanted to be sure that my life was not circumscribed by stereotype. So while my girlfriends learned how to operate sewing machines, do needlepoint and manage a kitchen, I did something else.

I am grateful for my mother’s vision of a paradigm shift. I wound up with a degree in math and a career as a writer. Unfortunately, though, I seem to have missed a few crucial elements that might have made me better-suited to the other part of my life, one that has featured raising six children, running a house and trying to engage my inner earth mother.

I don’t think I want to have it all so much as I want to be and do it all. Like every woman I know, I play countless roles for many people: mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend and colleague (and, sometimes, nemesis). I’ve acquired a few skills and hobbies along the way: I can sing and dance, write and read, knit and box and swim. Despite these accomplishments, however, there are so many areas in which I come up short — housekeeping and cooking among them.

This may seem trivial until you reflect on how much energy and emotion we invest in our homes. We find shelter, love, nourishment and comfort here, and providing these seems to equate with our expectations of being a “good” wife or mother. And so, periodically, when I feel I’m coming up short in this arena, I test myself in my personal ring of fire: my kitchen.

This go-round, it all started with “Downton Abbey” cook Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, her assistant, and the way they whip around the kitchen and keep so many mouths fed. Much as I’d like to see myself in someone like Lady Edith or Lady Mary, the fact of the matter is, I identify with Mrs. Patmore. In her, I see something of my own heritage: an Irish great-grandmother who worked for years as a cook at Smith College. I have her cookbook and her order book, and every once in a while, I look at both, wondering if I could translate the recipes into something palatable for my children and admiring the chronicle of a different time.

With all of this on the back burner of my subconscious mind, a recent issue of Family Circle magazine attracted my eye, with photos of soups and casseroles just right for winter. I wanted to try the roast beet and vegetable salad, which promised good nutrition and comfort. With my 11-year-old in tow, I ventured into the local market, where the greengrocer did not, thankfully, laugh when I had to ask him to identify ingredients for me. I’d heard of parsnips, but what did they look like? Bulgur? Farro? Wrong section.

Home again, I kept my iPad close at hand while I Googled information about preparing said vegetables. What, exactly, does one do with a bunch of beets? I called my mother, who cautioned me against getting their red juice all over the kitchen. A few hours later, dish in hand, I greeted my husband with dinner on the table.

Never a diplomat, when asked how he liked the meal, he replied, “It’s not one of your best efforts.” He chopped up a raw onion, tossed it on top of the beets and said that helped give them flavor. Not to be deterred, I set aside a container for my mother. Her verdict? “Well, I stirred in some squash, and that helped.”

Did I mention that I am stubborn? A week later, I rounded up the ingredients again, this time adding in some garlic, ginger, curry and cumin. My foodie friends take this approach to spicing things up; I figured it couldn’t make things worse. I was home with a sick child (who, despite not feeling well, requested brownies). Channeling Mrs. Patmore, I whipped up a batch of those, too.

The counter was stained beet-red, the stovetop was a-sizzle with boiling farro and bulgur, and the sink overflowed with pots and pans. My great-grandmother would approve. And though no one else seems to admire my efforts much, I get some satisfaction — a product, a meal, a memory. Who knows what today will bring? There’s a butternut squash in the cupboard, calling my name.