When I wrote this post awhile back, trying to celebrate home cooks, it resonated with some of you, rubbed some of you the wrong way, but all in all, generated some nice dialogue. Outside of the public comments, some readers emailed me with big questions. Questions about work-life balance, questions about how one manages a full-time non-blog, non-food job and a life of home cooking. Some of you even had questions about my schedule and shopping habits, which were simultaneously flattering in their sincere (and mistaken) belief that I cook every single meal and grow a huge proportion of my diet, and embarrassing in the humble truth of my responses.
My recent college grad sister (congratulations!) related an anecdote to me. She’s at the receiving end of all those post-college let’s-talk-about-real-life speeches, and was recently given one that she found a bit belittling. “The problem with your generation,” the speaker said, “is that they don’t know the value of a day’s hard work. The young people who work for me do their 40 hours and no more. You all want to have a lifestyle.”
The implication, here, of course, is that if you are hardworking, having a “lifestyle” should be impossible. The worker dedicated to his or her cause, presumably, is so dedicated that he or she has no time and no thought for anything else. This is confusing to me in a lot of ways, but not surprising. I’m by no means unfamiliar with the sentiment—or the pressure to seem disinterested in non-work-related topics in order to come across as more “serious” or “dedicated.”
Take this site, for instance. In an organization of 4,000 people, I have one co-worker who knows it exists. I’m not really sure what I’m afraid or ashamed of, but it involves a mixture of this medium feeling too “girly” to be taken seriously—a double whammy of journal-style writing and a focus on “touchy-feely” subjects of community, cooking, and entertaining—and also a lurking worry that it makes me somehow less of a professional to ostensibly spend time on very non-job-related projects. I’m unconvinced that my co-workers and supervisors spend every waking minute in their homes doing work-related activities, but at least they don’t have a website that testifies as much.
My days are long, both because of work and because of personal choices I made in the interest of my begrudged “lifestyle”. When I moved out to the country, I bookended my workday with a 1.5 hour commute, partly for the sake of a garden, the personal pleasure of living in a creaky old house, and to be closer to Ben. I rise before dawn, take the train to the city, work a typically 9-10 hour day, take the train back home, and start all over again the next day. I do arrive earlier than many of my co-workers but I try to leave a little earlier, too, for a particular reason: I like to make it home for dinner, dinner that we near-always cook and dinner that we sit around a table to eat.
By the standards of people like the one who gave the speech my sister heard, my lifestyle is positively hedonistic, I suppose. (And by his definition, if I were more seriously dedicated to my organization’s cause, I would probably live in a windowless studio and eat frozen fish fingers for dinner, so distracted by the work ahead of me.) I’m a bit frightened by the prospect of a world where being a professional and having a home-cooked dinner are incongruous, or at the very least, considered a lifestyle luxury.
In her incredible recent article for The Atlantic (long, but everyone should read it), Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University who served as the director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011, relates how many women professionals she knows invent neutral-sounding reasons for going home to family dinner, afraid of seeming unprofessional if they reveal where they’re spending time from 6-8 PM. She decides to change this when she becomes the first woman dean of Princeton’s school of foreign policy, being explicit about her family commitments with colleagues and telling students she was unavailable for certain hours in the evenings because of family dinner. Some of her co-workers protested:
“You have to stop talking about your kids,” one said. “You are not showing the gravitas that people expect from a dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school.”
Slaughter’s article is about women and their place as professionals, but in terms of cooking and table, it’s an issue for all of us. Weeknight cooking is urgently needed in our society, and we know this—more and more studies remind us what we intuitively know, that sitting down to dinner makes us happier, healthier, and sometimes even makes kids smarter—but the stereotype of cooking and eating well as either a dated domestic task for non-professionals or as an upper-middle-class fetish persists.
Those conversations that I had with readers following the “Home cooks, high fives” post reinforced this unease. Some of you called me out: the recipes I frequently post here don’t necessarily reflect the way I eat, every day, when I arrive home just needing to get some good, filling food on the table. Food blogs, photography, and writing tend to highlight the unusual, the unique, the quaint, and the momentous. I love and celebrate all these things too, but perhaps it is time to document the everyday.
“Weeknights at the Yellow House” is a little book I put together to put my money where my mouth is. It’s an actual week of dinners Ben and I cooked and ate. I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what I was trying to prove. I didn’t plan. The dinners don’t conform to a typical idea of a healthy or balanced meal (although to me they are).
Mostly it’s meant to show that daily home cooking is shaped by a lot of constraints, but that doesn’t mean we should be discouraged. I have no illusions that my schedule is the tightest or that my lifestyle is the most fast-paced—I’m guessing those distinctions would go to those of you with kids. Still, still. I think we can do it. I think we have the power to cook seasonally and practically; to eat ethically but not extravagantly; to sit down to dinner with our loved ones or by oneself for a little bit, without sacrificing our credibility or our pocketbooks. This is cooking at its barest and most rough-edged, but also cooking at its most rewarding.
– If you don’t like reading the page-turning format of this booklet, you can download it as a PDF if you click here and then click the “Download Publication” icon in the menu bar at the bottom of the reader.
– I should admit that these dinners are from a few weeks ago, so they’re possibly no longer perfectly “seasonal” if you’re in the mid-Atlantic area.