Dear Mom: Teach Him How to Cook, Not Me

BY EMELY VARGAS

I finally understand why my brother David, a male growing up in a Hispanic family that frequently practices stereotypical gender roles, would voluntarily take the chance of burning rice, undercooking chicken, and hearing all the criticism that comes with using a pan.

Our mother has her own little house within our house. You know the room: it’s the one you go into looking for a “midnight snack” at 3 AM. The one with the microwave. Your mom is probably in there a lot too… Yes, the kitchen! The lady seems to live in there. For as long as I can remember, she has been cooking elaborate meals everyday regardless of what else she may have to do. And, on top of that, she has been selling cakes and flan and piña collada and so much more as a small source of income to help pay for our education. She bakes so much that by now David and I should be able to identify the exact tones of every speed level of the KitchenAid mixer and direct you around our nearest Jetro, the wholesale food supplier that facilitates the butter and egg raid in my refrigerator every few weeks.

I’d probably be filthy rich if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I know how to cook like my mom. David, on the other hand, would be broke. Not only am I expected to be the next cook, but I also have to be a great one just like my momma. Unfortunately for my family’s expectations though, I tend to be that drop of oil in a family made of water. And so no, I don’t cook well. Actually, I don’t cook at all.  David, however, does.

As for many food lovers in my generation, Food Network was what first sparked David’s interest in the food industry. There were always so many chefs tossing this and turning that—he was bound to be interested at some point if he watched enough. However, the Network was never really his teacher. Most of what he watched the chefs prepare seemed unrealistic for him to make. Why? Well, most of the chefs were white and worked in either charming or unrealistically shiny kitchens that looked nothing like the one in our house. They had pantries full of countless spices, when all we really knew was Adobo, a staple Hispanic seasoning. And where was he supposed to get all that fresh produce from anyways? Certainly not in Corona, Queens, a neighborhood flooded in the greasy fries and frozen patties of fast-food restaurants. Despite this, had he been watching Julia Child, a celebrity chef with a more home-y feel, instead of Emeril Lagasse, who you might know for his excessive use of the word bam, would he then have tried experimenting with recipes? I honestly don’t know, but I’m inclined to believe that he probably would have at least been more inspired by the screen if he saw, as Michael Pollan once mentioned, “Child less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right.”[1] Instead, the inaccessible meals of Food Network had David interested but ultimately turning to what he saw cooked at home, the only food either of us really knew—Dominican food.

Our Dominican food was one of the few things that kept us, born and raised in New York but of and by immigrant parents, connected to our culture. What says, “I’m Dominican” more than a few tostones or a plate of arroz con habichuela y pollo guisado? Not much else. David isn’t a huge lover of all the sauces and spices traditionally used in our cuisine though, so he is constantly experimenting further. Instead of filling a pastelito with our staple cheese, he fills it with Nutella or pomegranate, or both. My father may not love this movement away from the traditional, but he accepts that David is just trying to understand his position as a Dominican and an America. Sometimes, though, I admit that David goes a little overboard. He once forced my entire family to eat his mashed potatoes, green beans, and turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t cooked poorly—it was actually pretty good—but no one in my family really wanted to eat such a “white” meal on such a special day. In fact, my little cousin tried reinforcing this thought later in the night: she made sure to inform everyone in the house that she felt sick after dinner, and she didn’t forget to stress the fact that David had cooked the meal. To this day, we still torment him about this if he mentions cooking for a special occasion.

In David’s defense, he’s never actually been taught how to cook—not even by my mom. If he’s taking too long peeling a plantain, she’ll say, “You’ve seen me do this a thousand times,” but she still won’t teach him how to do it. Me, however, she’ll pull out of the bedroom to show how to make her famous goat recipe, convincing herself that I care about the stinky goat. She’ll never admit to any of this pressure she puts on me, though. Sure, she’s an old-school Dominican who practices these stereotypes, but she’s not ignorant. She understands that these gender roles aren’t necessarily constructive or beneficial. David and I frequently discuss, however, that this was simply how she was raised and all she knew most of her life. Even though she knows David might benefit more from being taught how to make that goat because he likes to cook, she is still inherently more inclined to teach me because I am her daughter.

David is very well aware that gendered pressures to cook still exist, although he doesn’t experience any of it. Frankly, most people probably know it exists worldwide, they just don’t try to do anything about it. At least among many in my family there’s this ignorant mentality, that it is what it is, so why fight it? But this isn’t how David thinks. Not anymore. And so to Bowdoin College—David’s soon to be alma mater and an institution recognized for its liberal ideals—do I owe many thank you’s. Thank you for teaching David that these gender roles shouldn’t be accepted. Thank you for teaching David that it is OK to be a man who enjoys cooking. Thank you for teaching David that making food—even bad food—takes time and effort.

Quite incredibly, Bowdoin has taught him all this, and he barely even cooks there. The College is ranked very highly for its dining hall food, so students rarely take the time to cook when they have healthy, tasty options at their fingertips. And although a majority of the student body is white (a very common characteristic of top-performing higher education institutions in America), unlike dining halls at many colleges, Bowdoin frequently tries to include foods ranging across cultures, which has opened David’s taste buds beyond Dominican food. Opening up to the “very college” culture of vegetarianism and veganism, he has been introduced to a more regular vegetable consumption, which has almost turned him into a vegetarian—an absurdity in our culture. It seems that making things like buffalo chickpeas instead of buffalo chicken—which, I’ll take his word for, taste good—can really change a man. Many of the men in our family probably wouldn’t view this love for veggies as a positive effect, however. David’s been teased for sitting with a plate of rice and salad when there were plenty of meat options for us omnivores to devour. So if he were ever to truly convert to vegetarianism, he would never hear the end of it. And let’s not even try thinking about the judgment he would receive if he chose to go vegan.

Sometime throughout this entire process of understanding the implications of the cooking and eating in our culture, David decided that he would like to eventually open a restaurant. Although the idea is still hypothetical, his biggest excitement comes in finally giving my mother the opportunity to work in a real food business, something she’s dreamt of for years. Slightly unlike her usual cuisine though, it is intended to be healthy and vegetarian, to push against the idea that to eat well you must eat meat. It will be influenced by more than just Dominican culture, since he’s been exposed to foods from so many wonderful cultures already. And, oddly enough, David’s restaurant will cater specifically to younger students in our neighborhood after school. He will try to convince those kids that there isn’t broccoli in the smoothie they’re drinking, a goal for which I wish him much luck. Someway, somehow, he also intends to follow our mom’s commitment to making everything from scratch. To some, this sounds unbelievable. However, David’s never understood the fascination that comes with making meals from scratch. To him, “that’s just how you cook.” Anyways, he loves the power it gives him over ingredients, allowing him to manipulate the taste and healthiness of meals. So how will he feed children healthy delicious food in a low-income community run by the dollar menu? I don’t know. The only reasoning he has so far is that fresh vegetables are cheaper than fresh meat. So basically, most of this dream relies heavily on hope and luck.

David is going to read this text and, frankly, he probably won’t be thrilled—I probably glorify him and analyze all of his food views more than he expects, but as much as he deserves.  In order to understand David’s relationship with food and the kitchen fully,I had to think about articles like Pilar Guzman’s “Hey, Man, What’s for Dinner?,” which discusses the implications that come with being a man in the kitchen.[2] And in doing so, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that David has never looked for praise. Perhaps by now you’re thinking, “You’re his sister, you’re biased,” or something like that. Well, you’re right. But, let’s think. He didn’t learn how to cook with the intention to impress or even to feed himself. He learned to cook to understand the pressure I was growing up with; to understand why our grandmother and mother worked tirelessly in the kitchen; why our women in society are so obviously expected to forever do something that men are praised for just attempting.

Our dad can’t cook. He has set off countless fire alarms just trying to warm up leftovers. On any given day, our mom will walk into our room to show us a bouquet of flowers she’s made out of fondant or a dessert she’s invented from scratch. Her face glows as she showcases her work because it is her passion. Her skills still frequently amaze us, her children and her husband. I should gain those skills; I should learn how to bake a cake like her and cook that goat, and do so much more that she does perfectly. “You better learn,” so many family members say to me, “because who else is going to do it when she’s gone?” Everyone seems to forget that David, too, is her child and is equally capable and more willing than I am to learn how to bake a damn cake.

Main Image: My brother, David. Photo Credit: Emely Vargas.

Notes

[1] Pollan, “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.”

[2] Guzman, “Hey, Man, What’s for Dinner?”

Bibliography

Guzman, Pilar. “Hey, Man, What’s for Dinner?” The New York Times. August 28, 2002.

Pollan, Michael. “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.” The New York Times. July 29, 2009.