BY ZOË WOHLGENANT
My mother believes that dinnertime is sacred. She insists that we keep phones, grumpiness, and distractions away from the sanctuary of the dinner table. When I recently inquired about her firm ideology on the sanctity of the evening meal, I learned that my mother had not always felt so strongly about meals, food, or cooking. On the contrary, her relationship to food and cooking changed dramatically over her lifetime. Through our conversation I discovered that although my mother’s relationship to food and cooking initially appeared to be defined primarily her family’s culinary traditions, it was more directly sculpted by the people, events, and cultural trends she intimately encountered throughout her life.
My mother, Annie Van Dusen, grew up in a household of eight. One might imagine that with so many attendees, a Van Dusen family dinner would be a rowdy affair. But in reality, mealtimes were tense occasions. Dinner began with grace delivered by my grandfather, David, a towering, broad-chested figure with a deep, resonant, minister’s voice. David’s serious prayer set the tone for the rest of the meal. Dinner was no time for socializing, and the family rarely acknowledged or appreciated a meal’s taste or quality.
Truthfully, meals were rarely gourmet—my mother recalls eating more than her fair share of Hamburger Helpers. When she was growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s, convenience foods were frequently used and “glamourized” in middle class households. Food magazines, advertisers, and experts insisted that with a little innovation premade meals could capture the aura of “luxury and sophistication.” But this trend never crossed the threshold into the Van Dusen household. “I don’t recall my mom ever ‘doctoring’ up any meals,” my mother explained. “There were a lot of us, so many of our meals came from a box and were supplemented with easy side-dishes.” Pre-made meals, usually prepared by the nanny, only required a few minutes in the oven, and were a staple in the home. It is hard to imagine my mother, who preaches the virtues of high quality, fresh ingredients, enjoying a box-made meal or a heavy, creamy casserole. When I ask if she liked the food, my mother laughs. Of course not, she says, but she never complained. Her father insisted that everyone finish their meals, regardless of whether or not they liked the food.
David Van Dusen exercised absolute power during dinner. He controlled exactly when, what, and how much everyone ate. At his most extreme, David would entwine dinner with body image: There was an unspoken expectation that the women at the table should eat (and restrain from eating) to maintain a feminine figure. My mother shakes her head, explaining that her father prescribed a very specific diet and monitored dinner portions for her two stepsisters, who struggled with weight loss. His demeanor was intimidating, remembers my mother, who recalls sneaking scoops of ice cream when her father was not around.
My mother’s narrative reveals that her first meals were male-centric events, matching the era’s social expectations that put men at the center of home cooking. The domestic ideology during my mother’s childhood required that women express their love for their husbands and children by being dedicated housewives and cooks. But it was an ideology that my mother vowed to never oblige. She forcefully asserts, “By high school, I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen, away from the conversation.”
At the age of 17, my mother left home and got a job as a cook’s helper at a hunting camp in northern Wyoming. Her familial experiences with food and cooking had defined mealtimes as loveless, tense affairs. The lack of appreciation for food, cooking, or the cook in her childhood kitchen conflicted with long-standing cultural norms, which equated cooking to a woman’s love for her family. Food historian Jessamyn Neuhaus illustrates this assumption with a quotation from the author of a popular late-20th century cookbook, who writes, “The love of a wife and mother tangibly expresses itself in the care, variety, and imagination which she brings to cooking her family’s meals.” Without this “typical” experience, my mother perceived cooking as a loveless, thankless task. But at the Wyoming hunting camp the idea of cooking my mother had inherited from her parents was called into question.
I watch my mother’s brow soften and her gaze adopt a wistful sentimentality as she sinks into her memory of the Wyoming camp. After a brief, nostalgic silence, she begins to relate her story: “Her name was Ginger. She was beautiful, and fairly young, maybe in her late twenties.” My mom remembers the hunting camp’s head cook fondly, with clear admiration. “Ginger could cook anything. Whatever the guys brought back from a hunting trip, that’s what we ate, and it pretty much always tasted good.” Under Ginger’s guidance, my mom was introduced to cooking as a challenge to overcome. Cooking at the hunting camp was still male-centric—my mother and Ginger were, after all, charged with the task of feeding dozens of hungry men—but it was rewarding. The men were appreciative of Ginger’s effort and there was a greater emphasis on pleasurable taste. It was the first time my mother ever found satisfaction in cooking: “It was sort of empowering to improvise a meal from the last scraps of an elk. You had to be innovative.”
The idea that cooking could be a creative and challenging task had been perpetuated for several decades before my mother was exposed to Ginger’s philosophy. My mother grew up during a time when society expected her to graduate from college, pursue a challenging career, and engage in intellectual life as much as any man. But society’s acceptance of women as intellectuals did not relieve them of their duties in the kitchen. Instead, educated women supposedly had more reason to enjoy cooking: Food historian Laura Shapiro notes, “Creativity was how women trained in political science or ancient Greek could find satisfaction in housework.” Convenience foods advertisers, for example, targeted the “modern woman” through the end of the 20th century by emphasizing the artistic potential of their products. They insisted that by offering cooking shortcuts, their products enabled women to invest their creative energies in finding innovative ways to make canned or boxed meals “gourmet”.
After a few months of working at the hunting camp, my mother enrolled in college, where her relationship with cooking was transformed once more. In college, especially when living off campus, my mother was exposed to new ideas and attitudes about cooking by her roommates and friends. She remembers one friend’s cooking particularly well: “Amy grew up in Ethiopia, and I remember she’d spend days looking for a particular kind of bread or Berbere [a traditional Ethiopian spice],” my mother recalled. “Then she’d make this big, elaborate meal, and we’d have all our friends over to eat it. Those were special dinners.” Amy’s dedication to finding the right ingredients, and her investment of hours of preparation, cooking, and cleaning time, was my mom’s first exposure to deep appreciation for food.
My mother adopted Amy’s appreciation for ingredients and social meals when she graduated from college. Eventually, she and her new husband moved to San Francisco. Many of their friends had also settled in the Bay Area and my mother remembers this era as an age of fun evening get-togethers—her first dinner parties. By this time, through her experiences at the hunting camp and in college, my mother had redefined dinner as social affairs. Living and cooking in California in the mid 80s further influenced what and how she cooked and ate.
California’s unique food culture molded my mother’s relationship to cooking, especially when it came to what raw materials she was cooking with. Fifteen years before she and my father settled in San Francisco, a paradigm shift in American cuisine created a new genre of food. In 1971, chef and foodie Alice Waters opened her first restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Inspired by French cooking, Waters emphasized fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. She believed that the highest quality ingredients made the most delicious meals. Furthermore, Waters argued that simple meals with few ingredients and spices showcased foods’ naturally pleasing flavors. Over the next decades, Chez Panisse and Water’s food philosophy changed the foodscape of California, where farmers’ markets soon became ubiquitous.
Whether or not my mother attributed the shift in her eating, shopping, and cooking habits to this greater cultural trend, she did notice the change. “For those dinner parties we’d spend a day or more prepping and cooking, not to mention planning and shopping. But it was worth it—the food was healthy and really, really fresh. And everyone was super appreciative of the meals we’d put together,” she recalled. The meals she and my father cooked, requiring few, but high quality ingredients, contrasted with the convenience meals she knew from her childhood, or the large, heavy dishes she’d consumed at the hunting camp and in college.
With respect to cooking, my parents did not abide by cultural expectations of gender in the early years of their marriage. My mother emphasizes that she and my father shared cooking tasks, including planning, shopping, and clean up. Their sharing of responsibilities contradicted societal expectations, which still assumed that women, working or not, were cooking for their husbands.
But my mother admits that after having kids, she submitted to the gender roles she had sworn to avoid. She succumbed to the cultural pressures that assumed that mothers and wives should be primarily responsible for food planning, preparation, cooking, and cleanup—Assumptions that harkened back to the Victorian era and had been enmeshed in American culture as domestic ideology and gender norms. This was a truth I had seen for myself: Although my father did the majority of the food shopping, it was my mother who planned and prepared most meals. My father’s involvement in cooking was always carefully directed by my mother, who gave him (her “sous chef,” as she fondly called him) tasks ranging from mincing to sautéing to grilling.
Once in a while, my father does take charge in the kitchen. In these instances, the praise he receives is overblown. As his daughter, I applaud my father’s dinners, expressing more gratitude for his occasional dishes than for my mother’s nightly efforts. My behavior reinforces traditional gender roles by praising male cooks for defying social norms and ignoring the efforts of women who habitually cook. New York Times journalist Pilar Guzman observed this trend in 2002, writing that “artful praise… seems to be keeping some men in the kitchen as surely as tradition used to bind women to the stove.”
It took a few minutes of reflection for my mother to define her relationship to food and cooking today. After a moment she remarked, “I think bits of my ideas about food are still rooted in my childhood. Especially with dieting and body image. But overall, I’d say that my relationship to food and cooking is much healthier than my parents’. I learned about food more from my friends than my parents.” I think my mother is mostly right. Her complicated relationship with body image likely began with her father’s emotionally abusive interactions with my mother’s two stepsisters. But in other respects, her relationship with cooking metamorphosed from her parents’ traditions into something different altogether. Now, eating and cooking is a social affair. Dinner is time for conversation and debate. Cooking can be rewarding if it is creative and appreciated. These are philosophies she gained during her time in Wyoming and college, learned from people she encountered and experiences she had. Cultural trends influenced her, too. My family’s dinner always features fresh, seasonal ingredients, and I was taught to enjoy healthy eating. My mother embraced such healthy-minded ideals 30 years ago while living during the fresh food revolution in California. My mother’s ideas about food and cooking, originally rooted in her own families’ dinnertime tradition, were molded and modified by people, places, and cultural trends she encountered throughout her life.
 Shapiro, Laura, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (New York: Viking, 2004), 66.
 Belasco, Warren James, Food: The Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 3.
 Neuhaus, Jessamyn, quoting Carol Traux in Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 229.
 Shapiro, 64.
 Ibid., 65.
 Shapiro, 250-251.
 Neuhaus, 264.
 Guzman, Pilar. “Hey, Man, What’s For Dinner?” The New York Times, August 28, 2002.
Photograph: Wyoming landscape from Wild Exposures Gallery, Artist anon. http://www.wildexposuresgallery.com/