A story about women, cooking, and emotional deprivation
In my childhood home the kitchen was forbidden. What went on in there to create food was somewhat of a mystery to me. I was aware that pots and pans were involved and that our gas igniter didn’t work, so you had to stick your head inside the oven and light it from the back – but apart from that I wasn’t quite sure how food was born. Unfortunately learning by observation was out of the question; I love my Mum, but this was during a tense time in our lives. Stepping towards the stovetop around dinnertime would often be met with the phrase ‘get the hell out of my kitchen’. Opportunities for creative expression – cooking or otherwise – were thin on the ground. I felt a critical voice in my ear at all times. If I failed, I wanted the space to hide it. This, I realised, would need to be a covert operation.
I waited until the morning of grocery shopping day to fake a bout of sudden, debilitating stomach pains. After a moment of consideration in which I’m sure my age and maturity level were calculated and weighed against an estimated return time, I was allowed to stay behind. Fools! I thought, as the rest of my family piled into the car. The clear choice was chocolate cake. I pulled the recipe from a cookbook that was usually taken down from its place in the cupboard to make tuna pie. Like most eleven-year-olds I had eaten my share of uncooked cake batter off wooden spoons and electric beaters. These batters, however, had mostly been from packet mixes. There was a White Wings box in the cupboard, but I hadn’t faked intestinal cramps for nothing. I was going to make something from scratch.
I had been told numerous times that cooking from scratch was the absolute worst. It took forever, was messy, and your hair would fall out and your kneecaps would explode. I’m pretty sure I picked up some of these misconceptions from advertisements where harassed, busy working mothers are consumed with guilt for not getting the mum thing right, and their husbands can’t help them because, duh, they’re husbands and cooking is for girls. Plenty of women I knew growing up had internalised these messages and embraced food in packets because it simplified their list of things to do. The idea of making a recipe from scratch intrigued me because I was constantly being told I couldn’t do it. And I was pretty sure that I could.
Having said that, I was very aware that I was breaking the rules. I was in the kitchen, and I wasn’t just eating peanut butter directly from the jar this time. Even as I excitedly combined the wet with the dry I felt very nervous about being there. I spent most of my childhood shut in my room. Frankly, the rest of the house felt a little foreign. While I had to admit that this cooking thing was pretty fantastic, I was constantly listening for tyres on the driveway. I was convinced that if I heard a key in the lock my whole project would collapse in the middle and nothing would ever be good again. Miraculously, I was still alone when I slid the knife around the edge of the tin and set the cake on the cooling rack. It was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen, and I’d made it. Me.
Now, as an adult, when I bake I’m inclined to criticise the result: ‘I could have cooked it a little longer’ or ‘it’s dry’ and, my favourite, ‘this is usually much better’ are in regular rotation. But no sir, not on this day. I was too frigging pleased with myself for that noise.
Astronomer Carl Sagan famously said ‘If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe’. Thankfully the universe had already come into being by the time I got to the kitchen, but the essence of this quote works for building self-esteem too. If you wish to be proud of your achievements, you must first accept that you are not a worthless sack of shit. Yeah, that works. I was proud – terrified of the mess I’d made and paranoid that my efforts would result in punishment – but proud all the same.
Without proper context my anxiety about this seems extreme. Things at home were reliably dysfunctional; our blended family was not like the Brady Bunch, and at the risk of telling stories that are not solely mine to tell, the pool of DNA from which I have been moulded holds about as much repression and abuse as it does genetic material. We love each other, but not so much that we refrain from playing pass the parcel with our emotional problems.
Jumping back to Jenna circa-1999 in the forbidden kitchen: I was next-level terrified because I strongly associated this section of the house with my mother, and – if I can get symbolic with you – my mother’s love. If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then in childhood I felt I was being denied the heart of my mother. Although I doubt I would have conceived of it so plainly at the time, I think the underlying thought process was: If you get this right, if you can impress her, then everything will be fine. Oh, and if you mess it up everything will be fucked forever, no big deal. It was a textbook desire for approval, one that would later move on to attention seeking; a goal I half-heartedly pushed for when I didn’t get what I was after, culminating in the graffiti of the school toilets which earned the paraphrased response: ‘go to your room, I guess’.
At the time my mum hated cooking, a feeling I can sympathise with. As wife, she had been tasked with the bulk of the domestic chores at little discussion. She resented it, and as a result didn’t particularly enjoy doing it; a big no-no for the Successful Woman you see portrayed in advertisements, movies, TV and literature. The Successful Woman enjoys feeding her family, is euphoric about it. The reason I think I may have gravitated towards the kitchen as the place for my rule breaking was the desire not only to prove myself, but to also say: I do this better than you. A middle finger of sorts to the rejection and indifference I had experienced in the past, coupled with a blind acceptance of The Successful Woman as the ultimate goal. While other parts of me questioned expectations of femininity, female competitiveness (only being worthy in comparison to other women – even my own mother), was firmly planted in my psyche as necessary. What I’m describing here is messy, but to complicate things further I was essentially baking this cake for her, and inside it was the pleading question: do you love me now?
Underlying motivations aside, the accomplishment itself felt worthwhile. Excluding experiments in fail-baking, it’s the feeling I still get when I turn Things into Food. These days it’s not tethered to a desire to please someone else (though it’s nice when it does) or to satiate a culture that puts my gender in the role of homemaker (but I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that the task breaks no barriers). I could easily feel this way about anything else that involves turning a bunch of separate components into something useful. Making something – anything – can create a period of tunnel vision in which other stuff just matters less.
Of course, I wasn’t really there yet. Panicky and clammy-handed I waited for the car to pull up. I attempted to fake a ‘just out of the oven’ moment with the cake out on the counter, oven mitt laid down beside it. The kitchen was clean, and I was having heart palpitations. Lugging grocery bags with them, my mum, then-step-dad, and siblings filed into the house…
I wasn’t punished, I was praised – and highly; a success that was both confusing and not enough. On another occasion when I’d broken the rules my mother said, ‘I didn’t think you had it in you’. This instance was rather more positive than the other, and yet it felt the same; I was without something. Psychologically speaking, an externalised sense of self-worth forms foundation on which all actions are based. It says: tell me I’m good on the inside. It’s a difficult mode to get out of, primarily because other people cannot give you what you want. I’d made a cake from scratch – well done to me – but the rush was temporary.
So it wasn’t quite the healing moment my soul needed – that came later. The cake didn’t change anything, because that’s not what cakes are for. Inherited emotional issues are not solved in an afternoon, and even if I had laid a hand on my mother’s shoulder and said, ‘We’re all the victims of victims. Please get a divorce,’ I don’t think my sage advice would have been met with an open reception. Generally speaking, adults do not like to take advice from children, and I didn’t have the language to express what I was feeling. I just wanted to bake a cake and feel her pride wash over me.
Image: Alan Levine
Jenna works in arts administration in Melbourne. Her work has appeared in Text Journal and Voiceworks magazine. She blogs about what’s making her happy at jennasten.wordpress.com. She looks a lot like her mother.