Category Archives: Family

Why Old Women Make the Best Cooks

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and my office shut down, and everyone was scared to go outside, when a vaccine hadn’t been discovered yet and the retail shops and restaurants all had closed — with one diner and two coffeehouses in my neighborhood now permanently shuttered — I had no choice but to cook. I had to feed my family. I had to keep myself occupied, “busy” being my default way to cope.

Cooking became a way to exert control in a world that, overnight, morphed into a Twilight Zone episode. While other people drank more alcohol or gained 30 pounds or drove their pickups and SUVs faster, I knit scarves for friends and family members, discovered new streaming services. And cooked.

Red lentil soup from a Beth Dooley recipe in the “Taste” section of my local newspaper, a consistently reliable source of recipes. Sweet potato-apple stew from the New York Times cooking app (the most creative bottom line–builder a national news organization has discovered). Chicken wild rice soup from an amalgamation of recipes in a 20-year-old cookbook that parents at Greenvale Elementary School compiled and sold as a fundraiser when my younger son was there.

Now, as we face down the third or fourth variant in the third or fourth year of COVID-19, bars and restaurants are open again. Coffeehouses are crowded. And I am still cooking, this time because inflation has me earning less in real dollars than I have in years.

Although I have two dozen cookbooks, a recipe box with index cards from the 1980s, a drawer full of torn out recipes that I swear I’ll sort one day and that veritable New York Times cooking app, well worth the $40 annual fee, I turn most often to the white, three-ring notebook that I began assembling during those first weeks of the pandemic.

At 65, I am creating a newfangled version of an old-fashioned cookbook and finally teaching myself — trusting myself — to cook.

Cooking is an act of showing up in the world, of caring for ourselves and for others.

Beth Dooley, The Perennial Kitchen

My younger son has grown up to be body conscious, like I am — particular and intentional about what he eats. My older son, a weightlifter, seems perpetually pleased to be offered food. “Are you hungry?” has become my default greeting when he stops by.

Cooking and baking are gifts, meant to be shared. I keep homemade muffins on hand during the winter so I can thank the neighbor across the street when he clears our driveway with his snowblower. I dropped off a package of bars to the neighbor behind us as a small “thank you” for hosting a backyard gathering with homemade carrot cake, complete with sugared carrot shavings, to celebrate my 65th birthday on July 4. When I make beef stew in the crockpot with extra vegetables and more seitan than stew meat, I always package up a big serving for my younger son.

My neighbor Martha McCartney made my favorite carrot cake, complete with sugared carrot shavings, to help me celebrate turning 65.

My father was an attorney, and I remember my mother hosting dinner parties for his clients, “back when lawyers couldn’t advertise,” she liked to say. Beef stroganoff and duck with orange sauce were two favorite entrées. We kids would gather at the top of the stairs and sometimes sneak down for treats: bowls of salted mixed nuts, relish trays with olives and sliced radishes and tiny pickles, strawberry sauce made with berries from my father’s garden served over cheese blintzes from the Lincoln Del.

Those are happy memories, tinged with nostalgia and regret, from the years before my parents’ marriage fell apart in the early 1970s. My mother lost interest in being either a wife or a housewife and quit cooking, deeming it — incorrectly, I believe — as one of the societal norms oppressing women. I was a teenager then, living at home, and still wince at her embrace of Hamburger Helper, Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail and other convenience foods marketed as liberation, in keeping with the times.

The Betty Crocker Cookbook was first published in 1950 and has sold more than 75 million copies.

If you can read, you can cook, the saying goes. And that’s how I started:

  • Reading recipes, especially in the venerable Betty Crocker Cookbook.
  • Following directions on packages of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
  • Gingerly using spices, based on whether I liked their smell.

Eventually I became a mother, in my early 30s, and had to learn to cook for kids. I dubbed myself a “housewife cook” back in those busy, money-conscious years — fully invested in my career but anxious also to be a Mom. Relying on advice from the likes of Working Mother magazine, I hid shredded carrots in spaghetti for extra nutrition, engaged the boys at my elbow when I baked banana muffins so they would be invested in the outcome, made grilled cheese sandwiches in a specially coated pan so the bread would turn a perfect golden brown.

Being a housewife cook means making do with what’s on hand, experimenting with ingredients that might go together, never creating a dish the same way twice. It’s the “no-recipe recipes” now made famous by Sam Sifton in New York Times Cooking, encouraging people “to improvise in the kitchen” and be less bound to precisely written recipes.

Leave it to a man to monetize a practice that women have been engaging in for years. “My grandmother, like many of her generation, was famous for the pseudo-recipe, a little of this, maybe some of that,” explains my sister-in-law Nicole, herself an accomplished cook. “Even the handwritten cards are near impossible to use to replicate anything without trial and error.”

That’s why old women make the best cooks — and conversationalists. Time has taught us the value of being fearless.

Cook a recipe once and you’re playing a cover song. Cook it four or five times, though, and you’re playing a new arrangement.

Sam Sifton, New York Times

As an old woman now myself, I’ve learned that experimentation in the kitchen is often worth the risk, and way cheaper than eating in restaurants. You put apples in the steel cut oatmeal because you need to use them up or chopped kale in the wild rice soup to justify the butter and whole milk that render it creamy and delicious. Preparing an egg dish for Sunday brunch means reviewing a recipe and the contents of the fridge, and then vamping. No cottage cheese on hand? Try ricotta, and it works!

That’s why I am creating my three-ring-binder cookbook, with printed recipes in plastic sleeves, to capture the improvisations that have made recipes my own. Even so, I leave room to write notes for ongoing adjustments and adaptations, much like The Best of Byerly’s cookbook full of neat, penciled notations I found at a library sale. That the Byerly’s cookbook is now online is more convenient, but a digital version will never tell me that Parmesan Dijon Chicken is “easy” and “very good” or that the cayenne pepper in the Shrimp Creole should be cut back.

“I don’t consider cookbooks as static things,” said a reader recently in an online discussion in Carolyn Hax’s intelligent advice column in the Washington Post. “In my mind they are meant to be notated, spilled on, dog eared.”

Every cookbook I own tells a story of relationships that influence my cooking: who passed it on or gave it to me as a gift.

When I asked my siblings about their own use of recipes, my sister Debbie pointed me toward a piece in The Atlantic sharply critical of Sam Sifton’s “no-recipe recipes” trend. In “When Did Following Recipes Become a Personal Failure,” from April 2021, writer Laura Shapiro claims that Sifton’s call to “make the act of cooking fun” recreates the Happy Housewife stereotype that duped middle-class white women of my mother’s era.

Sure, I can call myself a “housewife” cook because I never was a housewife. But I can enjoy the creativity and selflessness of putting together meals in my kitchen not only because I want to eat good tasting, healthful food but because I want others to enjoy it, too. Nothing about that threatens the feminist or careerist mindsets that have defined me.

I like the efficiency of managing a kitchen. Cooking, grocery shopping, putting my hands in sudsy water make me feel safe, make my life feel ordered, help me stay on top of the chaos that COVID and rising crime rates and visible climate change induce. Cooking and sharing food connects me with generations of women — my stepmother, Dorothy, my Aunt Mary, my sister-in-law Peggy, all of them gone — who cooked for me and my family, who opened their kitchens in all their messy, miraculous, sometimes maddening glory. And who, in the process, showed me their humanity. And their heart.

What ‘Merry Christmas’ can really mean

Every year, for many years, I have mailed off roughly the same Christmas gifts to my siblings: a funny dog book or wall hanging for my sister Penny, who dotes on her four dogs; “crazy Cat Lady” trinkets to my oldest sister, Debbie, a cat lover whose husband used to volunteer at a shelter to help socialize feral cats for adoption; and a Minnesota-themed calendar or T-shirt or hat to my brother in Boston, who likes to showcase his Midwestern heritage.

They, in turn, would send me boxes of See’s candy, wax-wrapped aged cheese, frosted cookies in a holiday-themed tin — gifts that I appreciated but really do not need.

This year, I decided, would be different. Crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t appear dismissive of their past efforts, I emailed my siblings before Thanksgiving and asked that, in lieu of material gifts, they give to one of two nonprofits in my name: a local community services organization for which my husband and I deliver Meals on Wheels every Friday and a feminist policy-based organization that is gearing up against threats to Roe v. Wade.

“With the pandemic pressing in on us again and racially based divisiveness rocking our country, I am more aware than ever of the privilege we were born into and from which we continue to benefit,” I wrote.

“To that end, David and I respectfully ask that you take any money you would normally spend on the lovely gifts of food you send us for Christmas each year and instead donate that amount in our names to one of these causes.”

Each of my siblings generously supported the food shelves, youth employment and senior classes at Keystone Community Services, one noting that our father and stepmother received Meals on Wheels for a time. Soon after my initial request, I wrote again, saying that I would like to donate to their favorite causes and elevate the reach of Christmas beyond its consumerist underpinnings.

In the process, I got to know my sisters and brother better. Just as a budget reflects a company or a country’s core values, where a person chooses to donate money says a lot about that individual’s priorities, and about how they see themselves.

Access to the outdoors

My younger brother, L.J., showed himself as the Bostonian he has become since marrying a native of the city some 28 years ago. “Please donate to the Rose Kennedy Greenway,” he told me. “It is a great urban park that adds a lot to downtown Boston.” The public space and programming commits to “providing a park environment that is welcoming to racially, culturally, and economically diverse residents and visitors,” according to the website.

With food trucks, fitness classes, fountains and open green space — typically concentrated in the more affluent neighborhoods of our nation’s cities — the Greenway looks like an inviting place for people of all ages, abilities and economic classes to play and hang out.

An ADA-compliant carousel at Rose Kennedy Greenway makes a “spin” safe for everyone.

I’m not surprised that equity and inclusion in the natural world is an important value to my brother — raised, as we were, in a community with ample municipal and state parks and in a family that prioritized fitness and outdoor exercise — but we’ve never discussed it. Less politically liberal than I am, my brother revealed a side of himself I otherwise might not have seen. “Thanks for donating,” he said, pronouncing this philanthropic gift exchange “a nice idea.”

Dog-friendly diet

My sister Penny’s overt, over-the-top love of dogs is a running joke in our family. We love to recount the time her father-in-law said that after he died, he wanted to return to Earth as one of Penny’s pampered dogs, the ones who get soft-serve cones at Dairy Queen and homemade dinner so enticing that I once mistakenly ate it myself.

No surprise, then, that Penny’s choice for my donation was Colorado Pet Pantry, a food bank for pets that allows low-income people, or those whose luck has temporarily turned, to keep their animals rather than surrendering them to shelters.

Colorado Pet Pantry is a food shelf for animals whose owners might otherwise have to give them away.

“Being the dog lover that I am, I’m drawn to charities for pets,” she said. “This charity is unique in that it helps people to be able to keep a beloved animal they maybe otherwise couldn’t. That just spoke to me as a nonprofit worth supporting.”

What matters most

The morning after Christmas, I survey the leftovers in the fridge and determine that I can take a break from cooking that day. I recycle the plain brown wrapping paper that my younger son used on his thoughtful gifts of books. I force myself out, despite the cold, on my daily dog walk, trying to counteract the intake of overly rich food.

No Amazon boxes to break down and recycle. No cursing at the amount of plastic wrap that shippers use. No pondering whether to freeze or give away the pounds of candy and exotic edibles that my husband and I, as older empty nesters, do not need to consume.

Instead, I look over the website for the Retreat Center of Maryland, a 5-year-old organization that aims to bring yoga and other wellness practices to people with autism or Parkinson’s disease and other populations that the industry historically has not served. This is my sister Debbie’s choice for my Christmas gift, a nod to our mutual love of yoga. One of her neighbors, a volunteer yoga teacher in prisons, serves on the board.

My stepsister, Mary, my only sibling still living in Minnesota, chose Vine: Faith in Action, which matches volunteers with the needs of people ages 60 and older. In-person and online exercise classes and programs on topics such as diabetes, financial exploitation of seniors and healthcare directives have helped the Mankato-based organization continue to grow and serve.

“I want the gift of time,” I used to tell my sons every Mother’s Day. Now I want this practice of Christmas donations to become a tradition, bringing to life a quote commonly attributed to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church in which my siblings and I were raised:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

As a Unitarian, I no longer celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. Still, I watch myself get caught up every year in the trappings and trimmings, the whirlwind of shopping and spending. Today, as December draws to a close, I can say, “Merry Christmas” and mean it, knowing that my brother and sisters and I shared what I believe is the true Christmas spirit.

Dog bites woman: lessons learned

Getting injured tends to make me reflective because it forces me to sit still, which I don’t do well. Even at 62, I value movement and action — to a fault, I am finding as I grow older.

Suffering a dog bite at an off-leash dog park, a juicy and unexpected chomp to my bare left calf, has left me hobbled, bleeding, aching, afraid, exhausted and unable to sustain my usual pace. I sought medical attention, after initially resisting, and two days later succumbed to the first round of rabies shots.

Mia_2019

Mia, my beloved Animal Humane Society rescue, gets ready for our morning run.

Here is what I’ve learned from the ordeal:

1. Posting on social media can turn bad luck to good advice: “You should have called Animal Control immediately,” said my experienced older sister, also a dog lover. “They would have impounded and quarantined the dogs.”

Problem is, I was so rattled, calling the authorities did not occur to me. What now? “At this point, I would ask the police to visit the dog owner,” my sister told me a day later. “She needs to be deterred from coming back to the dog park.” Numerous others on Facebook agreed. One even speculated I could be awarded $5,000 to $10,000 per puncture wound through the woman’s homeowner’s insurance. Well, maybe.

2. Trusting people based on superficial qualities leads to speculative results. The first question I asked the woman who insisted her dog only “scratched” me was whether her animal’s shots were up to date. “Of course,” she said. She looked trustworthy. But what does that mean? Turn over that rock, and out slither some stereotypical assumptions.

“Diana,” likely not her real name, was articulate and well dressed. She drove a nice van. She seemed friendly, approaching me later in the park — along with that damn dog! — to see whether I was alright. Again, being rattled and bleeding and in pain, I did not think to say: “Call my cell phone, so I have your number.” Instead, I texted myself the number that she told me, and this apparently trustworthy, friendly looking woman lied.

3. “Tough it out” is an ineffective strategy with an animal bite. Among the advice on Facebook, which I ignored for three days:

  • “You need proof that this animal is vaccinated.”
  • “Get to a doctor with that wound stat.”
  • “I didn’t go to the doctor when a dog bit my finger and ended up having surgery for an infected finger bone. My primary-care doc said to always get antibiotics.”

Ego can drive these decisions, especially as we get older and want to prove that we’re still strong and healthy. I remember a woman 10 years my senior telling me that she feels more “vulnerable,” physically. Not me! I arrogantly believed I could heal on my own, if I kept the wound covered and kept up my usual pattern of walking 14,000 steps daily. Bad plan, as the nurse practitioner affirmed when she prescribed amoxicillin for my weeping wound.

4. Short-term physical pain is worth long-term peace of mind. Because “Diana” gave me the wrong phone number, because I failed to follow her to her van and photograph the license plate, I had no way to reach her. Therefore, I had no way of proving that her dog had current vaccinations.

A doctor said the risk of rabies was low, given that the apparently cared for dog was at a dog park, not some crazed animal foaming at the mouth, To Kill a Mockingbird–style, that leaped out of the bushes on a jogging path. The Department of Health said otherwise. The only way to ensure I would not get rabies was to get the dreaded rabies shots. “I think the DOH is butt covering,” I told my oldest sister, the pragmatic one. “Maybe so,” she replied, “but rabies is fatal if you get it.” A quick Google search proved that to be true.

And the shots? Not nearly as painful as folklore would have it — or apparently, as invasive as they used to be. When I heard that the initial injections were in the wound, I pictured a doctor plunging a needle straight into the bite site (which remains painful to the touch eight days post-trauma). In fact, the doctor inserted the needles horizontally in the skin next to the wound, on either side, and then energetically rubbed the bite site so it could absorb the serum. That was the worst, and it was over quickly.

Gabby_smallest

Gabby, our rescue puppy from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas

5. Keep the faith. “Here’s what I know,” wrote a former colleague on Facebook, a man who recently traveled across several states to buy a hunting dog. “There are many, many more bad dog owners than there are bad dogs.” Of course, he’s right.

One woman warned me about PTSD, predicting that I may never be able to return to dog parks. Another offered to connect me with a therapist who specializes in “dog-bite trauma.” I’m not afraid of dogs, which I have owned for most of my life. What I am wary of is lackadaisical dog owners — ones like my neighbor who lets his golden retrievers walk unleashed on city streets, reassuring passersby that the dogs are friendly.

I never intended to sue “Diana.” What I wanted was an apology, an acknowledgment of the pain I suffered and an offer to pay my medical bills. I wanted her to make things right, and she failed me. But I won’t give up on dogs, not today. Not ever. I need their love and loyalty in an increasingly hostile world.