My Journey as a Home Cook

Is cooking really all it’s cracked up to be?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Cadence Li

In my house, cooking is everything. Drop Julia Child’s name at the dinner table, and you’ll have secured a seat at next week’s dinner table. Say the words “beef bourguignon,” and my mother may just profess her undying love for you. Even better, utter the phrase “I love cooking,” and you’ll have forged some lifelong friendships. My parents are food fiends, obsessed with anything and everything cooking related. For my eighth grade graduation, instead of gifting me a new dress or buying me a phone, my parents took me to their favorite restaurant, Augustine, and told me to order whatever I wanted. Our life at home is no different—it, too, reflects my parents’ fascination with food. We have an entire bookshelf dedicated to housing our extensive collection of cookbooks—Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything,” Samin Nostrat’s “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” and my personal favorite, Jane Mason’s “All You Knead is Bread.”

Yet despite my parents’ cooking fanaticism, I didn’t really learn how to cook until a couple of months ago. Part of this reluctance can be attributed to my desire to break from gender norms—I refused to adhere to the outdated, sexist standards that women should stay home, manage the household, and do the cooking. Why should I, a teenager living in the 21st century, mold myself to fit stereotypes established centuries ago? Wasn’t learning how to cook a betrayal of the independence I so prided myself on? Why did I need to cook?

But, like almost every other aspect of my life through quarantine, this notion has changed. I have—much to the dismay of my parents, who do not particularly like the smell of burnt food—learned to cook. And I am not alone. With restaurants closed and quarantine in effect, Americans must now turn to home cooking if they want to eat the way they did before the pandemic. Researchers have observed a boost in web traffic to cooking and recipe websites, surveys have reported that significantly fewer Americans—almost 38 percent by one approximation—are ordering takeout, and more people are cooking and baking than ever before. However, cooking is a double-edged sword: its effects are both positive and negative.

On one hand, home cooking tends to be healthier. Because home-cooked meals typically involve less processed and sugary foods, they are far healthier than restaurant alternatives. An April study found that Americans get 21 percent of their calories from restaurants, most of which are unhealthy calories. By one estimation, 50 percent of full-service restaurant meals and 70 percent of fast food meals are of poor dietary quality, a staggering statistic considering that the average American ate out 5.9 times a week in 2018. Scientists have further found that eating healthier is linked to living a longer life, something that can be accomplished with home cooking.

However, in times of economic instability and high unemployment, many Americans are struggling to even feed their families, much less think about the nutritional value of the food they are buying. These circumstances are only exacerbated by the isolation a pandemic brings, as health regulations make it difficult to exercise and quarantine takes a toll on the mental and emotional health of many.

Thus, home cooking only works when there is a careful balance. People must take care to use healthy ingredients and be mindful of the amount of processed food they are consuming while also understanding that the positive benefits of home cooking are not a substitute for minimal exercise or consistent snacking. That said, there’s so much that cooking has to offer. For one, it provides a wealth of new experiences and wide exposure to different cultures and cuisines. From Italian pasta dishes to English fish and chips to Mexican tacos, cooking is a taste of the world in a nutshell—it’s traveling away from the comfort of your own home.

The cooking process is unique as well. There’s something special about being able to transform raw ingredients into brand new creations and forming a personal connection. The opportunities that cooking provides are limitless. There is a whole new world immune to the chaos of modern society—a haven free from the trials and tribulations of a world in a pandemic.

Initially, I was averse to cooking culture. The health benefits of home cooking didn’t faze me. However, as time in quarantine passed, I realized I could not subsist on a diet of microwaveable leftovers and toast. I began cooking out of necessity. I started with simple carbohydrates, then transitioned to more complex meals. My initial attempts were far from perfect, and I was admittedly a little discouraged. But as time went on, I began to find comfort in cooking—a sense of pride whenever I successfully mastered a new dish. I found pure, unadulterated joy in the simplicity of it all, a return to the basics.

Despite the hate and resentment I once harbored toward cooking, I am proud to say I now identify as a home cook. This is not to say that my newfound love for cooking counteracts my hatred for the gender norms surrounding cooking and the home—I still hate those stereotypes. The only difference is that I’ve learned to separate the two from each other. Cooking myself a meal isn’t perpetuating a sexist stereotype—in fact, it’s breaking down that stereotype while doing something I enjoy. I’ve learned that a societal norm can’t be broken down if people aren’t willing to truly stand for what they believe. In ignoring and resenting an all-important aspect of my life simply for the sake of going against what I thought to be a sexist standard, I was reinforcing that same belief.

What I once believed to be two conflicting sides of my identity—my parents’ love for cooking and my hatred of the traditional gender norms—have now joined together in harmony. I am a cook. Maybe one day, I can add a cookbook to the family shelf.