Why Women Cook

Sito was my late grandmother-in-law. No matter when my husband and I stopped by (or even, sorry to say, dropped in without calling), Sito would provide a feast for us. She spent almost every day cooking and filling her freezer with nourishing delicious meals and treats, betting on the chance that someone would stop by, if not this afternoon, then the next. When you’d spill your troubles to Sito, she’s say affectionately, “Awww, Dino, go get yourself a plate.” And she’d motion to the stove where a banquet that would feed an army sat hot and ready.

For generations, cooking food has been more than just about feeding one’s body. It has been and still is a way to nourish a soul, a relationship, and to provide companionship and sustenance in a world that is sometimes cold. A hearty meal with family and friends, complete with hot bread and smooth, creamy butter, sometimes topped off with a bit of wine and finished with a cup of steaming coffee, is the way women nurture those they love, and put material form to their feelings. If they don’t know what to do for someone, they cook. They cook after births of babies of their friends. They cook for funeral dinners. They cook at Christmastime elaborate fixings, not only to celebrate the holiday of Christ’s birth with decorated cookies and home-made candy, turkey with orange sauce and cheesy potatoes… but to put tangible life into their devotion for their families and express their love in a way they otherwise can’t. When there’s nothing left to say and one doesn’t know what to do, or trouble comes along, one can cook, and things somehow seem a little brighter. In lovingly preparing food, a woman hopes and feels she has made a difference.

Women will hover over a family member about to bite into a concoction that took all afternoon to create. She studies every eyebrow, every cock of the head, in anticipation, hoping to see pleasure on her loved one’s face. Seeing that will have made the effort worthwhile, and when she puts her floury, dusty apron away she will be satisfied.

We live in the heart of Amish country. I’ve been blessed to have some Amish ladies occasionally help me with my cleaning. Once, I heard the ladies speak of Cousin Nettie’s wedding. Everyone in the community, young and old, pitched in to make food for the special day. The cooking began several days in advance, and was truly a social event in itself for the members of the women-folk. When the Amish women want to shower their blessings on someone, they start at the stove.

While interviewing World War II veterans some years ago one thing that impressed me was the fondness with which each man spoke about his first meal home after the war. I imagine those wives and mothers of men, now long gone, standing at the stove, praying and preparing. What else could they do?

Yesterday,  my husband and I spent the afternoon in the kitchen together, making sveha (Lebanese meat pies), stuffed grape leaves, lentils with onions and rice,  and Arabic bread (recipes that Sito shared with us before she died). It took us awhile to get in the groove of working together. Apparently, I was folding the dough of the sveha wrong, and he was very definitely hogging the lemon juice. But once we found a rhythm, it was a very enjoyable endeavor. As the meat sizzled, cooking inside the oven, I felt pride in what my husband and I were creating — a meal yes, but more than that, a token of love for our family. You see, what precipitated the entire afternoon of cooking was the knowledge that it was the last day that our college-aged sons would be home before going back to school. We wanted to prepare a meal for them that they would love… that they would miss… that they would seek and so return. And so, like generations of women before, and cultures of women around the world even today, my husband and I set up shop in the kitchen and started pounding dough.

Today, the boys will return to the university, with a carload of their things, new clothes from Christmas, some grocery items. Also in the back seat will be some Tupperware containers of Lebanese food and some miniature apple pies, the fruit of yesterday’s labor.

Today, I wrestle with my feelings for my boys. I love them intensely. I want to see them follow their dreams and succeed.  I wish they were little again and living here. I am proud of them. I am happy. I am sad. I wish I could shield them from life’s sorrows. I can’t solve all their problems. I want them to know I’m here for them. For these reasons and a million more, I prepared food for them. And in doing so I connected with not only my boys, my husband, and my family, but with millions of women around the world alive today, and some who have passed on. We cooked and we cook simply because… we love.

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  • las312g

    “And so, like generations of women before, and cultures of women around the world even today, my husband and I set up shop in the kitchen and started pounding dough.”

    Except that women in generation’s past wouldn’t have expected or wanted their husbands in the kitchen with them preparing the meals.

  • yblegen

    My heart jumped when I read the first word in your article. I also called my grandmother Sito. My husband who is not Lebanese is still amazed at how much food my mom and aunts lay out on the table when we just “stop by” to say hi. Since I’m 2 1/2 hours away from my Lebanese mother, I am forced to learn how to make “our food” with my mom’s recipes. The problem is that she doesn’t use any measuring utensils. It’s a little of this and that. So I have found a Lebanese cookbook that seems to work. However, when I presented my mother with my grapeleaves, she gave me a “F” because of the way I rolled them, athough they tasted like my mom’s.

    But it is true, Teresa, about what you said about us cooking because we love. Although my mother can neither read nor write in English, she is the best cook in the land and very proud of it. So when I go back home , I’m going to have her help me finetune my kibbi recipe.

  • Narwen

    I can barely make toast, and, if I could afford it, would happily eat ebery single meal out. Should my ‘woman license ‘ be revoked ? 🙂

  • guitarmom

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article. I have seen quite the opposite attitude about meal preparation, and it is a sad thing indeed.

    I have been wounded on many a holiday when, after I’ve been cooking for hours, far flung relatives brag that they bought a pre-cooked dinner from a fancy grocery store because “it’s the only way to go.” Or when local relatives reject a holiday invitation because they’d rather enjoy “good food” from a hotel buffet. Somehow, the love that was poured into my oven and stovetop has seemed belittled or rejected.

    Holidays around here include combing cookbooks for just the right combination of dishes. Fancy ingredients replace the everyday, mundane ones. My daughters and I pour OURSELVES into the meals we prepare for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter.

    I’ve been befuddled when other relatives give voice to wanting to make holiday meal preparations as EASY as possible. I’ve been saddened when they gush about how much they enjoy a simple potluck so that they “don’t have to work so hard.” I wonder why the food we’ve prepared for each other in past years is remembered as a burden instead of a gift.

    I think that these attitudes stem from the belittling of women’s arts. Cooking has become merely a chore, to be avoided in any way possible by most modern women. What a shame. Would that the wisdom of all the Sito’s of the world had passed to our generation.

  • Funny you should mention that. After the last wedding I attended my uncle bemoaned the fact that we leave wedding feasts up to caterers, not church members/relatives.

  • Narwen

    >I wonder why the food we’ve prepared for each other in past years is remembered >as a burden instead of a gift.

    Maybe because for some of us, it is ? Not everybody has fond memories of kitchens. For me, kitchens remind me of one of my grandmothers, who was, to put it mildly, a very difficult person to live with. It also takes me back to holiday dinners when I was a kid, where the women were expected to do the cooking and clean-up while the men sat around watching football on TV. (The fact that I don’t remember so much as a word of thanks from said men makes the scenario particularly unattractive.)
    Besides that, I’ve found that I actually like the taste of professionally prepared food more than that of ‘ homecooked ‘ !
    Why do something poorly myself when I could pay somebody else to do it well ? Especially when I don’t enjoy doing it in the first place ?

  • Catholic Mom of 9

    “””Except that women in generation’s past wouldn’t have expected or wanted their husbands in the kitchen with them preparing the meals.”””

    Hmmmm…. I really don’t think our generation of men are the first to pound dough or help with biscuits. I do think they may be the first generation of men who don’t mind having it advertised 🙂 I remember my now deceased grandfather doing some odd ‘women’s work’ over the stove, although he didn’t talk about it…. Somehow I can picture good St. Joseph helping Mary in in the kitchen, over the fire, perhaps stirring something in a pot. However, I don’t know. We can’t know for sure. Perhaps you are right…..

  • Catholic Mom of 9

    Dear Narwen,
    My article wasn’t meant to have you fret over NOT cooking. It simply explains why some of us who do, do. 🙂 Peace. There are, of course, fortunately, MANY ways to demonstrate love to family. I’m sure you have other talents you share.
    God bless,

    Theresa Thomas