In one of the parenting fantasies I had before I became a mother, I am standing in a kitchen much larger than mine, leaning on a countertop wiped spotless by an imaginary housekeeper. I am surrounded by a ring of daughters, and together, we are admiring the oozing babkas that have recently emerged from the oven.
Now enter my real world. I am the mother of all boys. While I confess to feeling the absence of girls in the mix, I am reminded daily how blessed I am to have these gentlemen in my life, even if they required some tweaking to the fantasy.
Standing in my kitchen, it strikes me that teaching my children to cook is an obligation regardless of their gender, a corollary of the Talmudic injunction obliging a father to teach his offspring to swim. I cannot divine their futures, but I know there will come an evening when my sons will be hungry and out of Captain Crunch, the restaurants all closed, leaving them no choice but to cook for themselves. Early on, I decided it was incumbent upon me as both the family chef and their mother to give them kitchen survival tools, like how to make pasta and safely chop an onion. I engaged them in simple tasks once they were old enough, then helped them expand their repertoires as they grew.
At the same time, I always made a really big deal out of including them in the preparation of Jewish holiday foods. I was determined to pass our culinary traditions down to them — both my Minsk via the Bronx to New Jersey ones as well as those hailing from my husband’s native Croatia. I once envisioned it would be to daughters, perhaps because my own childhood memories are of cooking with the women in my family. That it was to sons instead was in God’s hands, and I embraced it with an open heart.
I told my boys I had fallen in love as a child with the backstage kitchen hoopla leading up to the holidays — the banging of pots, the thrum of appliances, the hiss of oil in a skillet. Sure, there was plenty of delicious output, foods I can taste if I close my eyes and conjure them up. Yet there were other things I adored, like the camaraderie among those of us doing the chopping and the intimacy of hands-on activities like shaping hamantaschen and rolling stuffed cabbage. Together, they filled the air with expectation, building drama around the other holiday observances and traditions.
Longing for my sons to experience those feelings, too, I tried to make it fun for them, offering them each the post of royal taster as the prize for their efforts. I hoped that by giving them the first blintzes out of the pan, they would intuit that Jewish food is not only its own category of cuisine, but also a kind of spiritual sustenance and comestible love. I wanted them to know that these magical delicacies are their birthright, and that when they participate in a big or small way in cooking for the holidays, even manning the barbecue on Lag b’Omer, they are helping to make the magic for themselves.
I will admit that although all of this is true, it is only a part of the story. While I enjoy cooking, preparing for the Jewish holidays is time-consuming, and I am grateful for any assistance my sons are willing to provide. But mostly, I want their company in the kitchen. Having my children nearby was always the best part of that pre-parenting fantasy, even when their real-life presence as little boys multiplied the mess that I, not the imaginary housekeeper, had to scrub away.
I am fully aware that my now-teenaged sons are not spending their free time writing lyrical poetry about the pre-holiday preparations in the kitchen of their childhood, and it is possible they never will. Nor are they rushing in to join me as often as they did when they were younger. Still, they pass through the kitchen frequently enough, and they remain willing schleppers of heavy things from the basement pantry and tasters of delicacies sweet and savory.
I also cannot predict what the division of labor will be when they create their own homes, whether the cooking will fall to them or not, or if they will opt for takeout instead. But at least they will know that from the very beginning, it has always been about storing away happy moments as much as it has been about the food. As for me, I am aware that my blessings are right in front of me, and that the reality is far better than anything I could ever cook up in my imagination.
Merri Ukraincik, a regular contributor to this space, is a writer living in Edison, N.J.