It's Christmas time—and I'm thinking of sweet corn. When it arrives at the farmers' market in mid-July, my family knows to expect fresh corn chowder. Last summer, we rented an apartment in Montréal, Quebec, and when chowder season dawned, to my delight, I unexpectedly found an immersion blender in one of the kitchen drawers.
I was enamored with the little appliance. Where had it been all my culinary life? I must have gushed on—and on—about the immersion blender, for we weren't back in Toronto one week when my husband and 9-year-old son came home wearing proud smiles and carrying a medium-sized box.
So it was that I added an immersion blender to my growing inventory of kitchen tools. This is the kind of consumer instinct on which kitchen retailers like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma are counting this Christmas. They trust we'll stock our kitchens with gifted gadgets—and fail to remember that we're actually cooking far less than we ever have.
In her recent Atlantic essay "The Joy of Not Cooking," Megan McArdle compares the amount of time our grandmothers and mothers spent in the kitchen to the time we spend in them now. In the 1920s, women traditionally spent 30 hours a week in the kitchen; in the 1950s, 20 hours. Today, our culinary commitment tops out at 5.5 hours a week.
Ironically, when we cooked most, our kitchens were least accommodating. Writes Steven Gdula in his book The Warmest Room in the House, at the turn of the century, "kitchens were as close an approximation to hell on earth as one could find." By contrast, today's gourmet kitchen, outfitted with a Sub-Zero refrigerator, Viking Range, and a host of sexy countertop appliances, is meant to offer us a picture of "romance," says Jack Schwefel, CEO of Sur La Table.
But exactly what are we romanticizing with our Le Creuset cast iron cookware, Breville toaster ovens, and Shun knives? And if we're not actually using them, what vision of the good life are we trying to buy? Or, might it be most fair to conclude that only the wealthy, who can afford these culinary accoutrements and the luxury of cooking as leisure, are guilty of idealizing domesticity?
Before we pass the buck up the ladder, let's consider the explosive growth of Pinterest, which broke through the 10-million unique-visitor mark faster than any other website. From the sheer volume of pinners and pin boards, we might conclude there's been a resurgence of interest in the domestic arts—regardless of demography. But could it be, as McArdle points out, that the majority of us love the idea of cooking and baking and decorating more than the practice?
This month will find many of us busy baking and roasting and ricing. (No potato ricer? Add that to your wish list). But I don't know if it's romance that we'll be finding. Sure, were we the spiritual equals of Brother Lawrence, we'd be meeting God in all the flour and praying as we peeled. But like Rachel Held Evans admits in The Year of Biblical Womanhood, a lot of women hate Christmas.
Hate may be too strong a word. But we're chagrined when the kitchen work has us on the periphery of the main event, a malaise that bids us to recover the reasons for all the domestic fuss. In one of my and Rachel Held Evans's most recent essays, we noted that kitchen work can have spiritual benefits. But the blessings are broader that that.
Our efforts matter for our families. If I didn't prepare the traditional puffed apple pancake for Christmas breakfast, I'd have holiday mutiny on my hands. "But it's Christmas!" And what is embodied in all that mouth-watering expectation is a sense of tradition. Traditions have a way of rooting us in the particularities of our time and place; they birth in us a sense of belonging. Barbara Kingsolver muses on these affective qualities of family food traditions in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. "I don't know what rituals my kids will carry into adulthood… I do know that flavors work their own ways under the skin, into a heart of longing."
But it's not only our families who benefit from the flavors and fellowship of our tables. Christmas can provide a chance for us to consider others we can include in that sphere of warmth and safety and belonging. Even Sandra Tsing Loh, a self-proclaimed "need-no-one" kind of 21st-century DPM (divorced professional mother), finds herself pining in her essay "The Weaker Sex" for the lost world of "deep domestic comforts." In exchange for our economic independence, she concedes, we've gained unfortunate entry into a world where, "No one is taking care of us! No one!" It's exactly that lonely space that a table can occupy—especially one tended with domestic love.
I know the view from the kitchen can be an alienating one. The real pile of pots and pans inspires far less than Pinterest images. Even our shiny appliances don't make the work effortless, even easy. In the midst of what can be simmering resentment at all the work I do! I remember some of the purposes behind the kitchen sweat. I'm not just physically feeding bodies. I'm nourishing something more lasting: the beauty of belonging and the wonder of being loved.
Most of all, when I resist the lure of romanticized domesticity (and the resultant waste of time and money) and commit instead to the reality of the table—and its dishes and disasters—I am making Jesus recognizable; our skin-and-bones God was not a romantic vision.
At the Incarnation, He became flesh.
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