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The Imperfect Family Kitchen

141009 imperfect kitchen

Food writers are lying to you.

In our quest to inspire people to cook, we offer images of glorious plates of food, dramatically lit, propped with carefully-chosen cloth napkins and color-coordinated dishes, with the most adorable little trail of crumbs to suggest that someone’s actually eating this slice of perfection.

My dinner plate never looks like that anywhere but the computer screen, on a really good day. In real life it’s chipped, with maybe some sauce spilling over an edge onto the crumpled paper napkin.

Most people edit their lives, to show only the corners they like to the world—think about how you decide what to share on Facebook. Food writers leave out the grimy spot near the toaster, the overstuffed, disorganized fridge that’s barely chugging along. I don’t think we’re ashamed of these parts of our lives, necessarily, just that in order to capture attention, we chase a notion of unrealistic beauty. That leads to cookbooks and food blogs as staged and Photoshopped as the models in Vogue.

The picture above is my kitchen, this morning. Those battered cabinets, in that weird mauvey shade, were painstakingly painted by my husband and me before Harry was born. I couldn’t stand the dingy, 1970s almond laminate, and somehow imagined that coating it in pink would fix things. It didn’t, but the process of removing all the cabinet doors, priming, painting, and reattaching them, was so exhausting I just couldn’t see doing it all again. Especially with a kid around. We’ve lived with them for almost a decade now, and I still don’t like them.

My food processor dates to 1993, a wedding present from my first marriage. The non-functioning hood over the stove (an appliance my landlady replaced last year, after the 40-year-old predecessor finally kicked the bucket) has been scrubbed so many times the paint’s worn off. A sheet of plastic tarp funneled into a bucket hangs in front of the window, since there’s a mystery leak the handyman has never been able to locate, which floods the area during major rainstorms.

So yeah, my kitchen is imperfect. Just like my cooking.

That’s where food writers really let down our readers: Too often, we gloss over mistakes or talk about how easy a recipe is, when in fact it failed miserably the first three times we tried it, and sometimes even now, when it’s “perfect,” it just doesn’t come out as good as we remember. We give time estimates based on how long it takes us to prepare something, neglecting the fact that many, if not most, people don’t work as fast as we can, don’t share our confidence in the kitchen. We urge people to cook for their families, and preach about how crucial it is to the well-being of our children and heck, the entire world. Whether we intend to or not, we suggest that if someone doesn’t cook—or doesn’t like to cook—that person isn’t doing it right.

That person is usually a woman. And given the whole mantra of “family dinners are THE answer” to obesity, drug use, juvenile delinquency, and general shiftlessness, that woman is usually a mom. Case in point: Virginia Heffernan’s essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine, in which she confesses that she doesn’t like cooking, and that family-oriented cookbooks only make her feel bad about herself.

Here’s my confession: Lately, I hate cooking. The frustrations and challenges of coming up with creative, appealing, and easily reproduced meals that my insanely picky kid might deign to eat have sucked all the joy out of my kitchen. That’s why things have been so quiet around here lately. I’m tired, and I don’t have much to crow about. I don’t want to admit that I’ve failed as a mother—and I know I haven’t really, but that’s what many of my fellow family-food writers smugly imply if your child isn’t omnivorous. (I’m looking at you, Mark Bittman.)

When I wrote my cookbook, my goal was simple: To reassure frazzled new parents that yes, they’d get their mojo back, and yes, they’d learn to make dinner again someday, and then to help them do it. From the feedback I’ve received since it came out, I think I succeeded. I think I managed to write a family cookbook that doesn’t make parents feel bad about themselves. And you know what? Sales are meh. When it comes to laying down money, I suspect most people want pretty; they want promises of perfection, of problems solved. They don’t want to be told that this period of your life is challenging, but you’ll get through it.

So when people ask about my next cookbook, I shrug and mumble into my shoulder. The obvious subject would be feeding your picky eater, but since I struggle with that myself multiple times every day, with two giant leaps back for every baby step forward, it seems disingenuous to suggest I might have any answers. Or that my answers will work for any family other than my own. Lord knows nobody else’s have worked for mine.

Maybe my next book should be about the Imperfect Family Kitchen. The one with a leaky window, chipped plates, and a kid who won’t eat. The one where the UPS guy comes just when the timer’s about to go off, where the whining of the eight-year-old as he sets the table makes you wish you’d just set the table yourself. The one with a mom who moans at least twice a week, “I have to make dinner again?”

But who wants to read that?

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Carrie

    All true. All real. Sing it! We live it! Down with idealized food coverage. 🙂

  2. MyKidsEatSquid

    So true. I had a neighbor with a gorgeous garden that I was eying enviously one day and she told me–“Don’t worry about having a garden, one day you can. Right now, you’re growing children.” I try to live by that–and the disorganization that is my pantry, refrigerator, freezer…

  3. Monica Bhide

    what a terrific piece. I feel like this on many days. I burned my dinner last night.. so, yes, happens all the time!

  4. Gillian

    Amen to this, Debbie. The exhaustion that sets in around here sometimes is humbling and I dream of having a Pinterest-worthy kitchen. Thank you for writing this. I’d love to get coffee some time. – Gillian

  5. Barbara O'Neal

    This is so great and thank you for the picture of your kitchen. My cabinets are 80s, the floor big white tiles that keep breaking lately, but redoing them would mean replacing the entire downstairs area and that’s a heap o’ cash.

    Off to tweet!

  6. Andrea B.

    Thank you for your honesty! I love to look at home magazines, yet I’m starting to get really sick of reading about the perfect couple with their perfect children, eating the perfect meal (in their perfect house!). It’s lovely to see something real for a change. By the way, I loved your cookbook–it really helped me out after my son was born. Thanks!! P.S. I gave up Pinterest a month ago and I’ve never felt better.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thank you so much, Andrea! I’m glad my book helped you.

  7. Michelle

    I have two picky kids and hundreds of cookbooks, a truly ridiculous amount. But yours is one of my very favorites! Please keep doing what you are so good at. I will look forward to that second book!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      You’re killing me with the love, Michelle. THANK YOU!

  8. What a great article. Finally, a food writer has come forward with an authentic, candid illustration of what our kitchens and lives really are. There is no perfect kitchen, no perfect dish, no perfect life and you captured it well for all of us. While we’re on the topic, can someone please tell everyone reading our articles that we only cook for 2 and not 200 when we develop recipes? Some folks think we cook like caterers. Thanks for sharing this piece, Debbie!

  9. Joy @ WhatIWeighToday

    You should see my kitchen, Debbie. It’s a full on disaster area 99% of the time. And my fridge–yikes! I have these thoughts all the time though. That’s why I try hard not to over edit or pretty up representations of my life on the internet but of course there are some things I leave out. Don’t beat yourself up about the picky offspring. If you could see how stubbornly picky I was as a kid you would feel better. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about a picky kid.

  10. Wendy Read

    Loved this piece! Great writing and so terribly frank 🙂 Well done you, I can so relate. Raw!

  11. Annie

    I want to read that cookbook! For real–please write it. All us imperfect moms who hate to cook would be grateful.

  12. Jenna

    I’ve been enjoying the thoughtful responses to that article – yours, Jenny Rosenstrach’s, Luisa’s at Wednesday Chef all come to mind. I personally like to cook and have enjoyed it my whole life, although I’ve only been good at it for the last two years, and it was having my son that really got me to practice at frequent home cooking (which is really important, in my mind: to enjoy doing something, it helps to do it well; to do something well, it helps to practice; some people don’t get there and that’s fine). You three, among others, have all helped me and I appreciate it!

    I found Heffernan’s article to be somewhat sensationalist. She seems to think that her experience and feelings should be universal. I can’t even start to discuss her feminist/anti feminist slant – I was a women’s studies minor in college so I have so very many things to say there and a comment on a blog post just isn’t the place.

    But here’s what it all comes down to, in my mind: Everyone needs to eat (even parents, ha!). Not everyone can afford to eat out all the time, and not everyone enjoys that experience, not everyone can even afford the Amy’s burritos that she mentions. Not everyone trusts a corporation to prepare their food or enjoys the taste of commercially produced food. Some people find their health or weight suffers when they aren’t directly in charge of what they eat. Some people aren’t interested in paying a premium to have the work done for them. Some people, for no other reason, get satisfaction from doing something themselves just because they can. The option for those people, frequently, is home cooking. Belittling this option seems rather elitist and wrong. I’m sorry Virginia feels that the way I’ve chosen to live my life makes her life choices any less valid but I’m not going to do anything differently to make her feel better.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thank you for THIS thoughtful response! I took Heffernan’s piece to be a humorous personal essay, with a serious point. I never felt like she was saying this was anyone’s experience but her own–she was shocked to find how alone she is in feeling this way. Her exasperation didn’t strike me as belittling my own interest in cooking; rather that she felt belittled herself for honestly not wanting to cook. I think we should all stop making each other feel bad about our choices! None of us is doing it “right,” and as far as I can tell a lot of parenting is trial-and-error. That’s my own problem with many food blogs and cookbooks–they present an image of perfection that suggests, whether the author intends to or not, that if you can’t pull off that trick every night (with organic ingredients, too), you’re failing.

      If something works for your family, great. If not, try something else–but don’t assume it won’t work for a different family, kwim?

      1. Jenna

        What bothered me the most was her line “It turns out that other women — traitorously — now like to cook.” It changed the tone of the article for me.

  13. JaneEYB

    It is a long way off for you, but cooking becomes a joy again after the picky eater kids leave for college. And I divorced the picky eater husband! Living on my own I cook exactly what I want to eat each night and if I don’t feel like cooking, no-one complains. My kitchen is as spotless or messy as I want it to be.

    The daily grind of churning out meals for a family can sap energy and creativity for anyone, especially if you work outside the home. But I want to give you hope!

  14. Anna

    I love to cook, it is one of my important creative outlets. I don’t spend as much time or creativity in the kitchen as I used to since my 16 month old is not always content to play in the cupboards while I am cooking. I admit to being guilty of pointing out how easy cooking can be but I do wish we could all embrace imperfection more. Thanks for sharing yours! Our every day meals and kitchen messes will probably never be worthy of the pages of a cookbook, but I wish we could focus more on how we are all in this together: the messes, the busy days, the mundane tasks are things we all encounter so let’s talk more about how to get through them and enjoy food.

  15. Amy

    I’m laughing because we have the same ugly cabinets (though not pink) with matching fabric wallpaper and a picky eater who has a stash of Mac and cheese for those days when I just can’t handle another fight about what she isn’t going to eat tonight. We go through weeks where I just can’t muster the energy to try new things because it isn’t worth the effort do the tried and true staples just have to do.
    Hang in there!

  16. Rachel

    As a fledling food writer (on and off for 2.5 years), this piece spoke to me. One of the first things I learned how to do was to stage the food in a way that hid the pile of dirty dishes still sitting on the counter. Readers shouldn’t know that my life is a mess – only that the food is pretty.

    Cooking for children is an exercise in frustration. There was the time my then-4-yr-old daughter told me the “best dinner ever” was when I mixed a can of black beans with some still-frozen peas (neither heated). My current philosophy for cooking is to make something my husband and I will enjoy and hope for the best with kids. There’s always bread and cheese as an alternative.

    As the daughter of a mother who doesn’t particularly enjoy cooking and bought whole-heartedly into ’80s convenience meals, I understand Heffernan’s point of view, too. Especially as a mother who has, on more than one occassion, honestly wondered if the kids actually need to eat dinner tonight.

    Sorry for the disjointed nature of this comment. Coffee is still working its way through my system.

  17. anne

    The imperfect kitchen? I would read that. I would read the hell out of that. I would also offer up my own imperfect kitchen and cooking as a research subject.

  18. Jen Reeder

    Laughed out loud at this line: “That leads to cookbooks and food blogs as staged and Photoshopped as the models in Vogue.” Great essay!

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