My first few days of marriage are a blurry haze in some ways, but I’ll never forget the day my mother-in-law told me to get dressed for visitors coming to meet me, the new bride. I remember putting on the sky blue salwar kamiz with the beaded sequins along the edges. I remember following my mother’s admonition, that new brides wore makeup and dutifully applied lipstick and mascara. Earrings and gold necklace, check, I headed downstairs to greet the visitors. I remember sitting down next to my mother in-law. I remember putting on my best smile. And I remember the first question the Auntie asked.
Do you know how to cook?
I panicked. Not wanting to lie, but not wanting to embarrass myself and my new mother-in-law, I nodded a hesitant yes.
Auntie’s eyes narrowed. Perhaps she sensed my hesitation. Leaning forward, she tilted her head, and asked the question I hoped she wouldn’t: What can you cook? What’s your specialty?
Fairly certain she wouldn’t be impressed by the water I once boiled or the eggs I’d occasionally fried [and burned] I turned my attention to the blue lace embroidery of my kamiz and wished I could click my feet together like Dorothy in her red shoes and transport as far from there as I could possibly be.
They’ll learn, my mother-in-law interjected. They’ll figure it out in their own time.
A lot has changed since that terrified afternoon sitting on my in-law’s couch. I’ve gone from bewildered by a cooking spoon, to owning more than any person reasonably should have. I covet cookbooks, and research and compose recipes with the intensity of putting together a law review paper. In making food for my family, I find joy and an outlet for creativity in a daily task.
I hadn’t thought of Auntie in a long time until I recently read the news of Fatima Ali, the first Pakistani, and female to boot, to make it to the top ranks of NYC chefs. Reading this news, I paused, feeling an emotion bubbling in me. On one hand, cooking is woman’s work. On the other hand, women are not given the same respect for this task as men who cook do.. Peek into the top restaurant kitchens in the world, the chefs are overwhelmingly male. Women winning Top Chef is news. A Pakistani woman cooking for a top restaurant makes international headlines.
Perhaps it’s prevalent in all cultures, but most certainly it is in mine: women cook. Men don’t. The raised eyebrows when my son got a toy kitchen for his birthday belies that ingrained assumption despite the gender inequalities favoring men in the professional cooking world. Don’t get me wrong: I embrace my home-cook status but cooking is my choice. While K loves that I cook for the family, he does not expect it and didn’t complain the three years in law school when frozen food and take-out where the prime course du jour. Cooking is my pleasure. I love it. It brings me joy. And frankly, as the person home with the kids I consider it part-and-parcel of the deal. And yet, to the outside world its my gender role. It’s what I must do. And it’s not limited to just women who are home. Be she a doctor or a world-traveling journalist, I’ve heard the remark more often than I can count but can she cook? And if she can? It’s not necessarily respected, it’s expected.
It’s been many years since my living room interrogation, but every now and then, I think of Auntie. She didn’t mean harm. Perhaps she was simply trying to spark conversation. Perhaps it never crossed her mind that a girl might not know her teaspoon from her tablespoon. I don’t have a daughter. I have sons. They sit on the counter next to me. They crack eggs, and sift flour, and remind me to preheat the oven. If I ever had a daughter, I imagine she’d be joining her brothers in the measuring and mixing and baking. But not because she’s a girl. But because its the joy of her mother to teach her children cooking. I will not be teaching her because it’s her duty. I will not be teaching her because she’s less of a woman for not making meals. I will teach her because cooking is my daily love letter to my family, and because I hope both she and my sons will take with them these meals I teach them and pass them on to their own families one day carrying on this tradition of cooking and sharing my language of love.