I have not used a pot or a pan in twelve months. Nor have I purchased uncooked rice, pasta, or raw vegetables—unless they can be dipped in hummus. I stopped cooking a year ago around the time most people start getting heavily invested in the practice—the holiday season. Television was rife with women preparing innovative spice cakes and searching for the perfect free-range ham. My friends were getting ready to bring a suitable vegetarian option to Christmas dinner at home, impressing their parents with how well they’d adjusted to adulthood on a budget. I was analyzing the best way to keep myself full and healthy off of restaurant leftovers, granola bars, sauerkraut, and cheese.
I haven’t always hated cooking. When I graduated college, I was actually excited to start making my own food instead of relying on the whims of the campus cafeteria. I moved in with an eco-warrior and a fifty-year-old who grew his own algae, who convinced me to shop exclusively at farmers markets. Soon I was sautéing kale and Swiss chard like a pro, throwing in fresh feta cheese, and coating it all in cardamom. I fashioned myself a hippie Jess Day from New Girl, sharing witty banter with my male roommates while I learned the art of domesticity.
I’ve been a waitress since graduating college, but in the beginning I was serving at slow corporate chains where you spent most of the day lounging in a giant kitchen that was clean and well organized. In the fall of 2014 I got my first ‘career’ serving job at an independently famous brunch restaurant. Suddenly, I was working fifty-hour weeks instead of twenty-five, in a tiny, overheated kitchen, racing back and forth between screaming chefs and impatient customers.
Of course, there were major benefits—the incredible staff meals they fed us every day and the insane amounts of money we earned from being busy from open to close. But once I got home from ten hour days of work in a kitchen on fire both with heat and anger, I didn’t want to spend another minute near a stove.
This seemed like a relatively normal choice to me. I was usually full when I got home from work and it didn’t make sense to buy a bunch of groceries every week to prepare only one meal a day. I had much less free time now, and I wanted to spend it writing, socializing, or lounging rather than standing alone in front of appliances. My roommate situation had shifted, and I was living with two women my age, both of whom had boyfriends who functioned as fourth and fifth roommates.
It wasn’t long until my roommates noticed my cooking choices or lack thereof.
“There seem to be a lot of leftovers in the fridge lately; are you eating out a lot?”
“I haven’t seen you cooking lately!”
“Those granola bars are probably really over processed…”
The raised eyebrows and judgmental tones made it clear that my decision to give up cooking did not pass the ‘hip young roommate’ test. I was no longer bringing bags of fresh vegetables home from the farmers market, spending hours staring quizzically at spices fermenting in organic olive oil. I heated up my leftover potatoes from work in the microwave and retreated to my room while my roommates giggled with their significant others over a simmering curry. I began to feel queasy just setting foot in the kitchen, waiting for someone to comment on my yogurt or my canned chili. They were right that I wasn’t as healthy as I used to be, but it wasn’t from the food I was eating: it was the anxiety from having such a private ritual become public commentary. I started to make self-conscious jokes about cooking and food—and when people laughed and compared me to Hannah Horvath from Girls, their tone never indicated if it was a compliment or an insult.
Maybe they didn’t realize the way their statements made me feel, and I don’t believe they were trying to hurt me over something so seemingly innocuous. But when you’re inhabiting the same private space as someone and hearing comments like ‘Is that you cooking?! It’s been so long!’ it’s hard to not take them as value judgments that pit domestic bliss starkly higher on the ladder than ‘single person working fifty hours a week.’ I found that the same type of message was coming at me from the media: there weren’t many television shows that depicted women standing alone at a stove as a positive life choice. Cooking on television was either about joyfully preparing a meal for a loved one, or being a lonely spinster. Not seeing any positive representations of women like myself, who ate only for sustenance but had a robust work and social life, only contributed to the sense of isolation that made me step away from the stove.
In a world where as a woman your best track to social legitimacy is to be one half of a couple, I already look like an aberration when I go to brunch alone, go to a concert alone, go to the movies alone. “Just one?” they ask, staring at the empty air where, in their minds, my significant other should be standing. It can even be fun in public, to watch people be confused by my solo presence in spaces that are ordinarily reserved for the happily coupled.
I don’t want to feel that judgment in my own home. The perk of a movie or a concert alone is that I can devote myself fully to the experience of consuming excellent culture. I don’t want to devote my self completely to the experience of watching vegetables become roasted or rice become soft and puffed. Some people truly love the process of turning raw foods into consumable ones, and I applaud them. But most love the opportunity to stand in a well-heated room, joking with friends or lovers while a pot simmers in the background. Cooking wasn’t like that for me, so I changed my routine—I didn’t expect that to become a topic of household discussion.
I began to question the root of the commentary. When did it become so uncool to not cook? Isn’t it just yesterday that we were getting excited about Postmates and Seamless? It makes sense to cook out of necessity when it is cheaper than eating prepared foods or eating out, but that wasn’t the case for me. I got a lot of free food from work, and the foods I bought that didn’t require preparation were no more expensive than the raw foods my roommates purchased.
If you’re cooking meals for multiple people and all those people are content to eat the same ingredients and split the cost, yes, your per meal cost goes down when you buy raw foods in bulk at the grocery store. When you’re Cooking For One, it’s hard to use those ingredients that are so cheap in bulk before they go stale or grow mold. Uncooked rice lasts a while, but bread, fruit, and vegetables don’t. It’s not always cheaper to grocery shop when you end up having to throw out unfinished boxes of spinach and half loaves of bread and you’re buying everything yourself. Feeding oneself is a complex alchemy, and assuming that it’s most cost efficient for everyone to do things one way makes intrusive assumptions on people’s private lifestyles.
While we’re lucky that we’ve reached a point with representation in media where female characters are not stuck in aprons, laughing at their husbands jokes, there’s still work to be done with regards to the portrayal of how women cook and eat. There are plenty of television shows where women never set foot in the kitchen—but what about accurate representations of how women feed themselves? Everyone has to eat for sustenance, but it’s still hard to find a woman preparing food on television in a way that isn’t either a traditional domestic environment—or a lampoon.
While I’m grateful to have characters like Hannah Horvath and Amy Schumer’s namesake in Trainwreck make such bawdy jokes about their eating habits in ways that weren’t previously socially accepted, there also needs to be a way for women to discuss eating on television without it becoming a punchline. There must be a middle ground between women happily cooking a feast for the hungry men in our lives and making jokes at our own expense when we eat a large burrito or three cupcakes. Women have the right to the total ambivalence about the process of getting food into our stomachs that men have always had, and one of the best ways to bring that idea into the popular discourse is to represent those women in the media.
Should there be a Bechdel test for women in the kitchen? Does a movie or television show portray a woman eating a big meal without making fun of herself? Does it show anyone in the kitchen besides a mother preparing a meal for her family, or a young woman cooking a special dinner for her boyfriend? Whether a female character is a professional chef or eating stale crackers in bed, the point should be that the woman is doing what she wants to do, making a personal choice about how to feed herself, without the judgment that is heaped on women who eat in a way that is not the social norm.
I’ve listened to intrusive questions when people see me with a prepackaged sandwich in my hand. I’ve heard men chortle when I tell them flat out that I don’t cook. People love to inform me that the food I eat from my restaurants must be very bad for my health. I think those people are forgetting that the rise in restaurant culture is highly credited for releasing women from their kitchen duties and allowing them to pursue passions other than feeding families of five. It’s easy to throw shade in your twenties when you can pal around with your boyfriend while cooking squash instead of eating at a restaurant, but I doubt that same sense of superiority will be a comfort in twenty years when those same couples are trying to juggle feeding their kids with full-time jobs. The plethora of eating options available to us today is something to celebrate, not something to make fun of people for utilizing.
I’m content with my decision to stop cooking as I approach my second Christmas of store-bought dip and cheese instead of braising a turkey for myself. I’m happy to provide copious amounts of wine for any and all holiday gatherings, and my friends and family get the added bonus of seeing true wine service in action from a professional server. But that’s as far as my holiday contributions are going to go. Maybe there will be a time when I get back to the kitchen, but for now I’m going to listen to my brain and my stomach, both of which tell me: ’tis the season for burritos.”
All photographs provided by author.