When my sons were 12 and 14, I went on strike. To demand more respect for my nightly dinners, I hung up my apron and just stopped cooking.
We had developed a pattern that, frankly, I was fed up with. Each night, my sons requested that I try a new recipe, rather than serve a tried-and-true dish. But, most nights I wanted to make a quick dinner that didn’t require opening a cookbook and that didn’t require a lot of brainpower either. Most upsetting was the way they took on the role of Sam Sifton to my Julia Child — they gave detailed critiques of everything from the seasoning to the presentation. I was much more interested in talking about what happened at work or school, plans for the weekend or an interesting item in the news than I was about how well the dinner had turned out. To be fair, they were also eager to help with the chopping and sautéing, and they were both skillful and chatty.
One night, after knocking myself out to prepare chicken piccata with lemons and capers, a new dish that received very mixed reviews, I reached my limit, and announced my strike. I told my sons that I wouldn’t return to cooking until we had a new contract. After two nights of scrounging and dad’s cooking, they capitulated and asked (I like to remember that they pleaded) that we head for the bargaining table. We hammered out a new contract: My children wouldn’t criticize meals that were confirmed family favorites, and I would welcome my younger teenaged son, an accomplished cook and caterer, to cook red meat for the first time in our vegetable-dominated kitchen.
As we cooked together, I discovered that I was no longer the boss in the kitchen. My son knew far more than I did about how to make a tasty hamburger, cook bacon in the oven, and prepare a short rib. He taught me a thing or two about how best to chop an onion, how to layer on seasonings, and how to use a micro plane without grating my knuckles. I think that he also came to appreciate all the care I took in preparing family meals. As we chopped and sautéed next to each other, with mutual respect for our differences, we were reworking the push and pull of adolescence. My making room for his expertise was a harbinger of changes to come — my children knew things that I didn’t, and they were willing to teach me.
In my clinical practice, I often have the experience of seeing a change start in the kitchen that then spills over into other realms. A father and teenage son who don’t do anything together anymore, for example, might start to choose vegetarian recipes to cook together, to accommodate the son’s new political stance on eating meat. As the son experiences his father’s appreciation and respect of a difference between them, he feels that he can start to share more of his life with his father. A mother with young children wants them to start taking more responsibility so invites them to choose a new recipe from a children’s cookbook, like Pretend Soup, to help make once a week. A couple who can’t collaborate on parenting or on their shared business decides to try some new recipes that they can teach their young-adult child who is soon moving to her own apartment. This cooking collaboration is fun and creates the confidence to resume other joint projects.
While talking about feelings is my bread and butter, I also have to acknowledge that sometimes, talk just isn’t enough and action needs to be taken. I’m not advocating going on strike, but the new roles that my sons and I hammered out — appreciate what I have to offer, and I’ll make room for your expertise and different tastes in foods — have served us well. This mutual respect and re-balancing of power in the kitchen has rippled into other areas of our lives. If there is something going on in a family that needs change, consider shaking it up in the kitchen.
Anne Fishel is part of The Family Dinner Project based at Harvard University. She is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has lectured and written about the benefits of family meals, having raised two sons, age 20 and 22, who still love to cook, eat and talk.