Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Fine Art of Being a Balabusta--Part #2

D asked "if the newer generations of bnos Yisroel are as adequately trained in domestic arts such as sewing, cooking, and baking, as their forebears were" In Part I, I covered the idea of sewing. In this part I'd like to cover cooking and baking.

Want my answer in a nutshell? No, they are not adequately trained, no and no. Want my reasons? Read on.

Go back to when your mother was a girl and glance around her neighborhood. What you would not see was a restaurant on every corner. What you would not see was a take-home food store on every other corner. Now go into that grocery store your mom shopped in for her mother. What do you see? I can tell you what you wouldn't see. You wouldn't see aisle after aisle of packaged ready to re-hydrate food. You wouldn't find aisle after aisle of frozen ready-to-eat foods. What you would find are things that a woman, at home, could use to cook a meal with. Oh sure, there were a few of those prepared items around, but once having eaten those jarred gefilte fish balls one was quickly brought to realize that mom's were a thousand times better.

In your mother's childhood days food was something women made themselves at home. Meals were eaten at home. Huge swathes of the school-age population brought their lunches from home; so did their working parents. Packaged treats? Not many available. Popcorn was something you made on the stove top in a pot. So yes, women going back a generation or two were better schooled in cooking and baking; they had to be. Notice I did not say that all women were GOOD cooks and bakers, merely that they all knew how. Let's also mention this, because it impinges on what is coming later; many, many of those grandmothers were women who worked outside of their homes. For the immigrants arriving from Europe after the war there was no choice. Even when an immigrant began his own business it was usually a him and her business. And yet, those same women shopped for and produced home-cooked meals.

Fast forward. The restaurant population has exploded, as has the take-home food store population. There's a bakery everywhere that you glance. Every supermarket and every grocery store is full of pre-prepared, just pop in the oven foods. In practice one could go through an entire life and never have to cook one thing from scratch and still be eating plenty.

More women are in the workforce then ever before. Time is a real concern for these women. There are only so many hours in a day, and women, in great numbers, are opting out of cooking to free time for other things. Eating out in restaurants is a regular occurrence in many families. Getting take-home meals is also a regular occurrence. Throwing a pre-cooked meal into the microwave has replaced cooking for many people. And mothers who don't cook, or don't cook much, or can't cook aren't teaching their daughters how to cook or bake either. Even many mothers who can cook aren't spending the time in teaching the skill to their daughters--and to their sons as well.

So why isn't this like sewing you ask? It's a different time period that has different needs. What's the big deal about knowing how to cook? It's not like people will starve just because they can't cook. Please think about that for just a little bit. My answer will be forthcoming.

To be continued.


the apple said...

Hey hey hey! I've been cooking since before I was 12 and still do - I frequently make most of the main dishes for Shabbos when I'm at home. What you say may be more relevant in communities where there are large numbers of kosher restaurants, as opposed to communities where there aren't so many options of acquiring kosher food that is ready-made.

That being said, I do have friends who at the age of 21 have yet to cook more than grilled cheese. Some of them come from homes where their mother likes to do everything in the kitchen herself, and it's just a matter of being taught - not that they don't understand the value of knowing how to cook, just that they haven't quite had the chance yet to learn.

Anonymous said...

I'm lucky that I have a great mother in law. I couldn't cook when I got married because my mom bought a lot of ready stuff and wasn't very interested in it and I didn't see why I needed to know. My school didn't teach it and my mom didn't teach it and cookbooks aren't really helpful when you first start out. We live near my in laws and my mother in law has been really terrific about teaching me what I needed to know. When my fiver year old asked to help me in the kitchen I said yes right away. I don't want her to be as ignorant as I was.

Commenter Abbi said...

"For the immigrants arriving from Europe after the war there was no choice. Even when an immigrant began his own business it was usually a him and her business."

I don't know how generalized this was after WWII. It was a boom economy where it was very possible to live a comfortable middle class life on one decent salary. I'm not saying it didn't happen, but I don't know how necessary it was for both spouses to work like it was in the beginning and end of the century.

For example, my grandparents came after the war and my grandfather opened a Judaica store in his non-NY town. My grandmother helped out, but it was never expected that she should work. He was very successful (not wildly rich, but able to retire comfortably in his sixties and still help out his sons).

BTW, my grandmother was a balabusta, but not a great cook. She had some winners, but my mother remembers growing up on very little that was very badly cooked (both under and over cooked), but not because they were poor, just because she wasn't a great cook.

BTW, I've also been cooking since I was ten or eleven. My first dish I made for myself was a roast duck that my mother frantically asked me to cook erev shabbat because she was going to be late from a meeting. She always worked, and though she loved (and still does) take out, there wasn't so many options around growing up (we also live out of town).

I will add that she told me to grab a cookbook to learn how to make the duck. It was quite easy and everyone loved it. From then on, I was pretty much the designated shabbat cook in the house. When I left home, everyone asked my parents what they were going to do for shabbat and whether I was going to cook and freeze for them!

Orthonomics said...

My comments from earlier never got erased. I believe learning to cook healthy, cost efficient meals in a timely manner is key to maintaining a healthy budget. I have worked with a number of people on establishing workable budgets and more often than not, the food budget is out of control.

Repairing and mending is also a nice skill, but sewing clothing just does not meet my standards of efficiency, either cost or time wise, as I am regularly able to buy quality children's clothing for $1 to $5 per outfit or per piece. The material costs more than the clothing.

mother in israel said...

SL--that's true for children's clothes, but not for women's and especially not for teenage girls. Also, the fabric from used clothes can often be recycled for children's clothes.

ProfK--I just posted my take on the subject, from a slightly different perspective. Thanks for bringing up a very interesting subject (as usual).

ProfK said...

The situation that I describe, with loads of places to buy ready prepared foods, applies more to the larger cities, especially NYC and the like. But those are also the homes to the largest number of Jews in the US, and the largest population of girls.

Out of town has always been different, which as an out of towner I can attest to. There, either the mother cooked or her daughter had to pick up the skill because there was no choice. I'm not saying that there aren't girls who cook in NYC, but as a percentage of the population they are not as great as that of out of town, perhaps the chassidishe communities exempted.

Apropos of the working women comment, again this may be more of a NYC/metropolitan city happening, although my mother was an out of town exception perhaps. The already American for a few decades women were not working in large numbers, although some were in business with their husbands or were teaching, but the European immigrant women were out in the factories and small stores in large numbers. Some retired when the men became more acclimated to the language and the country and could bring home a decent parnoseh; some didn't. I would guess that the large number of restaurants and take home food stores grew out of providing a service to these women.

The comment you made "My grandmother helped out, but it was never expected that she should work" I heard many times growing up. The general culture did not approve of working women and "helping out" became an acceptable euphemism for women who worked. Just what was "helping out" if it wasn't working? My parents had a store in a business that required my father to travel a lot. If my mother had not been in the store both while he was gone and when he was home there would have been no business. And yet plenty of people referred to her full time job as "helping out." Even today you will hear of people saying "My wife helps out to parnoseh" when what the wife is doing is working. I guess "helping" is psychologically the better word for whoever is using it.

I did say that not all women were good cooks back then, but they mostly all had to cook anyway. Today, certainly in the large cities, the bad cooks and those who just plain don't like to cook have easily accessed options.

My mother was and is a great cook, an inspired cook. Yes, she likes to do things by herself in the kitchen, because it is faster for her, but she taught my sister and I how to do it all. We passed this on to our daughters. That is not what I see among my friends and acquaintances, nor is it what I hear when I'm out of my neighborhood. When I was in elementary school home economics classes were required--which schools teach them today?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to be there when you tell the principal of a boys yeshiva that he needs to teach the boys how to cook. I'd even pay to see that. I'd like it even better to see you tell the mothers of Brooklyn and Monsey and Lakewood that they have to teach their boys how to cook. I'd pay double to see that. Ain't going to happen.

Commenter Abbi said...

Believe me, when I say helping out, I mean it really was very, very minimal. My bubbe, a"s, an Auschwitz survivor suffered from severe depression and really was not capable of more than minding the store possibly every once and a while, if that. My zayde really did take care of everything (she also never drove, so he had to take her to all shopping and appointments). Definitely no euphemisms in that situation!

Just as a contrast, my father's parents were both American and my grandfather managed a dress factory (that's why my father was the mender in the family, not my mother!) My grandmother was trained as a nurse, but gave it up (with exceptions of stints at Jewish summer camps) when she had her kids.

In any case, in terms of the cooking, i agree out of town makes a big difference. Though, in my town in Israel there are a number of take out choices and I still prefer to make my own food (my husband, though he likes my food, always offers the take out option for shabbat, to make things easier for me)