Dear Rachel,

I am a terrible cook. Most of the time I don’t even try, but when I do, it’s a disaster! My children have learned to cook for survival, and they’re quite good at it. My kitchen appliances hate me and refuse to work as they’re meant to. The Jewish woman is so connected to her kitchen, and there are so many mitzvahs connected to food preparation—not to mention baking challah, which I could never do. And doesn’t inviting guests, another mitzvah, mean cooking a big spread? I feel so inadequate, like I’m letting down the whole chain of Jewish women before me, back to Sinai, by my lack of culinary talent. Is my goose cooked?

Please help!

Undercooked


Dear Culinarily Challenged,

Ayin tovah—the ability to look at things in a positive light—is extolled in Ethics of Our Fathers as a great virtue. So here are a few ways to put this issue into perspective:

1. Focus on your talents

I’m sure there are many things you do well apart from cooking. We can’t all be good at everything. (I myself am no Betty Crocker when it comes to food preparation. My creative talents lie more in the written word. There’s a reason the phrase “starving artist” exists.) Think about how you can use your talents to help others, and don’t feel bad about the areas in which you are not as proficient. Remember, there’s food for the body, food for the soul and food for thought. Only you as the mother can nourish your children’s hearts, minds and souls. They can get a snack anywhere.

2. Look for the silver lining

There are advantages to not being able to do something well; as you mentioned, your kids are good cooks (maybe it skips a generation). I bet many mothers wish their kids were as independent and self-sufficient!

3. Give yourself some credit

I’m sure your children weren’t born with a spatula in their hands, and at least for the first few years you were able to nourish and nurture them. The harder the mitzvah, the greater the reward, so since this is a difficult area for you, you deserve a lot of credit. For every meal you’ve fed your children, even if it was just opening a can of soup and heating it up, you fulfilled the mitzvahs of raising your children and feeding the hungry.

4. Cut yourself some slack

Trying to improve yourself in any area is laudable; beating yourself up for not being Julia Child is an extreme measure. (Excuse the pun!) I’m sure you would like to be a more accomplished cook, but there is no halachic requirement to be a gourmet. Perhaps in past generations Jewish mothers focused on food because during times of persecution (i.e., most of the time) it was in short supply. But the Jewish woman definitely does not have to define herself by how she cooks. If you want to host an event, you can always make it a potluck, or if you have the means, have it catered.

5. Remember to use the secret ingredient

I recommend buying a simple cookbook with very easy recipes, so you can get a few basic dishes under your belt—such as roast chicken and potatoes, cholent (throw everything into a pot and let it cook), chicken soup and tzimmes. Even if you can’t cook a gourmet meal, there is something more important than taste—and that is the love with which the food is prepared.

6. Don’t overdo it

“This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure.”1 Although the Torah doesn’t advocate asceticism, and on Shabbat we are supposed to enjoy feasts of delicacies, there is no need to overdo it. In general, we in the developed countries eat too much, and our focus on food is excessive. Don’t pressure yourself to make a four-course meal for your guests.

7. Host a challah-baking party

Invite some friends over for a challah-baking party. Have a friend or local rebbetzin come to explain the significance of the mitzvah and do it with you. It’s a very popular activity, and you will more than fulfill this mitzvah by hosting such an evening.

I wish you success in the kitchen, but more than that, I wish you continued success in your hearth and home.

Rachel