Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Monday, October 15, 2012

I was talking to my mom last week. She said, “You haven’t written anything on your blog in a while.”

True that.

Here’s something I wrote a long time ago that wasn’t quite right when I first wrote it and I wrote it again, then stuck it in the blog post purgatory holding pen. Came across it recently when I was cleaning things up. Think it’s probably as good as it’s going to get, and despite the anomalous reference to hot weather, I’m posting as is.


Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking and eating, and cooking at home versus eating out, and why people don’t cook and why people eat out. I’ve had many conversations about this with many different people.

One of the things that has come up repeatedly in discussions with women, especially women who were either raised in traditional families (i.e., those with traditional gender roles, father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker) or who actually were the homemaker-half of a traditional family, is what a loaded issue cooking is for many women, especially cooking for other people. On a really fundamental level, it represents for a lot of people subservience and limited options.

I’ve begun to think of it as the “just a housewife” syndrome.

I had one person I was friendly with here in Durham who I talked with about this a few times, she was in her early 60s, her kids were grown and she had been divorced for a number of years. She ate out all the time but still had a refrigerator packed with food. She stopped working and cut back on how much she was eating out and also how many trips she took to Whole Foods (for a long time, every time I went there I’d see her, I think it was sort of a social activity for her — go to Whole Foods to pick up a few things, run into people and chat, like happy hour or something) but even after she had cut back, she was still spending way more money than I do on food, and had so much more than she needed in her fridge.

We had some interesting conversations about cooking at home versus eating out and one of the things she said was that she had spent her whole life taking care of other people, she wanted someone to take care of her. She wanted to go out and have someone else cook and someone else clean up.

I was thinking about that recently, and I’m not sure if I understood what she was saying at the time we talked about it, but I think I’ve come around.

I can see how when you feel like you’ve been giving, giving, giving, you want for once to be on the receiving end, you want to be taken care of. And I can definitely see how sometimes it feels like too much to figure out what to eat and get it all together and cook and serve and clean up … and then have to do it all over again tomorrow. You want someone else to worry about that, you just want it to be done without you always having to do all the work.

I can see that.

But I also think that trying to fill the need to be taken care of by going out to eat doesn’t usually work.

When you go out to eat, you are being taken care of to a certain extent — you tell someone what you want and they bring it to you. They ask how everything is, they ask if you want anything else, they tell you to have a nice night when you leave. But they’re not taking care of you because they want to, because they love you, because they care if you’re happy. They’re doing it because it’s their job, it’s a restaurant and that’s what they do. (Not that there aren’t restaurants, or people who work in restaurants, who do things for love, there are, but mostly restaurants are business. You give them money and they take care of you until you get up from the table.)

If you eat out because there’s a restaurant that makes things you just can’t make as well at home, or because you want a special night out, or because your kitchen is clean and you want to keep it that way a little longer, you’ll likely be satisfied when you’re done eating. The food will have been as good as you remember, you will have had a break from your normal routine, your kitchen will be clean for another day.

If you eat out because you’re looking for love, it’s not as likely to hit the spot.

In high school, I read Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and it made a big impression on me, I really loved it, and read many more Anne Tyler novels, none of which spoke to me quite as directly as that one did. A few years ago, I picked it up again and re-read it, and was reminded of how much I liked it at the time. I could also see why.

The book is basically a character sketch of a mostly dysfunctional family, and sharing meals (or rather not sharing meals — they can never manage to make it all the way through a family dinner without someone storming off) and feeding people is a central theme. And both when I read the book initially and when I re-read it a few years ago, I found the idea of a restaurant where there aren’t menus, you come in and they tell you what you should eat — “You look a little tired. I’ll bring you an oxtail stew” — to be lovely and intriguing. The restaurant owner’s brother, who thought the idea was stupid, gives the best description of it:

Ever since Ezra had inherited the place … he’d been systematically wrecking it. He was fully capable of serving a single entrée all one evening, bringing it to your table himself as soon as you were seated. Other nights he’d offer more choice, four or five selections chalked up on the blackboard. But still you might not get what you asked for. “The Smithfield ham,” you’d say and up would come the okra stew. “With that cough of yours, I know this will suit you better,” Ezra would explain. But even if he’d judged correctly, was that any way to run a restaurant? You order ham, ham is what you get. Otherwise you might as well eat at home.

I love that passage — you might as well eat at home.

There aren’t many homesick restaurants around. If you eat out because you want to be taken care of, you’re probably going to have to keep eating out because the need to be taken care of will be just as strong when you finish as it was when you started.

It’s like people who are lonely or otherwise unhappy with their lives, who shop or eat to make themselves feel better. It doesn’t ever really work — you can never buy enough or eat enough to make yourself feel better, because the reason you feel bad is not because you don’t own enough or have enough to eat. The hole you’re trying to fill is not touched by the things you’re putting in it.

So if eating out isn’t likely to fill the void left by wanting to be cared for, what is?

I feel like learning how to cook for yourself — learning how to cook with love and not resentment — has a much better chance of success. Because you can think about what you’re missing and what you need and what will make yourself feel better. (And also you get to cook things that make sense — it’s a thousand degrees today and has been all week, and I had lunch at a restaurant that had as its “soup of the day” a cream of broccoli with cheddar cheese. What? Clearly these people have been spending too much time in air conditioning, nothing could have been less appealing to me after endless days of sweltering temperatures than cream of broccoli soup with cheddar cheese.)

As M.F.K. Fisher said, “I came to believe that since nobody else dared feed me as I wished to be fed, I must do it myself, and with as much aplomb as I could muster.”

Being able to take care of yourself — to feed yourself as you wish to be fed –is a great skill that will serve you well and make your whole life better. You get to be your own homesick restaurant.

Because, as the book says, if that’s what you want, you might as well eat at home.

11 Responses to “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”

  1. Yeah! I don’t think the comment about the sweltering heat really detracts from the piece. I just believe you when you say how hot it is.

  2. Sara Says:

    This really hit home for me. My mother hated cooking (for 7 ungrateful kids and a sexist husband) and I sensed it but did not make the connection until I was well into adulthood. I’ve always been envious of people who enjoy cooking, because I hate it, and I think it’s because my mother always did. I have finally caved and ordered MFK Fisher’s book “The Art of Eating” which evidently has five of her books in one. You have talked her up so much, and quoted her, and I think it may be something that will help me get past this mental barrier. In any case, her estate should cut you in on residuals!

  3. lessisenough Says:

    Well it’s true, I do love M.F.K. Fisher and I know I write about her a lot. But I feel like she really influenced me and the way I think about food. She was writing about something she loved and I think that comes across so clearly. Though I have no idea how it will work for someone who is not inclined to think that way to start with.

    I feel like writing is hit or miss, it depends on where the reader is and what he is looking for as much as what the writer has to say. So I’ll be interested to hear what you think. How to Cook a Wolf is definitely my favorite.

  4. SoCalmom Says:

    Dear Less,
    I have just subscribed to your blog and read through some of the posts above but this one in particular really stuck a cord. I have been a single mom for 7 1/2 years now and raising 2 young children who are now teens. I think that somewhere along the line cooking did go from a thing I could choose to do (because I liked the way dinner tasted or I could cook my favorites) to a thing I could avoid by eating out. And many times I would eat out because of the rush of busy lives as a working mom and children that were picked up from day care and had to get help with homework or needed to be carted off to sports practice or wherever and it sometimes became easier to avoid cooking/cleaning. Nevertheless, I do think I sometimes associated cooking with my childhood because my parents always cooked/prepared every meal at home and my father had to provide for 6 people, so my mom frequently cooked simple inexpensive meals (without alot of variety) and that is what I learned to cook from her. As I became more successful in my career through my late 30’s and 40’s I would prepare more expensive meals or cuts of meat more frequently, but when I felt like I needed someone else to “take care of me” I would sometimes eat out and not realize that that was why I was not cooking–I was trying to fill a void of having someone fill my needs or “give me a break”-eating out was an unconscious search for love and validation. Now that I’m at a “post recession” time in my life and have been trying to budget, stretch my income and stop eating out, I need to associate cooking with something I’m happy to do–with tasty ingredients and not wasting food or overspending on weekly shopping trips driven by hunger and impulse buying. Thank you for talking about some of the psychological aspects of cooking and preparing food and how meeting our needs with less can be a freeing and healing exercise.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment. I feel like the psychology of homemaking is so interesting, and so important. Even what you choose to call it — homemaking or housework or chores — says something.

    I feel like my life got better when I realized that I really like having a clean house, and that the way to get a clean house is to clean, and if you think about cleaning as a means to an end — as a way to have a clean house that will make you happy — it stops feeling like drudgery and starts feeling like something you do for yourself to make your life better. Like going to the spa or something.

    (This process began when I started making my own cleaning products, with an all-purpose cleaner that actually works better than what you buy in stores at a tiny fraction of the cost, it literally costs pennies to make. It was very empowering and changed how I feel about the whole process of house cleaning.)

    I haven’t had much luck selling that idea, most people are pretty viscerally opposed to the idea of liking cleaning — they hate it and don’t want to do it and don’t want to even think about enjoying it. But I feel like it applies to cooking as well. And cooking, unlike cleaning, is something that some people enjoy very much and do as a way to relax, so I think the point is somewhat easier to make. Though I haven’t given up on getting people to come around on the cleaning thing. Just need to figure out how to explain it.

  6. SoCalmom Says:

    I completely agree that words and what we call things do have power over us and can subconsciously change our attitudes and behavior. Homemaking, or even the term used in the 80’s -“domestic engineer” conveys intelligence, choice, creativity and someone who is both a steward of their domain and an overseer of it’s fruits. I for one have a strange background about clearning. When I grew up my folks called it chores, but because it was done on Sat. and we were able to reward ourselves with deli sandwiches on fresh baked italian rolls it was not unpleasant. However, my mom was a perfectionist about the house and didn’t want my friends over because they would “mess up” the house, consequently I couldn’t reciprocate when girlfriends held sleepovers and as I moved through college and adulthood, I had many roommates that were extremely lazy and wouldn’t assist with cleaning. There were somethings I really liked to clean/do – like folding laundry or ironing (because of the accomplishment of having a tidy closet), but after having to clean so many apartments and in some cases pay a cleaning fee when I moved (which was frequently) I did grow weary of cleaning. Since I became a working (professional) mom at 37, there was alot more involved in cleaning -changing more linens, mending and more laundry, scrubbing tubs and organizing medicine cabinets, sorting through school and artwork and managing much more clutter, I’ll admit it’s gotten the better of me and there have been times in my life I bordered on being a “hoarder”. But as part of my 2013 committment to change my life for the better (which involves stretching my income, which let me to your blog) I also realize that I do enjoy cooking and learning new recipes, I also enjoy homemaking and needlepoint, crafting and decor, all things that I have “pushed” to the wayside while I focus on work and my children’s extracurricular activities and maintaining an older house & garden. But when I look through some of my old Martha Stewart Living, House beutiful, or similar magazines I’ve saved, I realize that at any time I can choose to begin keeping a clean house and entertaining, and it’s something I should do for me-to love myself–not just so my daughter can have friends over for a birthday. I’m going to really meditate and pray on this and I think it would be great if you could include more blogs on homemaking or associated subjects -like canning or preserving-or featuring money saving recipes from different cuisines (like mexican, chinese) that can help readers expand their thinking about the beauty and fulfillment of homemakeing and cooking. Cheers to you!

  7. SoCalmom Says:

    P.S., are there any other books or articles you recommend reading, similar to MFK’s books on cooking, that have excellent advice for homemaking/gardening/living on a tight budget? It would help us also save on things like making our own laundry detergent. After I have successfully reduced my food budget, I’d love to do the same with other high-cost areas of homemaking. Living in Calif.with our high tax rates makes buying homegoods, cleaning agents and tools all the more expensive and I think many of us would benefit.

  8. lessisenough Says:

    I would like to write more about homemaking, it’s a subject of great interest to me. I’ve been reading things on and off for the past few years but still have more I want to look into. But I’m working my way through and will keep trying to see what I can put together.

    You might be interested in the book Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson, which is a very comprehensive reference book but also has some interesting things to say about the history of housekeeping and how things were done in different eras and by different people. And also has information on everything to do with keeping a home (and I do mean everything), including things you mention above like canning and things like that, along with setting up a housekeeping routine, doing laundry, making hospital corners, etc. And my personal favorite, how to fold a fitted sheet so that it is roughly the same size as a folded flat sheet. I didn’t even know that was possible until I read this book.

    Anyway, it’s a great book, and very useful if you are thinking about trying to figure out what works for you in terms of housekeeping activities, what things you can/should try to do yourself and what you can/should hire someone else to do.

    You should be able to get a copy at your local library, it’s something of a classic.

  9. lessisenough Says:

    Oh, and I just saw the P.S. after responding to the other comment.

    As noted, Cheryl Mendelson’s book is a good place to start for thinking about housekeeping in general, though it’s not specifically frugal or DIY. I use Annie Berthold-Bond’s recipes in Better Basics for the Home to make cleaning products. My favorite is her all-purpose alkaline spray cleaner, which I wrote a post about a few years ago.


    That’s actually a good one to start with — it’s easy, it’s a great cleaner and it’s very inexpensive. I think of it as the gateway drug of homemade cleaners.

  10. Margaret Palmer Says:

    Rebecca, great piece. I am getting the book! (Cheryl Mendelson). I look forward to reading the blog, do more posts!

  11. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks! The Cheryl Mendelson book is great!

    One of my goals is to write a “don’t make me think” post about cleaning. I feel like that book totally changed how I feel about cleaning. Once I managed to get a regular cleaning routine, basic cleaning (things like doing the dishes, sweeping the floors, cleaning the bathroom) went from being something I didn’t pay attention to until my house was a mess, to something that requires no active thought at all. It’s now something I do when I can’t quite figure out what I want to do and/or I’m too tired to start something else — it’s like watching tv, something to do when your brain is tired and you just want to do nothing.

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