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.”
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.