My Kitchen Wars
by Betty Fussell
Bison Books, 2009
Review by Kat Saunders
It is Christmas Eve eve, and my mother and I are sitting in our car, heater on, observing the blinking lights before us. These are not Christmas lights fl, but two fire trucks parked side-by-side in our driveway.
“Did it occur to you to make sure you removed all of the plastic wrapping from those fish sticks you heated earlier?” my mother says coldly.
“The fish sticks turned out fine,” I mutter, although this is surely an unsatisfactory reply.
“But not the snickerdoodles.”
I think of the smoldering tray of cookies, twisted and blackened like those snake bombs people set off on the 4th of July and I feel guilty for the melted plastic coating the bottom of the oven, the kitchen filled with smoke. I promise myself I will not touch the oven again if only the hunky firemen save our oven, our house, and most importantly, my Christmas presents. It would be a promise I would keep for the next 5 years.
Like my own questionable past in the kitchen, Betty Fussell is quick to remind readers that her love of classic French cooking and immaculate entertaining was anything but innate. In her memoir, My Kitchen Wars, she wryly recounts how she only knew how to cook hot dogs in the early years of her marriage. Her culinary education was sparked not by ambition, but of necessity. Similarly, my own return to the kitchen was mitigated by my move into an off-campus apartment. As Fussell grew frustrated with feeding herself and her husband mediocre food, she began to explore cookbooks and tips from Julia Child and other emerging voices in the culinary world. The Fussells threw lavish parties in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which transports us to the world of George and Martha, the academics who loved good cocktails, conversation, a glorious, airy soufflé, and partner swapping. Fussell and other housewives in her circle were “discovering with excitement how to upgrade [their] Irish stews into bouef bourguignonne and boeuf en daube.”
While I eventually graduated from flipping grilled cheese sandwiches on the stove, I still haven’t mastered the Art of French—or any other culture’s Cooking However, this past summer I planned a lavish dinner party of my own. The guests did not include Kingsley Amis or Phillip Roth, but rather my parents—my biggest supporters and harshest critics. For their 26th anniversary, they mentioned that in lieu of a gift, they’d love if I cooked them an elegant dinner, and demonstrate some of the techniques I learned in the past year I’d been cooking for myself. I painstakingly planned the menu and purchased ingredients, selected the wine, and sliced shallots through burning eyes. If Fussell underscores the potential tedium of planning such an event, she deftly reminds readers that the sense of accomplishment felt in presenting a series of beautiful dishes is incomparable. I might not have saved lobster shells for months, but I did manage to slow-roast red peppers for a bisque and lovingly nurse the roux that thickened it, bake a zucchini gratin—as delicate as it was devilish, wilt a bunch of Swiss chard in garlic and fresh bacon, and roast chicken in a Dijon and caper sauce.
In contrast to Fussell’s era, learning to cook for myself and for my family was my own choice, rather than a requirement. Fussell notes that for many women, the kitchen is not a space free from the influence of the rest of the world, naming it:
…a midden of unpaid bills, half-spent candles, soiled napkins, mail-order catalogues I will never order from, tear sheets of recipes I will never make, last year’s letters I will never answer.
As I and other young women and new cooks struggle with our own less-than-perfect lives, trying to balance our educations and careers with tasks at home, I sense that there’s a fear about devoting our time to domestic work. This fear might come from a concern over setting an oven on fire or whether the mold was adequately scraped from the hot dogs, but it could also come from that thought that if we enjoy cooking we’re reinforcing certain stereotypical roles that women like Fussell struggled to escape. Although Fussell is 85-years-old, her work is a lively reassurance that there’s an inherent satisfaction in learning more about cuisine and even throwing a dinner party, and this message is relevant even for young women and cooks like me in their early twenties. In choosing to cook and enjoying the process, the kitchen doesn’t have to be a battleground.