Simmering silence

Isauntered over to the counter and plucked a warm cupcake off the cooling rack. I knew I was being childish, but I selected the one with the most chocolate chips. Peeling off the decorative paper, I announced, “My kallah teacher gave me homework.” My mother shut off the mixer and looked at me expectantly. “On Sunday,” I announced with a flourish, “I am becoming the master chef of this household. All culinary staff”—I pointed at my mother—“are hereby formally banished from the kitchen!” My mother’s response was unexpected. After a long silence, her hand dropped from the switch on the mixer and she laughed out loud. My kallah teacher eyed me carefully. “How are your cooking abilities?” Gulp. “Uh, I’ve never really tried…” “Hmm,” she said sternly. “So when do you intend to start?” Please don’t do this to me. “I guess sometime after the wedding,” I replied uncertainly. “Unh-unh,” she admonished. “By the time the big day arrives, you’ve got to be a pro. There’s a reason for this. ” She paused significantly. “In the week following sheva brachos you are going to cook dinner once. The next week you’ll do two.

By the third week you’ll be doing three. And so on and so forth until you’re eating out just one night a week.” Seeing my response wide-eyed silence, thoughts of dropping the whole idea of marriage scuttling across my face—she proceeded to explain. “You work all day, right? And your chasan intends to start off with a full day in kollel. He’ll come home at lunchtime, but you won’t be home. The first time you’ll get to see each other will be at dinner at your parents’ house, where you’ll share the conversation with lots of other people. “Then off he goes to his evening shiur; by the time he gets home, it’s late. You’ll either chat for a half-hour and then responsibly go to sleep, or you’ll recklessly try to make up for lost time and hit the pillow at dawn, only to spend the next day in a grumpy haze.” I figured we’d definitely be choosing the second alternative since the two of us were hopeless night owls (unless my chasan proved to be more responsible than I was). Then I chastised myself for having irrelevant thoughts while my marital fate was being determined and firmly dragged myself back to what she was saying. “Many young couples today think that shanah rishonah is a long, blissful vacation.

Some light housework, lots of laughter, no cooking—the sweet young couple sits glowing at their parents’ tables for a full year.” I nodded along as she continued. “But in fact, the purpose of this year is to spend quality time together, by yourselves, in order to lay down a solid foundation for when life eventually gets more chaotic and there is less time and energy to devote to your relationship.” Leaning forward, she looked into my eyes. “Do you think the precious hours you’ll spend sitting at your parents’ dinner table count as quality time?” I shook my head solemnly. “And do you know how close you’ll feel when you burn your first—or even first few—meals, and then laugh about it together as you concoct something else to eat, or just order a pizza? Can you imagine the satisfaction of feeding your husband yourself, showing him how much you care, catering to his likes and dislikes, and then getting your kitchen sparkling again?” These concepts sounded very lofty and righteous, so I nodded almost eagerly.   Apparently satisfied with my response, she handed down the verdict. “So tonight your mother will hear very welcome news: Her daughter will be cooking dinner one evening a week for the seven weeks remaining until her wedding.” Uh, what? Cook dinner every week?! Starting now? I don’t know how to cook! Did I somehow agree to this by mistake? “It’s homework,” she declared. “I’ll be checking up on your progress.” “So,” I explained grimly,

“for the sake of my marriage, there’s no better time to start.”“Rochel,” my mother countered just as grimly, “for the sake of my sanity, the safety of this kitchen and the nutritional well-being of this household, I will remain the sole member of this kitchen’s culinary team.” “But it’s my marriage!” I wailed. “How will I become close to my chasan and learn to manage a household?” My mother responded with a gentle smile. “The same way your sisters did. None of them cooked a grain of rice before they got married, and look how they churn out delicious threecourse meals for their families. Besides, you know you’re welcome here for as long as you like.” Secretly relieved, I shrugged in resignation. I could read, couldn’t I? That’s what cookbooks were for. When the time came, I’d read the directions and follow them. What could go wrong? Thankfully, my kallah teacher forgot to pursue the issue. My family teased me goodnaturedly about it over the next few weeks, my teenage brother wondering whether he should warn Zev, my chasan, about his imminent exposure to raw foodstuffs and maybe even food poisoning. I laughed blissfully. Zev was already aware of my lack of culinary skills;

before we were engaged, I had confessed that I didn’t have much experience in the kitchen. He had smiled magnanimously and said that no one is born a professional. I also gave him a watered-down version of my spider phobia, informing him that he might be required to come to my rescue if and when the situation arose. My gallant warrior readily consented. No one could say I hadn’t warned him.The weeks after the wedding sped by. Every evening, Zev and I faithfully turned up on my parents’ doorstep. I was perfectly content with leaving him lunch in the refrigerator before leaving for work. Zev was extremely comfortable in my parents’ home. He got along wonderfully with my family and was entirely at ease in their company. Only half in jest, I complained that my mother was spoiling Zev and making it hard for me to pluck up the courage to try my hand in the kitchen; he’d expect the same gourmet meals he was getting now. Every now and then we’d mention eating at home, but it was quickly forgotten. The furthest we ever got was occasionally taking one of my mother’s fully cooked dinners and serving it on our unused, still-gleaming dishes.

That was nice, but the washing up was still pretty tedious. I was finally getting a handle on the laundry, housekeeping and lunch preparation and was feeling rather good about managing those tasks competently, considering the state of my domestic abilities pre-marriage. So far I’d had no laundry disasters or visits to the emergency room caused by unfamiliar encounters with brand-new knives. At a wedding a few months after mine, I happened to sit next to a classmate who had gotten married six weeks earlier. She related that she had already cooked six—six!—full meals. When she asked me how often I cooked, I responded vaguely, “Oh, here and there…” Although she seemed to accept my answer easily enough, I came home feeling grossly inadequate and determined to set things straight. “How about having dinner at home tomorrow night?” I suggested to Zev in as casual a tone as I could muster. Eying me suspiciously, he asked what was up and laughed when I confessed. “Take it easy, Rochel,” he said. “I don’t think we should be comparing ourselves to other couples. There are no rules. If you want to give it a try, that’s fine with me. But honestly, I’m perfectly happy eating out as long as you want.” I was pregnant by then, and the thought of spending time in the kitchen was highly unappealing. “Great, Zev. Thanks. I guess we’ll leave it for another little while.” A month later my mother announced that she was taking a trip abroad.

She would be away for five days. I started calculating frantically in my head. One night I’ll get take-out. Another night we’ll order pizza. That leaves just three nights to muddle through… I needn’t have worried. My mother wasn’t about to abandon her hungry newlyweds. Late one night, a week before she was due to depart, I received a text from older sister #1: Hi, Rochel! We’d like to invite you and Zev for dinner next week. Any day is fine, just let me know. Looking forward.  Four minutes later I got another text from older sister #2: Hey, Rochel—hope you had a great day! Please come for dinner one evening when Mommy is away. We’d be delighted to have you and the kids can’t wait! Let me know which day is best for you. G’nite! Another ding three minutes later from my sister-in-law: Just inviting you for dinner next week; it’ll be great to have your company! Pick any day. Your bro sends Zev his best regards.

Sleep tight! I showed Zev the texts and joked that we needed a social secretary to keep track of all our invitations. Then I sent my mother a text: Hi, Mom. Thanks for arranging our dinners next week! We feel well taken care of.  She called to say that she would prepare complete meals for the remaining two nights for me to store in the freezer: “All you’ll need to do is heat and serve.” On the spur of the moment I decided to take the plunge. “You know what, Mommy? I think I’ll take only one meal from you. I’ll cook the other one.” I explained that I was anxious about being able to juggle everything once the baby arrived and that I’d better start learning my way around the kitchen now. It took some convincing, but by the end of the conversation she had agreed. As it turned out, we used my mother’s frozen meal on her first night away. I took out the foil containers to defrost before leaving for work. A late-afternoon meeting took longer than I expected, and I rushed home to put the food in the oven, hastily cut up a fruit salad for dessert and set the table before Zev got home. Zev was in a light mood, complimenting every course dramatically as I set it down in front of him. Then he was off to his evening shiur, and I turned on the music as I tackled the dishes. 

  It was only much later, after I’d closed the magazine I was reading in bed and set the alarm clock for the following morning, that I suddenly realized what I’d done. My mother’s meal had been fleishig, and I’d thoughtlessly popped it into my milchig oven! In fact, I used this oven only occasionally, to bake a potato or heat up a frozen pizza or boureka, and once I’d even made a simple cheesecake. Now I’d heated a fleishig meal in it—and served it on my brand-new fleishig dishes! With dawning horror, my brain registered the implications of my actions. What was the status of the oven, the dishes, the utensils, the silverware—the food itself? I looked over at Zev, who had wished me goodnight only a few minutes earlier. He appeared to have drifted off to sleep. I’d have to discuss it with him tomorrow, I reasoned, thrashing restlessly in my bed. Or did I? What would be the result of my confession? Zev would never trust me in the kitchen again. If I’d managed to render half of our kitchen treif just by heating up a meal, how could I be trusted to prepare a meal from scratch? He’d be hovering over me every time I cracked open an egg or reached for a ladle— and I wouldn’t blame him.

Over the next few hours I debated my options. What if I had to kasher everything? How would I do that on my own? And what if the dishes, silverware, or oven couldn’t be kashered? I had no idea how to proceed. And did I really want to leave Zev out of the whole fiasco? Did it count as deception? Oh, what should I do? The next morning I dialed the local kashrus line, manned by rabbanim several hours a day. I found myself stumbling over my words as I explained the situation. “When was the oven last used for milchig?” the rav inquired. “Was it within 24 hours?” I thought frantically. “No.” “Then the dishes are fine.” Phew. The oven had to be thoroughly cleaned and then turned on the highest setting for 45 minutes. Okay, not too bad. I could do that quietly without Zev suspecting a thing. The next three nights we trooped from one sibling to another and enjoyed lavish meals and wonderful company. When they asked about our meal at home, I responded chirpily about how lovely it had been and felt stirrings of guilt as Zev nodded along. 

My mother has since returned from her trip, and my little fiasco remains unshared. Leaving Zev in the dark feels wrong. But would confessing have a negative impact on our relationship? I definitely learned my lesson about keeping my mind focused in the kitchen, and I think that’s the really important take-away here. Besides, the truth is that I can’t see myself withholding the whole sorry tale forever; it probably won’t be long before it tumbles out. At least I know that Zev has a wonderful knack for finding exactly the right words in every situation. For those of you wondering how my own home-cooked dinner turned out, the answer is spectacular. (And it was 100 percent kosher!) For dessert we enjoyed an old favorite from Whisk: chocolate ramekin surprise with fudge sauce, ice cream and fresh strawberries. If that wouldn’t make my kallah teacher proud, I don’t know what would. 

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