How much do we really learn to cook by our mother’s side?

Mom and daughter baking

By Merin Oleschuk

Picture a young child standing on a stool next to the counter where their mother holds a bowl of what will soon be cookie dough. The child looks up eagerly as their mother hands over an egg to crack into the bowl. “Now crack the egg here and make sure you press hard, but not too hard…”

How does this dominant cultural story about learning to cook shape our memories and the stories we tell about our own food learning? How does this story reinforce gender inequalities around home cooking?

This easily imagined scenario represents a dominant cultural belief about cooking – That it happens first and foremost “at our mother’s side”.

While conducting interviews and cooking observations for my recent study with parents in Toronto, I asked them how they learned to cook, and the vast majority, over 80 percent, relayed a story about cooking with their mother.

Take Teresa, a mother of Mexican descent who worked as a nutrition coordinator for her children’s school. She shared a memory with me of her mother cooking sopa aguada, a Mexican pasta soup, saying, “I picture myself when my mom was cooking, and I was like, ‘mommy, can I do it?’” Teresa described her mother’s response as she relayed instructions for properly frying the pasta: “Okay, ya, but you need to fry like that, and don’t let it burn.”

Memories such as Teresa’s were recounted time and again by people from all backgrounds – by men and women, upper, middle and working classes, and from varied races and ethnicities.  This cultural story was easily imagined even for those who hadn’t experienced it. When I asked Ian, a White father and freelance writer, how he learned to cook, he responded firmly, “I certainly wasn’t taught by my mother.” Yet when I probed these stories further, asking participants to expand on the details of their food learning, it became clear that the skills and techniques people learned alongside their mothers, or the meals they prepared, were actually quite minimal: things like boiling eggs, assembling sandwiches, or making instant macaroni and cheese.

When looking deeper into cooking histories, my research revealed that most people did not learn how to cook—in the sense of having cultivated recipe competence, kitchen confidence or managerial know-how necessary to put a meal together—until long past the time they spent at their mother’s side. Most learned these skills later in their lives, usually in early adulthood, after moving out of their childhood homes, when most people first had to plan and cook meals for themselves on a regular basis, balancing considerations like taste, price, and health.

Recall Teresa, for example. Later in our conversation it became clear that, as a child, Teresa helped her mother in the kitchen with very minimal tasks and developed only a handful of cooking skills. Teresa did not cook alone until she was 21 when her mother passed away. She then took cooking classes to feel confident cooking alone.

Similarly, when I asked Zahra, a Pakistani homemaker, how she learned to cook, she immediately responded, “Oh, from my mom.” Zahra explained that her learning began around tenth grade and was part of the learning she undertook about how to be a woman in her community.

However, when asked to explain further, Zahra revealed that she only cooked with her mother “on and off” during holidays, “because normally she’s doing everything. She doesn’t need help.” Zahra disclosed that when she got married and moved from Pakistan to London to live with her husband, “I wasn’t able to cook alone, like all by myself.” At that point, she taught herself by trial and error, with advice from her husband who had lived alone prior, and with phone calls home to her mother.

Why does it matter that there is a discrepancy between the primary story people tell about learning to cook from their mothers and the complexity of how they learned to cook in reality?

It is important because our unconscious reliance on the “cooking by our mother’s side” story perpetuates gender inequality. Recent research shows that while men are cooking more at home than they used to, women still spend more than twice as much time in the kitchen as their heterosexual partners.

The stereotype that most food learning happens from mothers perpetuates this unequal division of labor because it reinforces an automatic, morally powerful connection between femininity and cooking for one’s family. Teaching children to cook is one of the many tasks that mothers are expected to perform when striving for the seemingly elusive figure of the “good” mother.

My research shows that when we shift our focus to an overlooked but key period of food learning – early adulthood – mothers are only one of many diverse avenues for learning.

When looking at this life stage it is clear that learning to cook most often happens informally as we cook with those around us – sometimes with our mothers, but more often with our friends, roommates, and partners who are key influences on how and what we cook. Learning is also commonly formal and deliberate, through classes, restaurant and catering work, or self-taught from the internet or cookbook.

It’s therefore time to rethink the dominant cultural story about learning to cook. Instead of occurring first and foremost by our mother’s side, food learning is composed of a series of experiences over one’s life, where early adulthood is especially important.

This shift in focus can challenge the powerful association between femininity and family cooking, provoke us to consider alternative, collective food teaching strategies, and take some pressure off mothers.

Merin Oleschuk is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. She studies how intersecting inequalities shape consumers’ food habits alongside how various methodological tools can be applied to understand them. Her dissertation focuses on family meals, and explores the relationship between values, meanings, and practices related to home cooking alongside their implications for inequalities in families.

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