Not too long ago I felt overwhelmed by every aspect of cooking and entertaining. Then, in a relatively short amount of time, I became a Shabbat-dinner-making, Sukkah-decorating, Seder-creating, full-fledged balebusta.
Balebusta, roughly translated as a “praise-worthy homemaker” is the Yiddish term for the absolute last thing I would have predicted for my adult life.
I suppose my ambivalence came from my mother and grandmothers. Though ladies of many talents, they were not known for their cooking or Jewish holiday hosting. I never witnessed the making of matza balls, kugels, apple cakes, or latkes. We didn’t clean out the house for Passover. We didn’t have Shabbat dinners or Shabbat anything. (If you’re curious about my transformation from Reform–and I don’t mean “secular”–to “Reformadox” you can read that here.)
I say none of this in judgment. I had a wonderful childhood with good memories of birthday parties, catered Thanksgiving feasts, and other occasions. I especially admire my mom for getting decent, basic dinners on the table every night, making us eat together, and enforcing proper table etiquette. She also taught me how to set a beautiful table for company. But you can see how it happened that by the time I got married (I was only twenty-three), I had no idea what to do with a kitchen full of high-end pots and pans and everything else from our registry.
For the next two years, I was in graduate school and my husband was busy with work so we ate on the run. Then something happened that made me panic. As Bryan and I made “couple friends,” we were invited to friends’ homes for dinner. When the time came for us to reciprocate, the idea of bringing in food from a restaurant seemed like an endless prospect. Would I forever have to cater when we had dinner guests? Furthermore, Bryan and I were sick of eating take-out all the time. And no, Bryan becoming the family cook was not an option. He’s definitely more Mad Men than Modern Family.
So I began to try. People kept assuring me, “If you can read, you can cook,” but I found that cooking and especially entertaining took a surprising amount of coordination. There was a mysterious code to the creating and staging of it all that I couldn’t crack. Sometimes I served meat that was still raw in the middle. More often than not, I overcooked everything. I couldn’t figure out how to keep food warm without it all getting flat and soggy by the time I was ready to bring out the entire meal.
Then, in what seemed like a miracle to family and friends, I had an extreme metamorphosis. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I’m now comfortable maneuvering in the kitchen and more than competent when it comes to entertaining. In the past few years, I’ve been added to our extended family’s rotation of holiday hosting. Seder for twenty? Sure. Festive meals for Sukkot and Shavuot? All over it. Dinner guests almost every Friday night? Pretty much.
Here’s my secret to patience in the kitchen:
#1. TiVo. I’m a television junkie, but life became so busy with kids (we now have four) that I couldn’t justify sitting around indulging my TV habit when I was trying to build a writing career. However, watching “my stories” while cooking at least felt productive. Chopping onions and mincing garlic is infinitely less tedious with Revenge on in the background. Cleaning a chicken doesn’t feel quite as disgusting while rooting for Lady Mary and Matthew on Downton Abbey. I’m not exaggerating when I say that reruns of Gilmore Girls got me through two years of dinner preparation when I first started cooking.
#2. Privacy. When I’m cooking, everybody else in the house leaves me alone. The silence (except for the television, of course) is absolute bliss. Sure, I love my husband and my kids enough to make these meals for them, but it doesn’t mean I want them hanging all over me every waking moment. They all seem to get that when Mama’s peeling potatoes (and watching 30 Rock) everybody better find something else to do. I’m a balebusta, not a saint.
Are you a balebusta? How did you learn to cook? And what, in your opinion, is the hardest part of entertaining?