Cooking and Cleaning
I haven’t posted on this blog for over three months now, and as I sit down to write for it again, I’m aware that I am beginning to write its final chapters. When we returned to the States, I wasn’t sure what would happen with this blog (continue/evolve or fade away?), but as time has passed, I’ve realized that this blog had a specific purpose of reflecting on all that it meant to move overseas, which has expired now. Now that we’re back, there are just a few more things I want to say about our transition back to the States (in order to preserve the experience for my own sake as much as anyone else’s). I’ve been mulling these parts over for some time now, and the amount of free time I have just doesn’t seem to match up with all I want to say. My goal, now that it’s fall break here, is to share these final thoughts over the course of a few posts and then to say goodbye to this space.
Today’s topic: cooking and cleaning. I know that many people don’t find either task particularly fun to do, much less talk about. Yet, I’ve found that sometimes it’s the really practical, day-to-day issues that have caught us up as we’ve moved back to the U.S. I have not cooked or cleaned regularly for the past two years of my life. (I feel I need to say that I recognize this as a complicated blessing, not as something that I was or am entitled to.) Most of my colleagues from Bangladesh who have returned to North America are in the same position, and in e-mails and on Facebook, they have been chronicling what it’s like to try to return to those tasks. Some find they burn food or misjudge quantities or no longer have the pacing or rhythm that they used to have in the kitchen. Others publicly record moments like the first time they clean the toilet again, recognizing it as somehow significant. I suspect that things like cooking and cleaning become so monumental because it seems to sort of highlight the disjunction that many of us feel, the way we no longer smoothly fit into the world around us. Things that once felt natural no longer do. Awkward chopping in the kitchen feels like a metaphor for our broader discomfort, the way we’re no longer “at home” anywhere, even our own houses.
At the same time, these everyday tasks also become the sites for new beginnings, at least for me. One thing I realized in moving to Bangladesh is that my relationship with cooking had become unhealthy. Many of you know that I rarely cooked the same meal twice; one of my hobbies was reading cooking magazines, and I loved trying out new recipes on an almost constant basis. I kept a binder of “beloved” recipes, but even those were ones that I made only about once a year. I believed this was just my cooking style and that it stemmed from my interest in variety. I also believed that I truly enjoyed this way of cooking, that I found it relaxing. In hiring a Bangladeshi cook, I was nervous about whether I would grieve the loss of a stress-relieving hobby and whether I could appreciate the repetition of meals.
When we moved to Bangladesh, and when Muin began cooking his delicious food, I found myself feeling surprisingly free of a burden. A lot of pressure had accompanied my hobby, I realized. I had been creating work for myself with this expectation that I make a new meal each night. It had also occupied, I learned, a too-big percentage of my thought life. Maintaining that pace of cooking new recipes required me to think about food often, both in terms of locating the perfect recipes and in terms of shopping for said recipes (particularly when they required unusual ingredients). I had just made it all too hard, and had given it too much space in my life.
And — please be gentle with me as I’m vulnerable here — I realized that cooking had in some ways become tied to my own sense of identity. Sometimes I truly did enjoy cooking new dishes. But other times I enjoyed being identified as a person who cooked new dishes. I liked the affirmation I received by making good food. Sometimes it was almost a source of pride — for me, an unhealthy one. (Please note that I’m not suggesting that similar cooking habits play this role in anyone else’s life. For me, the “unhealthy” part was what was going on internally, not the external practices.)
Around the same time that I was having this revelation, a speaker came to visit our university. She was the highest-ranking police officer in India, and she was a passionate, powerful, and vibrant human being. As she spoke from her own experiences to the students, she talked about how she had been able to achieve her dreams, in part, because she learned to delegate. She thought about what only she could do, and what she could allow other people to do for her. She concluded that only she could primarily raise her children, and only she could perform the roles that were so important to her in her career. Otherwise, she felt that she lost nothing by hiring people to cook and clean for her; in fact, she gained the time that she needed for her family and her job. Obviously, in a South Asian context, hiring domestic employees is a viable solution for someone in the middle or upper classes; it doesn’t apply as neatly to life in the States. I found this woman’s way of thinking challenging, however, because it helped me think about where I want to be putting the greatest percent of my time and attention. And, it gave me permission to try to cut corners or find ways to “delegate” the things that I had determined were not as important or life-giving for me.
As a result of all of this thinking, Arlyn and I tried to overhaul the way we think about and approach making food upon our return to the States. I created a new binder, but this time it contained tried-and-true favorites that we feel we could cook and eat about every month. We focused on gathering together quick, easy, healthy recipes that we like making and that result in good leftovers. We’re trying not to be legalistic about this plan either, but instead to create a system that consumes less time and energy. I’ve already made a few repeat recipes since we’ve been back, and I’ve also given myself permission to purchase a few more convenience goods. (There’s plenty of time to make my own bread in the summer.) As crazy as it sounds, all of this has been truly revolutionary.
Cleaning has been harder. We toyed with hiring someone to help occasionally with housework, but in the end we decided we had other financial priorities. At the same time, I feel like my previous way of dealing with this was either to spend (what felt like) my whole life cleaning the house or else letting things go and feeling frustrated at how unkempt the place was — neither of which felt like real options anymore. A friend, however, shared a blog entry she had come across called “The Case for Once a Month Cleaning,” which sounded promising. (The follow-up post is “How to Clean Your House Once a Month“.) The short version (at least as it applies to me) is that the house gets deep cleaned once a month. During the rest of the time, the family makes greater efforts to keep the place tidy (and does spot cleaning as necessary). Again: revolutionary. I’ve tried it for a couple of months, and while it’s not a perfect system for us, it does seem to be helping in terms of efficiency, sanity, and general cleanliness. There are certain things we’ve tried to remain committed to, such as not leaving the kitchen after dinner unless all dishes have been dealt with and all surfaces have been washed, which means that most days the place looks presentable. Then, when it comes time for a deep clean, the process is not quite so overwhelming because things have been kept in decent shape all along.
As I’m typing this, I’m aware that all of this must just sound so elementary to so many of you. I admit: efficient home management has never been my strongest suit, and while I wish I would have figured some of this out sooner, I guess I’m glad to be making any progress at all. I’m also aware that deep cleaning only once a month must sound absolutely disgusting to others of you. I’m sorry, but I promise that I’ll time it with your arrival if you come to visit (which I hope you will).
There are a lot of ways in which even now, after several months of being back, we still feel ourselves jostling to find a settled place again in America. However, feel free to read this metaphorically, too: We are eating well (if less adventurously). And our house is getting in order.