Finding joy in the kitchen
Words by Nathalie Maxey
Photos by Stephanie Davis
Growing up, I hated cooking. Don't get me wrong—I’ve always loved food, but making it? Not so much. Cooking required following way too many steps, and then I was left with a pile of bowls and pans to clean up. It was exhausting!
My disdain for cooking went much deeper than that. Here’s the thing: I grew up in a culture with very traditional and outdated gender roles. Women cleaned, took care of the home, and also cooked, because “that’s what women do.” Cooking and serving for the men in their lives was never an activity or hobby that women were allowed to do; it was their responsibility. As one of my family members once told my then-fiance as he got up from the table to clean his own plate, “No. That's women's work.” Seeing women become servants in the kitchen gave me this negative, visceral reaction toward cooking.
When I left home for college, I told myself that I would not continue that oppressing cycle. I was not going to cook and be a servant just because of my gender. That was not acceptable to me. I spent my young adulthood rebelling against the traditional role of women, going hard after academia and career goals.
Even after getting married and having kids, cooking was still not my BFF. We were acquaintances, if that. I shared kitchen duty with my husband out of our need for food rather than from enjoyment of cooking.
Then one day, something changed as I binge-watched The Chef Show, in which Jon Favreau cooks with chef Roy Choi, who trained Jon for the movie Chef. I watched these two grown men make food—not to follow a societal expectation, to feed the masses, or even to win a competition, but as a form of expression, passion, and creativity. It opened my eyes to finally see cooking as more than a pile of dishes to wash, and more than a requirement because I'm a woman.
I was so enthralled with the show that when they made the same Spaghetti Aglio e Olio that Jon cooked in the movie, I simply had to make it for myself. Instead of rushing to just “get it done,” I took my time. I carefully sauteed the garlic in olive oil as if I were making a piece of art, and I followed the rest of this easy-yet-delicious recipe with much joy and pride! It was my “masterpiece”—just as my seven-year-old son says when he creates any kind of art. This one simple meal made a lasting impact on my soul!
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience with cooking, or maybe as a child you played sports or played a musical instrument only because your parents expected you to, and suddenly it was no longer fun. It’s simple: no one likes to be told what to do. Wanting to do something makes it enjoyable!
That’s how I feel about cooking nowadays. I still do it to take care of my family, but now I get to create savory masterpieces by mixing and matching ingredients to create a work of art. Once the expectation was removed, I gained the freedom to cook, and it transformed cooking from a requirement to a delicious creative outlet!
So what does cooking look like at our home? We eat in most nights, making simple yet flavorful meals. Our favorites dishes are classic American, Latin, and Mediterranean. We usually start with olive oil, salt, and coarse ground black pepper, seasoning everything really well as we’ve watched too many Top Chef episodes where “the dish could’ve used more salt!” From there, our go-to flavors include garlic, onion, bell peppers, chili powder, cumin, Italian or Greek seasonings, and bbq sauce. Sometimes, especially when I’m cooking for myself, I go back to Honduran comfort meals. I enjoy making scrambled eggs with tomato, which my mom and aunts cooked when I was younger. It’s been fun experimenting and making my own version by sauteing and reducing the tomatoes before adding the eggs. Simple ingredients, simple steps, and great flavors that remind me of home!
I’ve learned a valuable lesson from the strong line of women that came before me—food is best made when it’s simple, focused on the ingredients, and shared with people you love. So cook what you like, cook with what you have, and have fun creating something that brings joy to you and those you love!
1 pound dried spaghetti
1 cup pasta water
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, enough to coat the pan
1 head of garlic, cut into thin slices
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
1 lemon, squeezed
Parmesan cheese, grated
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
// Serves 4-6 //
In a large pot, add water, salt, and a drizzle of olive oil. Bring to a boil, and add the pasta. Cook until al dente (slightly undercooked) for about 8 minutes. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water, and drain the pasta. If desired, add a drizzle of olive oil to avoid sticking and mix well.
Heat olive oil in a large pan (big enough to fit the cooked pasta) over medium-low heat. Add garlic and stir frequently until the garlic is light golden brown. Add the red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Lower heat to low. Cook and stir for about 30 seconds. Slowly add the pasta water and mix well.
Add the drained spaghetti to the pan. Toss until the pasta is thoroughly coated with the garlic oil. Add the parsley and lemon juice and mix well. If the sauce is too watery, continue cooking for an additional 1-3 minutes. Check for flavor and adjust the salt and pepper if necessary.
Remove pan from heat. Plate and top with Parmesan cheese.