I was born to be a mom. I’m the one who, as a child, always reminded my friends to grab a sweater before running out the house and later in life showed up to study groups with platters of brain food in tow. In fact, when my husband and I announced that we were expecting a baby, nobody was surprised.
A caretaker by nature, my notion of being a mother—a Jewish one—was intrinsically linked to food. Coming from a rich heritage full of elaborate dishes passed down from kitchen to kitchen, I’d been raised by women who cooked up storms, feeding the bellies of family and friends. Even though my family’s Cuban-Jewish heritage included more than kugel and gefilte fish, “You should eat more” was still a stereotypical refrain planted in my head.
When I became pregnant, I couldn’t wait to introduce my little one to some of my family’s classic dishes such as arroz con pollo and ropa vieja. Of course, my first trimester threw a wrench in my plans, with its crushing fatigue and moments of debilitating nausea. I traded in decadent gourmet dishes for saltines and cheese sticks, hoping that my appetite for fine cooking would return by my second trimester. I’d been warned about food aversions during pregnancy, but it was hard to imagine that foods I normally loved would have the ultimate foodie running in the opposite direction at their mere mention.
The worst of it was that I seemed to have developed an aversion to cooking all together. Me! Someone who grew up in the kitchen. Someone whose passion for cooking was so strong, I developed a blog devoted entirely to showcasing some of my family’s favorite dishes. Me, who wooed my husband the classic way – through his stomach. I don’t know if it was the exhaustion, the nausea, or a combination of both, but I literally felt ill every time I peeked in the refrigerator.
For months, my husband and I subsided on quesadillas because they were all I could muster. It was as if I could only eat a meal if it was sandwiched within a tortilla.
After a fifth night in a row of quesadilla-ed dinner, my husband had the audacity to request a little variety. That’s when it hit me: I had assumed that, like other matriarchs before me, I would show affection, in large part, by feeding those I loved. At this moment, my fantasy of becoming a “Jewish mother” was being threatened. If I couldn’t stand to be in the kitchen, how was I going to nourish my budding family? As my pregnant belly grew, my dream of motherhood was just around the corner, and my definition of a good mother was rapidly changing.
Months later, when we finally welcomed our baby son, my husband and I naturally grew into our new roles as parents. While my aversion to cooking eventually subsided, I continue to favor easy, quick dishes. I prefer to spend my time holding my baby rather than a wooden spoon. How this will evolve as my little guy begins his own eating adventures is yet to be seen.
For now, my growing boy, just a few months old, has taught me that I indeed have become the Jewish mother I always wanted to be, but that my fantasy has evolved and become more sophisticated. Instead of spending hours in the kitchen, we run around spending time with grandparents and family, reading books, having playdates with friends, and rocking out at Tot Shabbat. All of that effort, as cliché as it might sound, is nourishing our family’s soul. And if that means a few more nights of quesadillas, then bring on the shredded cheese.
Jennifer Stempel is a TV development executive, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. When she’s not developing new TV shows, she enjoys teaching cooking classes, and blogs about her experiments in the kitchen. To read more about her culinary adventures, check out: www.TheCubanReuben.com.