During the early years of our marriage, meals were sometimes occasions for annoyance. I’d cook something, Speedy would comment that his mother’s version of the dish was different and I’d go into a fit. At first it was just an annoyance but, over time, it became a constant irritation. You know, like a splinter under the nail or a fish bone caught between the teeth which, although not exactly painful, you just itch to pry out anyway for your own mental and emotional well-being.
I knew other wives who had it worse. One wife, not a good cook at all, would prepare meals the best that she could. I mean, I’d give her an A+ for sheer effort. But the darn husband? He’d tell her all the time to please call his mother and ask how she cooked this and that dish. Since it didn’t seem to bother her, I kept my mouth shut. If she was okay with being his doormat, who was I to object? But I wasn’t like her.
Looking back, Speedy probably never meant any of those comments as criticisms, that he probably just missed his mother’s cooking (who, by the way, is a darn good cook) and was showing appreciation for her. But whether he admits it or not, there’s that subconscious attempt to draw a comparison. And I was a young wife who was proud of my cooking, so, there were ugly scenes. He was insensitive and I was egotistical. There were times when I told him, literally, to go back home to his mother. Well, we’ve both grown up. But the road from then to now was long and arduous. It took years but, in the end, he stopped doing it probably without even consciously realizing that he had.
How did that happen? I went on a well thought out campaign. If you’re a young wife or a soon-to-be wife and your partner has a tendency to worship his mother’s cooking, read on.
First, realize that you don’t want to compete. Creating a competition is silly because it is impossible to win. You can’t dislodge your mother-in-law from the pedestal on which your husband has installed her. Why would you want to, anyway?
When I tried to rationalize my outbursts back then, the first thing I realized was that I did not want to live in the shadow of my mother-in-law. I was not going to alter my cooking style in the hope that Speedy would talk about my cooking as lovingly as he did his mother’s. I didn’t want him to talk about me or what I did or how I did things as though I were his mother. Marriage, after all, is a partnership, not a parent-child relationship. Neither was I a dog looking for a pat on the head, and he my master. And I analyzed, quite rationally, how I was going to make that point.
The first part of the campaign was to totally get rid of any basis for comparison. Meaning? I stopped cooking dishes that his mother did, and never cooked the ones that he raved about the most. Speedy always talked with nostalgia about his mom’s saltimbocca alla Romana and how, on occasions when his parents went out as a couple, her mother would prepare cubes of tenderloin that, in their absence, Speedy and his siblings would cook, skewered, in a fondue. I never cooked those two dishes. Ever.
I stopped following patterns that his mother observed. Speedy said that whenever his mom cooked sinigang na bangus, there would always be a second dish of crisp fried bangus on the side. I hate frying and I hate picking bones of bangus. Still, I gave in some half a dozen times, the interval becoming longer and longer until I stopped cooking sinigang na bangus altogether. Instead, I cooked sinigang with some other fish — any fish except bangus — and, having lost the association, he just stopped looking for fried fish on the side.
Christmas and New Year traditions were the most difficult to overcome. In Speedy’s family, there were always “traditional” dishes served on those occasions — ham, queso de bola and fruit salad made with canned fruit cocktail. I hate queso de bola. Ham? The only time we bought a whole leg of ham for Christmas, we were still having ham on Valentine’s Day, and the girls were already whining. The fruit cocktail salad? We still make fruit salad but with fresh fruits. I can’t remember the last time we bought canned fruit cocktail. Seriously.
The thing is, I knew that if we kept replicating the Noche Buena of his childhood, it meant making room for comparisons. So, I started the roast duck tradition. No whole leg of ham; we had roast duck instead, served Chinese style with pancakes, scallions and cucumber. And no queso de bola. Last Christmas was the first in a decade that we didn’t have duck — it had become impractical because Sam turned vegetarian a year ago.
Second, and this is the more significant part, I introduced Speedy to a different world of food filled with roast duck, fish head and all the exotic Asian food that he only occasionally met when he was growing up. I involved him in the process of discovering new food and food sources — places, restaurants, food shops, delis, herbs, spices… everything. In short, we embarked on our own food journey — him, me and our daughters. The fruits of our discoveries, we’d share with his mom and siblings (in the form of dishes I’d cook for family reunions) but the journey and the adventure — that’s ours.
Speedy still talks about his mother’s cooking occasionally but more like a memory fondly and lovingly recalled rather than tinged with a subconscious attempt at comparison.
And me? What does that mean to me — proof that I’m a better cook than his mom? No, oh no. I know I’m a good cook; so is she. I cook with love; so did she. I was, however, able to get rid of the feeling that there’s a splinter under my nail and a fish bone between my teeth. And it feels darn good.