It had been a long day of errand running, toddler chasing and homeschooling. I sank gratefully down on the park bench next to my friend, and we settled in to watch our children play.
She asked me, casually, “So, what are you making for dinner tonight?”
Hmmm. It was 4:30 p.m., and by the time we got home, it would be dinner time. That was a valid question.
“I really don’t know,” I admitted, “I’ll figure something out.” My mind drifted to the ubiquitous box of pasta that I always keep stocked in the pantry. I began to ponder what kind of sauce could I throw together in 15 minutes.
My friend, meanwhile, was looking at me incredulously. “You don’t know? But what will your husband say?”
I tried to ignore the hint of disapproval in her voice.
“Before I left for this play date,” she went on, “I made sure to prepare the salads, marinate the chicken and measure out the rice and seasonings so that everything will be ready to go when we get home. I plan all my meals a week in advance.”
Salads, plural? I thought. A week in advance?
Then the guilt hit me like a brick. Am I a negligent wife? My poor husband will be stuck, again, with “Noodle Surprise” for dinner, while other men will enjoy a three-course meal. My husband won’t complain, but I know deep in his heart, he will probably yearn for a more elaborate meal.
This has always been one of the biggest cultural gaps in my marriage: our different expectations of food. For my husband, sophisticated, multi-course meals were an integral part of his childhood. His mother’s cooking skills are amazing, masha Allah, and she regularly whips up dishes that could put a five-star restaurant to shame. Moroccan cuisine is complex and time-consuming. Over her lifetime, my mother-in-law must have spent thousands of hours in the kitchen, preparing immense and intricate meals for her family of nine. Like so many women, preparing delicious food is one of the main ways she displays her love for her family.
For me, a child of the American convenience food “revolution” of the 70s and 80s, meals were often concocted in about 15 minutes and usually came from a box, can, microwave or freezer.
While I know that a home-cooked meal with fresh ingredients is far superior to the processed food I grew up with, I find it very difficult to make complicated meals like my mother-in-law’s. For one, I simply don’t have the time. Also, it’s impossible for me to reproduce her exact style of cooking, no matter how hard I try. After several failed attempts, I finally gave up trying to make a couscous that could pass muster with a true Moroccan. Come to think of it, most of my kitchen concoctions lack the flourish of a true gourmet. I have to admit the truth: I am a mediocre cook, and making meals for my family is a necessary task, but not a source of joy or fulfilment. I try to show my love for them in other ways. Does this make me a bad wife?
Over the years, I have learned that many other women have experiences similar to my own. Whether they grew up with a food-centred culture or not, whether they enjoy cooking or not, their current lifestyle makes preparing the delicacies that their husbands crave a huge burden. The different mindsets about food sometimes cause a great deal of discontent.
Why can’t my wife make meals like my mother did? wonders the hungry husband.
When do I have the time? despairs the weary wife.
Whereas our mothers, grandmothers or mothers-in-law often dedicated themselves almost exclusively to housework and cooking in particular, we women today have many other demands on our time. Some of us work part-time or full-time, by choice or necessity. Even without a job outside the home, the majority of modern mums have a very different child-rearing experience than the older generation. Gone are the days when children could play outside, unsupervised, for hours; now, most mothers must organise play dates and spend long chunks of time keeping a watchful eye on their kids. While the older generation usually stayed home, today’s mums are constantly on the go, taking kids to school, sports, appointments and extra-curricular activities.
Educating our children is another demand on our time. A growing number of Muslim mums are choosing to home educate – a rewarding but very time-consuming task. Even those whose children attend traditional school frequently find themselves helping their kids with homework and projects. The after-school hours are often hectic for mums who must cook dinner, tend to a baby and explain algebra, simultaneously.
Finally, some men take for granted the fact that in their homelands, household servants were commonplace. In the background of their childhoods, there were often maids who were busy chopping vegetables, washing dishes and mopping floors. Men might not have been aware of those servants, but they did notice that their childhood home was always tidy, the meals served on time, the laundry clean. Sometimes their unconscious expectation is that their current home life will mirror that of their youth; however, not all modern families can afford to employ help. Fair wages for domestic help are quite expensive in most parts of the world, so families do without. Many women today have to manage their household without any help at all, not even the support of their mum or sisters, who often live far away.
What are modern wives to do? Put aside all other commitments to focus primarily on cooking? Serve Noodle Surprise five times a week? Memorise the number for pizza delivery?
I believe the answer, as always, is balance. While Muslims tend to glory in the consumption of food and consider it a “halal indulgence”, our deen teaches us moderation. The Prophet r said, “No human ever filled a container more evil than his belly. The few morsels needed to support his being shall suffice the son of Adam. But if there is no recourse, then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath.” (Ahmad and At-Tirmidhi)
According to another hadith, “Allah’s Messenger never found fault with food. If he liked something, he ate it, and if he disliked it, he just abstained from it.” (Muslim)
Husbands should sympathise with their wives’ many responsibilities and the limitations on their time. They should recognise that while food is necessary, elaborate meals are not.
At the same time, wives who love their husbands will want to make them happy. Perhaps once a week we can take the time to prepare a meal that our husband especially loves. Asking his mum for cooking lessons will likely flatter her and could also help us master culinary tricks. For the rest of the week, a little Internet research into healthy, easy meals would be easy to do. We can even start an online forum with friends to share family-friendly recipes.
We women have ever-increasing responsibilities, but we can take comfort in knowing that when we do our best for our families, Allah (SWT) will reward our efforts.
Laura El Alam is a frazzled but grateful wife and mother of four in Southern California. She has many passions, but sadly cookery is not one of them. Alhamdullilah, her husband is an excellent chef. She embraced Islam fifteen years ago and has felt whole ever since.