If I don’t cook holiday meals for my son, will he remember me?

A mother reflects on her lack of abilities in the kitchen at the holidays
By Tonilyn Hornung  Published on 12/17/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT
Mother and son having fun in the kitchen Rawpixel

My great-grandmother’s home-baked cookies. My grandfather’s skillet-fried chicken. My microwavable Hungry Man dinners. This will be my cooking legacy. My true gift with the kitchen lies in never entering one. I’ve never had a problem ordering out or embracing this non-cooking part of my personality—until this holiday season. Not once have I ever prepared a special holiday anything for my 5-year-old son, and this lack of tradition is worrying me.

My great-grandmother was a lovely lady. When I was a little girl, she took care of me while my parents worked. In between our tea parties and singing competitions, she made me home-cooked meals. My absolute favorite were her jam-filled cookies. I remember watching her thin fingers knead the impossibly thick dough. I remember her smile as she watched me watching her. I remember how the hot cookies felt in my hand as I ate them until my stomach could hold no more. Oma has been gone over 35 years, but Oma’s Cookies (now baked by my dad) are with me every holiday. I still feel her love through her recipes.

When I’d help Oma bake cookies I could tell that she enjoyed being in the kitchen. Her hands met that dough like meeting an old friend. When my hands meet so much as the refrigerator, I want to use them to call an old friend and invite myself over for dinner. I’ve never found any creative joy in cooking. Put simply: Cooking doesn’t make me happy. It never has. I have tried to find the love in food prep and turkey basting, but when I enter the kitchen my stomach tightens—and it’s not from hunger. The kitchen is overwhelming and confusing and not where my talents lie. I’m much better at menu reading and ordering.

When my husband and I were first married he knew that the only meal I’d be happy to prepare was one that involved ordering in or the microwave. (Of course, he’s man enough to cook, too.) Since my son was born, my culinary efforts have expanded to include the toaster oven. Cooking is a chore that I can never seem to master anyway. In fact, I’m such a bad cook that one day while making lunch I created so much smoke it triggered the fire alarm and sent two fire trucks to my house to check on me. That ended my foray into frying. The only ones who benefit from me spending time in the kitchen are our dogs.

“Mom, can I help you cook?”

“Sure, you can help me open this box of macaroni and cheese …”

So, I’ve been thinking lately I might want to create other memories than just opening boxes of pasta—especially now that my son is asking. Family history and traditions are important to me, and my heart bursts wide open at the idea of keeping our family alive through the recipes they created. I can introduce my 5-year-old to the great-grandmother he never met by making her barbecue chicken. I can tell him stories of how I used to help his great-great-grandmother bake my favorite cookies when I was his age. This is how I can keep my family alive and together. Our recipes tell the stories of us.

Tonilyn Hornung cooking with her Oma
The writer (on the left) cooking with her Oma and younger sister.

Certainly, this will mean a great change in my holiday ordering-out protocol and a great change in me. As a decided non-chef, I feel like I’m entering a foreign land late in life, and it’s daunting. There’s bound to be lots of burnt cookies, and I might want to put in a warning call to our fire department. Still, I feel such an intense bond to my family through the recipes they’ve shared that the call to cook is growing louder as my son is growing older.

Preparing the holiday dishes of my family that’s no longer with us dulls the sting of their absence. I want to give my son the opportunity to feel that same gift of connection. This way he can remember his past long into his future. I want for him to remember the two of us giggling away as we burn cookies and to figure out how much flour to use in his great-grandfather’s fried chicken recipe. My hope is we still have time to create many holiday cooking memories because all those memory filled meals will bring such comfort and one day he may need it. I know I do. This is why this holiday season I’m feeling a little more kitchen love, because I feel the support of my entire family behind me—generations worth. I’ll be cooking with them along with my son.  

Luckily, my son is a little ahead of me in the baking department. The past two holidays, he and my dad have made Oma’s Cookies. My little guy loves being in the kitchen. Maybe the chef gene skips a generation. I’m loving that my kid has some warm memories to unwrap for future holidays, and I’m ready to step up and create some of my own. I can still remember Oma smiling down at me while we made those same cookies, and it occurs to me: Maybe she wasn’t smiling at me because she loved cooking, but maybe she was smiling at me because she loved cooking with me.

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