How Easy Is That?: Chasing Ina Garten’s Perfection With My Mother
On other cooking shows, the cooks might make mistakes and laugh about them. Ina Garten has never made a mistake.
The Barefoot Contessa
The Barefoot Contessa
It’s the classic stand-and-stir instructional cooking show, but with an element of letting the good times roll. A viewer feels as if they have been invited to the sort of party that nobody ever gets to attend unless they earn at least a six-figure salary. The wealth is baked into the show’s premise so subtly that I can hardly taste it, unless I take a step back and think, wow, this recipe calls for a teaspoon of a type of cognac that costs as much as our monthly utility bills.
Her recipes aren’t especially difficult, but the seamless confidence with which she prepares them is still quite literally awesome. In Ina Garten’s kitchen, there is no room for doubt, or stress, or the mischievous fell power that occasionally curses every other home cook everywhere. There is only Garten’s smile after she’s tried a delicate spoonful of whatever dish she’s just prepared. “Delicious,” she might croon. And, “How easy was that?”
My mother enjoys peeping in on the genteel lives of people who are wealthy enough to cook for fun. Occasionally, my mother, too, will “entertain” (a word for inviting friends to dinner that has always struck me as unnecessarily self-important). But she doesn’t do it Ina Garten-style. When a friend of my mother’s comes to dinner, the friend, not the dinner, is the focus. She has no separate furniture or flatware with which to play hostess. Friends pile onto the living room sofa, two to a cushion, and boisterously narrate whatever’s on TV while my mother stirs and taste-tests. They eat off chipped plates and gossip. The meal is delectable but secondary; people compliment her cooking but do not waste energy on worshipping it. After dinner, she fires up the ancient Mr. Coffee. You can always identify her favorite guest by looking for the person drinking out of her favorite mug; it’s pink and says “I know it sounds strange, but all I want is a normal life.”
My mother doesn’t like food television, but has always made an exception for Ina Garten’s shows. When I was in high school, Ina Garten ruled the Food Network’s late afternoon and early evening time slots. Some combination of her shows always seemed to be marathoning. Because she and her shows are flawless, they’re uniquely easy to ignore—I liked to turn on the four o’clock Barefoot Contessa and then immediately tune it out so I could do my homework (well, okay, so I could smoke weed out of the contraption I’d jerry-rigged out of an empty soda can and pen cap). Once Barefoot Contessa was on, nothing would do but for it to continue. Each half hour installment fed ineffably into the next, until I heard my mother’s key turning in the lock and realized that I’d been watching for three hours already, abdicating my chores in favor of ingesting a quadruple dose of Ina Garten’s perfection.
One day, my mother came home to just such a scene. Usually, she brushed past it on her way into the kitchen, where she’d immediately start dinner. Deliberate silence was the only way for her to claim space in the tiny apartment that we shared, and I knew better than to interrupt it. But this time, she leaned against the door to the kitchen and watched, her arms loosely crossed.
“I just love her,” she said eventually, apropos of nothing. “Her and all her gay friends, and all that cake and butter.”
I knew what she meant, because I just loved her, too. Her poise, her unimpeachable calm, the way she claimed the domestic sphere with such glorious confidence. Her, in short, and all her gay friends, and all that cake and butter.
My mother joined me on the sofa, which was unusual. My idleness typically troubled her (and, I’m sure, reminded her of my father’s). I have few memories of my mother that don’t feature her bustling around completing a task that could easily be left for the next day. Looking back, I imagine that this was the day that my mother had had enough. Disrespected at work all day, disrespected by the capriciousness of her kitchen all evening, the nine o’clock news, lights out—it was a routine that needed shattering. So we watched Barefoot Contessa together in comfortable quiet, one of us occasionally noting to the other how marvelous a dish looked. When Ina Garten’s block of programming gave way to the dissonant raucousness of Food Network Star, we floated out of our shared trance and realized it was nine o’clock.
My mother laughed. That was the wildest thing of all, that something could go wrong and it could be funny instead of dire. “Oops,” she said. “Guess we’re hitting the diner for dinner tonight.”
Looking back, I’m impressed with my mother for the fact that she never seemed to be losing control. Whatever rage and sorrow she must have felt at the dissolution of her marriage, her irresponsible stoner child, and the drudgery of the domestic fate into which she was conscripted—little of it ever bubbled to the surface. Laundry was done every Sunday at noon, and the checkbook was forever balanced. Hair appointments were spaced precisely two months apart; dental appointments, six months. As a kid, I believed that our shared life organized itself by means of magic. As an adult, I admire the obvious labor in it, and the additional labor to make it look so effortless. Sometimes she was a little angrier than was warranted at my failure to wash the dishes quickly enough, or the sight of my feet up on the coffee table. But as a rule, she was placid through it all. The only place where her nerves frayed visibly was in the kitchen.
I just loved her, too. Her poise, her unimpeachable calm, the way she claimed the domestic sphere with such glorious confidence. Her, in short, and all her gay friends, and all that cake and butter.
She’d internalized the imperative that a family must have a home-cooked meal together every night in order to remain a family, but as time went on, her interpretation of that ordinance loosened. Considerable advances had been made in the field of frozen foods since the Celeste pizzas of my childhood, and she embraced those advances with vigor, stocking our freezer with as many “organic” TV dinners as it could hold. Plus, there was always our trusty diner, where our server knew our names and that we wanted two iced teas, a burger, and a signature omelet (stuffed with bacon, cheddar, and hash browns). The magic of the mythical family dinner table loosened its hold on her. Any table where we ate together could be the family dinner table, regardless of what was on it, or how balanced a meal it was, or who had prepared it.
It feels backwards that Ina Garten should be the catalyst for such a change. If there’s one thing she stands for, it’s the unifying magic of home cooking, the way it feels to bring people together over a feast that you made for them. Ina Garten’s feast table is so homey that it almost doesn’t look richly appointed . . . almost. Her hors d’oeuvres are all beautiful without being fussy; her entrees are warm, hearty, lots of stews and braises. She wants a roomful of undone belts and satiated stomach-patting, just before she serves dessert. What’s for dessert? Something with ridges from the specialty pan in which it was baked—a Bundt, a special tart, something that tells guests “I had to purchase specific equipment to make this for you, because I love you, and I am perfect.”
And yet it was her very perfection that freed us from the expectation that we should function like the same family unit we’d been when we still lived with my dad. Garten’s “family” could consist of her and Jeffrey, or her and three gay bakers driving to her house from the city, or sometimes her alone. Her gift was an ability to plan a perfect meal for any combination of people. When I watched this, I imagined cooking for my own friends someday; when my mother watched it with me, she imagined breaking free from the shackles of that same responsibility that I craved.
My mother and I are not perfect people. We’re messy, temperamental, practical to the point of iciness—I could go on. We are compulsively organized but we lack Ina Garten’s composure, in the kitchen and out. We lack her warmth, too, her ability to exude it’s-going-to-be-okay energy. Like my mother’s, my home-cooked meals are chaotic affairs that involve the accidental deployment of the smoke detector more often than not. But fortunately, like my mother, I am now blessed with the ability to laugh it off and say “fuck it.” Ina Garten’s perfection set us both free. It freed my mother from the implicit motherly requirement to always be cooking for her family with a smile on her face, and it freed me from the comorbid requirement to hold it together at all costs. Together, my mother and I are lazy, imperfect, and sometimes even happy.
Rax King is a James Beard Award-nominated bitch. Her work can also be found in Glamour, MEL Magazine, Catapult, and elsewhere. Look out for her monthly column Store-Bought Is Fine for hot takes about the Food Network, and her essay collection Tacky (Vintage 2021).