Cooking with My Mother-in-Law: Just One of the Girls

Our writer discovers that spending time in the kitchen with her mother-in-law involves more than just preparing meals

“A tavola!”

By the time Dave and I were engaged, those were my favorite words to hear when we visited his parents in Montreal. From various corners of the spacious house, family members would quickly make their way to the long kitchen table when they heard the Italian call for dinner.

The table was the focal point of the home. It was where the family discussed, laughed, argued and sometimes broke into song. Dinner was a four-course affair: pasta, meat and vegetables, fruit and then dessert, accompanied by homemade wine. Thanks to my Italian-born mother-in-law, Iolanda, the meal was always delicious.

But there was one part of dinner I dreaded: the clean-up.

After spending an entire day cooking, Iolanda was responsible for clearing the table between courses and doing the stacks of dishes along the way. If my sister-in-law was over she helped, and I did too. But invariably the men relaxed at the table. It really ticked me off.

“It’s so unfair that your mother cooks all day and then has to do the dishes,” I said to Dave one night. “Why don’t you and your brother do the dishes? Or your dad?”

“That’s just how we do it in traditional Italian families. The men worked hard outside the home all day, and the women worked inside,” he said.

“Yes, but times have changed, and your dad is retired,” I pointed out.

“Rather than complain, just help out," Dave urged. "It’s polite. And besides, when we’re at your parents I always help.”

That was true, but it still wasn’t right. It went against every fiber of my feminist being.

The next day, I spent hours in the kitchen with Iolanda, watching her prepare porcini mushroom pasta and chicken saltimbocca. I planned my protest. I would not clear the table with the rest of the women. If Dave felt like someone should be helping, he could do it himself.

That night when everybody finished their pasta, I sat with the men as Iolanda and my sister-in-law scraped the plates and loaded the dishwasher. After the next course, I again remained at the table, acting as naturally as I could.

As each course passed, Dave shot me looks of mounting exasperation. But, I held my ground. The next night, too, I stayed planted at the table, sure that soon one of the men would actually stand to help.

But they didn’t. I looked over as Iolanda began to scrub the pots. She grimaced and pressed her hands against her lower back.

Then it hit me: While I was trying to strike a blow for equality, I was punishing the person I was trying to help. I stood up and took over at the sink. Scrubbing a dirty pan, I decided that I was going to stick with Iolanda, learn from her and hopefully in the process make her life a little easier.

These days, I am the first one out of my seat to help. I still think it’s unfair, but I realized that part of joining a new family is picking my battles.

True to his word, Dave always cleans up when we eat dinner at my parents’ house. And at home when I cook, he does the dishes. Every time.


This is the second in a series of essays about cooking with her mother-in-law by Jenna Helwig, founder of Rosaberry.


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