The Secret to One Balebusta’s Success

Not too long ago I felt overwhelmed by every aspect of cooking and entertaining. Then, in a relatively short amount of time, I became a Shabbat-dinner-making, Sukkah-decorating, Seder-creating, full-fledged balebusta.

Balebusta, roughly translated as a “praise-worthy homemaker” is the Yiddish term for the absolute last thing I would have predicted for my adult life.

I suppose my ambivalence came from my mother and grandmothers. Though ladies of many talents, they were not known for their cooking or Jewish holiday hosting. I never witnessed the making of matza balls, kugels, apple cakes, or latkes. We didn’t clean out the house for Passover. We didn’t have Shabbat dinners or Shabbat anything. (If you’re curious about my transformation from Reform–and I don’t mean “secular”–to “Reformadox” you can read that here.)

I say none of this in judgment. I had a wonderful childhood with good memories of birthday parties, catered Thanksgiving feasts, and other occasions. I especially admire my mom for getting decent, basic dinners on the table every night, making us eat together, and enforcing proper table etiquette. She also taught me how to set a beautiful table for company. But you can see how it happened that by the time I got married (I was only twenty-three), I had no idea what to do with a kitchen full of high-end pots and pans and everything else from our registry.

For the next two years, I was in graduate school and my husband was busy with work so we ate on the run. Then something happened that made me panic. As Bryan and I made “couple friends,” we were invited to friends’ homes for dinner. When the time came for us to reciprocate, the idea of bringing in food from a restaurant seemed like an endless prospect. Would I forever have to cater when we had dinner guests? Furthermore, Bryan and I were sick of eating take-out all the time. And no, Bryan becoming the family cook was not an option. He’s definitely more Mad Men than Modern Family.

So I began to try. People kept assuring me, “If you can read, you can cook,” but I found that cooking and especially entertaining took a surprising amount of coordination. There was a mysterious code to the creating and staging of it all that I couldn’t crack. Sometimes I served meat that was still raw in the middle. More often than not, I overcooked everything. I couldn’t figure out how to keep food warm without it all getting flat and soggy by the time I was ready to bring out the entire meal.

Then, in what seemed like a miracle to family and friends, I had an extreme metamorphosis. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I’m now comfortable maneuvering in the kitchen and more than competent when it comes to entertaining. In the past few years, I’ve been added to our extended family’s rotation of holiday hosting. Seder for twenty? Sure. Festive meals for Sukkot and Shavuot? All over it. Dinner guests almost every Friday night? Pretty much.

Here’s my secret to patience in the kitchen:

#1. TiVo. I’m a television junkie, but life became so busy with kids (we now have four) that I couldn’t justify sitting around indulging my TV habit when I was trying to build a writing career. However, watching “my stories” while cooking at least felt productive. Chopping onions and mincing garlic is infinitely less tedious with Revenge on in the background. Cleaning a chicken doesn’t feel quite as disgusting while rooting for Lady Mary and Matthew on Downton Abbey. I’m not exaggerating when I say that reruns of Gilmore Girls got me through two years of dinner preparation when I first started cooking.

#2. Privacy. When I’m cooking, everybody else in the house leaves me alone. The silence (except for the television, of course) is absolute bliss. Sure, I love my husband and my kids enough to make these meals for them, but it doesn’t mean I want them hanging all over me every waking moment. They all seem to get that when Mama’s peeling potatoes (and watching 30 Rock) everybody better find something else to do. I’m a balebusta, not a saint.

Are you a balebusta? How did you learn to cook? And what, in your opinion, is the hardest part of entertaining?

(Photo: tokenblogger)

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About Nina Badzin @NinaBadzin

Nina Badzin is a Minneapolis-based essayist, short story writer, and a mother of four. You can also find her blogging regularly at http://ninabadzin.com. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NinaBadzinBlog. Twitter: @NinaBadzin

Comments. Add Yours!

18 comments

  1. Thanks for being a beacon of hope to those of us who have not yet achieved balebusta status. =) I don’t get the timing of everything yet, either, and I have a limited menu of things I can make. But I don’t have to do the cooking most of the time, since most of my family lives together, so I don’t worry about it.

  2. My mother taught me to cook, but to force myself to stay in the kitchen I resort to listening to podcasts. They keep me stimulated enough to stick with it and not get distracted.

  3. Yeah…that “if you can read, you can cook” comment only comes from folks who, I suspect, have an innate culinary talent. For the rest of us, not so simple.

    My transformation from a kick-a$$ rabbi to what my kids call a “house-mother” has been a life-altering one. I am channeling all of the energy formally directed into my congregation into my duties as head cook/chief scullery maid. And the most shocking bit? I am enjoying it.

    BTW, I find “Downton Abbey” is the perfect show to watch while folding laundry.

  4. My biggest hurdle is probably desire; I don’t love to cook in the first place. I do enjoy entertaining and providing a lovely home/meal/experience for friends and family.

    However.

    The grunt work of it doesn’t appeal to me. I like the during and the afterward – kind of like exercise???.

    Also, we have many friends/family whom we have over who have particular (picky) tastes (which were not allowed when I was a child/guest – we ate what we were served and said THANKS) so it’s hard to find a menu to please everyone.

    I end up feeling like I cook the same six or so meals every time we have people over.

    Which is fine until the same group’s coming for the seventh time.

    Then, well. Too bad.

  5. Ah yes Nina, we are soul sisters. Or in reality, I might be more like a surrogate mom. I love the process of cooking. And baking with its more exacting demands really gives me a thrill. I can lose myself in the kitchen for hours and do so on a regular basis. My OCD habits extend to the kitchen and can find me baking, roasting and doing a hoast of wonderful dishes at once.

    My friends always asked me to bring something for their holiday feasts, parties or “pot luck” gatherings. My multi cultural background has exposed me to everything from pasta fagioli to kugle. We were a loud tribe of crazy women, and the second generation is just as loud and just as talented in the kitchen department.

    It began following my mom and aunts, and extends to my daughter and her once a month bake club and my niece’s Friday night delights (this one makes her own mayonaise). It’s wonderful that you have discovered the joys learning what all those pots and pans can do. Good for you and your family. Think how great it will be when you sit at your children’s table and they wow you with how they have improved on the model you created 🙂

  6. Hi Nina, I love this post! You give me hope. Because whenever I step into the kitchen I feel overwhelmed and defeated. Sort of like a first time two-left-feet student of ballroom dance. I can’t figure out how to make everything come out at the same time without burning this or undercooking that. None of it feels intuitive and I don’t feel comfortable experimenting in the kitchen. So, we order in a lot. And I feel bad about it. Do you have a baby step suggestion?

  7. Hey TJ,

    Having a few dishes you can make is the best place to start. That timing this is for sure the biggest challenge. Thanks for following me to TC Jewfolk today!

  8. It’s impossible for me to cook without a distraction. In the kitchen of our first house, we could not get a tv hooked up to cable for some reason. I never cooked those first few years. I’d chop one vegetable then leave the room bored to tears. (And it wasn’t an onion!)

  9. “House mother” makes me laugh . . . we’re like that little house animal in the Harry Potter books–the one Harry saves. I can’t remember his name.

  10. OH– I didn’t say I was a great cook, just someone who’s not intimidated by it anymore. Anyone who’s eaten at my house more than once has seen repeats. I don’t venture onto new dishes until I’ve REALLY worn out the current ones. (YEARS)

  11. That was great–thanks so much for sharing! And yes, I hope my kids will pick it up too. They love to help crack the eggs (well, not the baby!) And of course they love to eat the baked stuff.

  12. Yes! My suggestion is to never try making more than one new thing at a time. So experiment with roasting different vegetables, but just bring in the chicken or make pasta with jarred tomato sauce. Simplify! Or, if you’re making the main dish, do a salad in a bag or buy the side dishes at the prepared section in a decent grocery store. See what I mean? I still, at this point, try not to make more than one or two new things for a meal. If I’m making something new for dessert for Shabbat, then everything else will be something I’ve made before.

    I hope that helps a little.

  13. I normally love to cook, and I am known for whipping up some awesome meals quickly. Even tonight, my husband and my son were kvelling over my meatballs.

    Still.

    I find myself hating the after-cooking stuff.

    We used to have a rule: the cook never cleans.

    I don’t know what happened to that rule, but it died somewhere along the way. Which is decidedly uncool. I need to resurrect that.

    Also, I don’t have a TV in the kitchen, but maybe I should use my iPad and at least listen to music or a podcast. Maybe that would make doing the dishes less hideous.

    Ooops. There I am. Doing the dishes again. 😉

  14. My mom taught me to cook, often without that specific purpose. She allowed me to experiment and helped inspire me to cook and bake. Her dishes were often, but not always fantastic. My grandmother (her mom) had some incredible dishes. Some were doused in oil, cream and butter, but many did not.
    I find the last hour before company arrives to be the hardest. I’m always rushing to finish last minute things that took longer than expected.

    So, yes I am a balebusta. I do recall being very proud when my grandma called me a balebusta. And, while I don’t love doing all of the balebusta chores: laundry, making dinners and cleaning up, I do love these things to be in order. I thank my grandma and mom for introducing me to all of the tasks!

  15. “He’s definitely more Mad Men than Modern Family.” LOL

    I can always count on you to bring me up todate on new TV shows! My favorite author was “live” tweeting the other day with the hashtag #Revenge… I’m pretty disappointed to realize that this was not a new book but a TV show 🙂

    I’m not sure when I started cooking and enteraining. I think around the time I started watching the Food Network. I was just tired of the same old food all the time. I definitely didn’t cook in college and when I try and figure out what I ate during those 4 years I shudder. Now I LOVE LOVE LOVE to cook and try new recipes. I’ve think also because I’ve become something of a foodie I wanted to be able to re-create the delicious foods I had a resturants without the cost.

    I love cooking for people and having people over. My timing is still a little off, I haven’t mastered finishing all the food at the same time yet, so inevitably something is cold. I have become quite the homemaker/domestic goddess and I like it.

    This weekend my best friend (my non-twitter/blog bff) was visiting and we made creme brulee. It was amazing and not as hard as I thought it would be.

  16. This is great. I can’t do the TV/cooking thing–not coordinated enough–but privacy I can definitely relate to! It’s practically meditative.

    My mom told me that when one of my younger brothers stopped napping at an early age, she just put him on a stool beside her in the kitchen so he could “help” with dinner. “What else could I do with a child who wouldn’t nap?!” she said. Today, he’s definitely the most talented cook in our family. Even though my own son is still napping (phew!) I like bringing him in the kitchen with me during the day to do this and that. It’s productive for him, and keeps us both busy! He’s an awesome egg-cracker.

    I love the last two sentences of this post, by the way. Sassy and smart!

  17. What a great solution! I also grew up in a not so cooking-centric household (my mother’s cooking style was more survival than enjoyment), and also found it a little intimidating to start with the cooking and the Shabbos-making. I needed a cooking for dummies starter book, but I instead muddled through some pseudo-gourment cookbooks and eventually found my rhythm.

    Now, four years later, I’m even comfortable enough to make up some of my own dishes, which I feel is a real milestone for my balebustaness.

    The biggest challenge of entertaining for me is being a mommy and an entertainer. Most of our entertaining takes place on Shabbos lunch, and my kids are very much up and around, so dividing my attention between them and the serving (though my husband does help with both aspects, good man!) takes a bit of juggling.

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