I was raised on hot dogs.
Or sausages, as we Russians called them.
In our tiny kitchen in Moscow, they were lovingly boiled in a pot on the gas stove, then served simply with salted cucumbers, and the required side of Russian black bread.
In the US, the land of advanced space age technology, they were microwaved in plastic tupperware, then served with salted cucumbers and a hamburger bun, a sad downgrade from Russian bread and a testament to our immigrant longing for home.
The hot dogs had to be microwaved in the perfect amount of water to achieve just a little bit of puckering on the edges. The cucumbers were to be cut lengthwise.
This was our casual meal for lunch. For dinner, of course, we got fancy. We weren’t savages. Dinner hot dogs were to be eaten with a cucumber and tomato salad. And a hamburger bun.
The salad — tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, and onions — was doused with salt and pepper and plenty of vegetable oil, itself a substandard replacement for the sunflower oil of the motherland. If it was garnished with mayonnaise, canned peas could also be added.
Adding peas to salad garnished with vegetable oil was unfathomable.
These were the rules of the world according to my mom. They were unflinchingly rigid and we didn’t even think to question them. With food rules inviolate as laws of physics, my sister and I were well into our twenties when we dared to experiment with peas and vegetable oil.
And yet, despite the strict rules, my mom was relatively laid back about cooking. How do I know? Because I actually got to do some cooking. By high school, I was doing most of the cooking for my family. I made full meals from beginning to end without my mom swooping in and taking over. Occasionally, I even ventured beyond hot dogs. I was also responsible for all the baking for any holidays and get togethers.
Anything resembling independence was harder to come by in areas mom was actually interested in. I still freeze at the prospect of filling out any official paperwork, terrified that I’ll make some fatal mistake my mom would have certainly noticed. I have no idea how to keep a clean house like other adult women seem to do. My decorating skills never evolved beyond taping posters up on a wall in college, because actually putting nails into drywall is something only infinitely capable adults like my mom could be entrusted with.
I am grateful for her disinterest in cooking. Within some strict rules, I mostly had autonomy in the kitchen growing up. I absorbed the implicit message — this is where I could be trusted. This is where I can learn by trial and error, because an occasional error is not the end of the world, because, really, it’s just dinner.
I’m a vegetarian now. A lot of my meals revolve around yuppie mainstays like lentils, quinoa, avocados — exotic ingredients that my parents eye suspiciously whenever they come over for dinner, but do not actually eat. To my mom’s endless dismay, we don’t own a microwave. A part of my mind is always occupied with what to make for dinner. All my notes, on any subject, end with a list of ingredients.
I know everything that’s in my fridge and can make a satisfying meal out of just about anything. I look forward to leftover day, when I can transform a bunch of sad withering vegetables into a delicious soup that we can eat for the next week.
The kitchen is still my domain, and I am the queen.
But now there’s an interloper in my kingdom. My three year old wants to “help.”
She wants to help when I’m about to crack an egg for an omelet. She wants to help when I’m shaping a pizza dough. She definitely wants to help when I’m about to throw spaghetti into boiling water. And she always wants to help when everyone is hungry and just wants to eat, and I’m deep in the mental checklist of everything that needs to be executed for dinner.
Note — she never wants to help set the table, which is boring and tedious.
When she says she wants to help, I flinch. This is my space and my time. She will just mess up my perfectly crafted recipe. She will get flour all over the floor and raw egg on all the doorknobs.
I admit that a lot of the time, I enlist my husband in distracting her from the kitchen so I can just be alone.
But many times, I remember those formative hot dogs of my youth, take a deep breath, and hand her an egg to crack.