‘Why I Learned To Cook’ is a short story from the Fresh Ink anthology of short stories. I picked it up from the library because I recognised the name of one of the authors who contributed to it but it seems to be aimed at teenagers interested in reading about people from a diverse range of backgrounds. It’s another e-book, and as my local library’s e-book system continues to be terrible, one that I really wanted to like, so all that trouble was worthwhile.
It might have been, but not based on this story. It’s fine. It’s even nice. But nothing much happens, and that doesn’t make for a story I’m particularly interested in.
Our narrator is Yasaman, a teenage girl who has come out to her parents as bisexual but who has decided not to tell her grandmother, worrying that she wouldn’t understand. Unfortunately, Yasaman now has a cute, popular girlfriend who would love to meet Yasaman’s beloved grandma, so Yasaman finds herself asking her grandmother for cookery lessons so she can make Hannah something special.
What do these cookery lessons cover? Is Yasaman ever tempted to sound out her grandmother’s opinions on bisexuality or people loving who they love, or is she terrified by the very thought? How does Yasaman’s relationship with her grandmother change and deepen, now they’re sharing something so meaningful – because the story takes care to position food, and the hours Yasaman and her grandmother both spend working hard, as an expression of love and care? We don’t know, because the actual work of learning how to cook and failing is glossed over with a timeskip of a few months.
Yasaman never actually comes to a decision about whether or not she wants to tell her grandmother about her relationship with Hannah or her bisexuality. It’s down to her grandma to realise that Hannah, not some boy from school, is the one sending texts that make Yasaman blush, and to reassure the girls that she accepts them both. In real life, yes, it would be lovely for every LGBTQ+ kid to be met with easy acceptance – but I feel unsatisfied to be reading a story where our narrator introduces this fear that she might not be accepted and doesn’t ever face that fear by owning her own identity, instead just staying quiet while her grandmother reassures her.
There are a lot of elements here that would have made for an interesting story – that tightrope act it seems like Yasaman is walking at times, balancing who she is with her grandmother and who she is at school, or seeing Yasaman grow in self-confidence. But ultimately it feels like the story lacks some impetus for Yasaman to change or develop, and so, for the most part, it feels like she doesn’t. It’s Hannah who asks to meet her grandmother; it’s her grandmother who realises that Yasaman and Hannah are dating. The one suggestion of conflict or fear is resolved without Yasaman needing to do anything, and as a result she feels very passive.
Now, this all feels very negative but it really wasn’t bad. There were a lot of things to like. Yasaman’s grandma felt like a well-realised character with an interesting story about how she fell in love with her husband and moved to America after his death, only to be making elaborate meals every Friday that her children don’t attend but her granddaughter and neighbour do – only now it seems that her granddaughter Yasaman is keeping secrets from her. Flipping the perspective and focusing on the lessons and how that changed the relationship between the two of them would have resolved all of my problems with this story!
It was nice. Yasaman was nice. Her relationship with Hannah was nice. It’s nice that she was accepted by her school community and her family, and it’s nice that her grandmother could comfort her without Yasaman even needing to tell her what is going on.
But nice doesn’t make for a story that holds my attention. I need a little grit, something to worry about, something for the protagonist to overcome or at least challenge themselves by attempting.
In cookery terms, this caramel needs a little more salt.