When I moved to New York City five years ago, I was too cheap (actually, let's call it thrifty) to buy a subway pass. Instead, I walked 45 minutes every morning from my apartment on the Lower East Side to my midtown office building, and another 45 minutes back at the end of the workday. I learned during this period that the commute home was the perfect time for making phone calls. It became my habit to touch base with my parents and catch up with college friends every day on my way home from work. I had some of my best conversations somewhere around Grand Central Station, as long as the wind wasn't blowing too loudly, of course.
In time, I realized that spending nearly two hours commuting on foot daily was a little silly when there was a full network of relatively affordable underground trains at my fingertips. I traded in my walking shoes for an unlimited subway pass (much to my thrifty self's dismay) and started making my phone calls while I made dinner, instead. Like commuting, cooking was something I did on a (nearly) daily basis. It was also mindless, and a process that took just long enough to give me the time I needed to check in with friends and family before cozying up with my meal in front of the TV. (We are talking about New York City here.)
It became my routine. For years, I'd fire up the stove and the speakerphone simultaneously. I took my mom through the ups and downs of my workdays as I chopped peppers, and updated my best friend on the latest developments of my wedding planning as I stirred pasta. My now-husband grew used to coming home to the smell of chili and the sound of some disembodied voice coming from my cell phone, perched in its usual spot on top of the coffee maker.
Like the women who've come before me, I began to pride myself on being a master multitasker. I could coordinate a hot dinner and meal prep lunches and wish my sister a happy birthday — all at the same time — because I'd unlocked the key to maximum productivity. Whoever said it was hard to be an adult had obviously never tried making all their calls from the kitchen.
A few months ago, though, I started questioning my method.
It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I'd tried making a new recipe. Making dinner had become such a routinized chore — one that no longer even required my full attention — that it was just easier to stick to a small rotation of a few favorite meals. I began to feel about cooking the way I think people in the suburbs often feel about driving. I knew I did it, but I barely remembered participating in the process from day to day.
When had I seasoned those potatoes? Had I really grated that cheese? The salt and pepper and olive oil and cheese grater seemed to have been mysteriously taken out of and returned to their cabinets all in one fell swoop, because I certainly couldn't remember doing any of it. I was too busy talking on the phone.
I admit that I'm at a unique point in my life when cooking dinner can remain somewhat of a luxury. Yes, I work 10-hour days, but it's just me and my husband. There's no homework to be checked before dinner, no chicken nuggets to be made for picky eaters who refuse a salad. Preparing and serving dinner — at least for now — is something that I get to do at my own pace. Making it part of some grand multitasking master plan takes much of the joy out of it (and, yes, there are definitely evenings when there is very little joy to be had in it in the first place). For me, cooking is a great way to decompress from a long day of work, but if I can't lose myself in the process of doing it, it becomes one more item on my extensive to-do list.
Making my calls while I cook is also a surefire way to shortchange the person on the other end of the phone. While cooking can often feel mindless, it does require at least a minimum level of attention, and when it's possible, I don't want to take that attention away from a conversation at hand. Life is busy and it's not always reasonable to devote total focus to a phone call, but by declaring myself done with talking and cooking at the same time — in non-emergencies, at least — I'm trying to set myself up for better talks whenever I can. Baby steps, people!
My kitchen has been a happier place ever since I stopped talking on the phone while I cook. I'm working my way through familiar recipes more efficiently and able to try new ones, too. The finished products almost always taste better, and they're rarely overcooked or under-seasoned. And because I'm able to spend that time listening to music or a podcast or chatting with my husband — in the flesh! — if he's home from the office in time, the cooking process has once again become a calmer transition between my work life and my personal life. I'm not trying to squeeze my phone calls in with other tasks, which means that by the time I get to those phone calls later on, I find myself being a lot more present with whoever's on the other end of the line.
I'll never cease to be amazed by the extent to which so many of us can flawlessly, effortlessly (or so it seems) multitask — but that doesn't mean that multitasking has to be our default mode. Multitasking is often necessary (again, I recognize that I'm at a unique point in my life that allows for a bit more wiggle room), but when it's not, we can give those overworked muscles a rest. For me, giving up the phone call/cooking habit was a great step toward becoming both a better listener and a better home chef.
What about you? Do you talk on the phone while you make dinner?