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Cracker Barrel: Recipes for kindness

Like many guys of my vintage, I grew up believing that a woman's place was in the home, keeping things tidy, cooking the meals, washing the clothes, supporting the husband and always being there for the kids.

Like many guys of my vintage, I grew up believing that a woman's place was in the home, keeping things tidy, cooking the meals, washing the clothes, supporting the husband and always being there for the kids.

True, there were a handful of exceptions in our little town. My friend Pete's mom commuted to work full time as a proofreader for the World Book encyclopedia company. A couple of other moms were teachers, and one was a cook at the high school.

But in the main, the life path for females was clear: get born, grow up, work somewhere until you meet Mister Right, then give up your job and get married.

The other side of this arrangement was equally clear. It was up to the man to make the money needed to support the family, whether the family numbered two or 20. Any man who failed at this task was considered improvident.

It was also the man's responsibility to take care of the outside jobs like cutting the grass, clipping the hedges or painting the picket fence, raking leaves, cleaning gutters, shoveling snow and keeping the family car in dependable shape.

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Absorbing such expectations as a youngster, I grew up thinking they made good sense. Then, in the '60s and '70s, such conventional wisdom came to be questioned, and divisions of opinion formed, which continue to this day.

Why, asked some, should women spend their entire lives trapped in the confines of a house? Why, asked others, shouldn't women be allowed to contribute to the family income? And where is it written that men should be kept from helping with things like cooking or cleaning or washing dishes or raising the kids?

Belatedly (I must admit) I, too, came to see that many of my earlier convictions made precious little sense. One night, thinking about the fact that my wife had done virtually all of the cooking throughout our half-century of marriage, I decided it was time to make at least symbolic amends and begin to redress the balance.

A moment with a calculator showed that she'd prepared upwards of 30,000 meals (figuring two meals a day for at least 50 weeks a year for nearly 50 years), and that I was long past due sharing the load.

With her help, I began learning how to cook. To my astonishment, I found I loved it! And, as so often happens with a new undertaking, I began running into all sorts of unexpected sources of encouragement and insight: friends, relatives, magazine articles, books, TV shows, old recipes.

Given my age, I know I'll never become more than an amateur cook. I'm comfortable with that. But little by little I'm finding my life enriched beyond all expectation by the insights this new activity yields.

In essence, learning to cook has taught me to treasure the profound caring that lies at the heart of food preparation.

A comment in a recent Penzeys Spices catalog put it this way: "Cooking is an incredible act of kindness that sets all sorts of goodness in motion. Once you see each act of cooking for the kindness it holds, life becomes much better. You can even then pick up a paper or check out the news and keep it all in perspective knowing for each headline you see there really are millions and millions of acts of kindness that happen across the planet in the simple act of making dinner."

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Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.

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