Read How to Cook Like a Man Online
Authors: Daniel Duane
A MEMOIR OF COOKBOOK OBSESSION
Preface: A Man's Place Is in the Kitchen
2. On the Cookbook as Scripture
3. Recipes Are for Idiots Like Me
4. We All Need Something to Believe In
5. What French Women Can Teach Us
7. On the Role of the Menu in Human Affairs
Part Three: What Is Cooking For?
8. The Meat Period in Every Man's Life
12. Recipes Are for Idiots Like Me, Take Two
13. What We Talk About When We Talk About Our Last Supper
For Liz, Hannah, and Audrey
The stove, the bins, the cupboards, I had learned forever, make
an inviolable throne room. From them I ruled; temporarily I
controlled. I felt powerful, and I loved that feeling.
âM. F. K. Fisher,
The Gastronomical Me
Bringing that first baby home from the hospital, and settling into our new lives, Liz and I faced a nightly decision: one of us had to wrangle the newborn, and change the dirty diapers, and one of us had to make dinner. Like a lot of guys in my predicamentâtwo-income family, wife working hardâI chose dinner and, without realizing it, new territory. My own father couldn't fry a burger, and Mom made nearly every home-cooked meal he ever ate, aligning my parents with 97.8 percent of the 185 human cultures studied by the first anthropologists to look into such matters, at least according to Richard Wrangham's
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
. Wrangham admits that human males are perfectly capable of cooking, as evidenced by professional chefs and also by husbands helping out in “urban marriages.” But he offers these exceptions to prove the rule, pointing out that even on tropical Vanatinai, a natural feminist paradise where both sexes hunted, fished, and fought wars, islanders still considered cooking “a low-prestige activity” meant for women alone, right down there with “cleaning up pig droppings.” Wrangham places the source for this ancient division of laborâand marriage itselfâdeep in our evolutionary past, at about the time we discovered fire. The very project of cooking food, by this line of reasoning, called for a “primitive protection racket” whereby females did all the cooking
and males rewarded them by making sure other men didn't steal the results.
For me to become the family cook, in other wordsâbuy all the groceries, read all the cookbooksâmeant taking on a role without a script. But it didn't feel optional. My father had worked long days at his law practice, so he'd never suffered even the slightest compunction to look busy in the evenings, and he'd never needed the domestic camouflage of the putatively productive but secretly calming chore. I had a wife working right alongside me, doing the same kind of journalism out of the same home office, but also doing the housecleaning and waking up five times a night to nurse the baby, and I had a conscience offering up the obvious thought-balloon:
Okay then, fuck it. Maybe I'll deal with my obvious inadequacy by taking full responsibility for seeing to it that our little family has a delicious, wholesome meal on the table, every single night, forever and ever, not least because Liz won't have the energy to make such a meal for at least a couple years
So far so good, but obsession, according to somebody who knew what he was talking about, binds anxiety. I had a long history of coping with change by going overboard on random new skills: forty-five thousand skateboard ollies had only barely gotten me through puberty; electric guitar, six hours a day, mostly Hendrix with a little Jimmy Page, barely soothed the psychic torture of being a pencil-necked, gap-toothed, freckle-faced redhead at a big California high school full of tan water-polo players. My father had been the same way: obsessive, not pencil-necked, studying bluegrass banjo in early middle age, to deal with his own domestic incarceration; rock climbing around the time I finished college, when his youth and strength threatened to fade. When I took on rock climbing myself, after graduationâsummits appearing far more attainable than any actual life-goalsâI got to feel both
closer to my father and more in line with “an age that is obsessed with obsession,” as Lennard J. Davis puts it. In
Obsession: A History
, Davis points out that we moderns tend to see obsession “both as a dreaded disease and as a noble and necessary endeavor”âprecisely the way my father taught me to view my subsequent years in a surf town, burning my best energy on catching the right swell at the right combination of wind and tide.
But each new anxiety, in life, demands an appropriate diversion. So perhaps it was inevitable that, when I hit anxieties unfamiliar to my father, I would stumble onto equally alien obsessions. From the moment Liz and I blew all her savings on a tiny San Francisco fixer-upper, for example, it no longer mattered that I'd long considered three hours of surfing a daily minimum to keep me from completely losing my shit. I simply could not justify all that time at the beach. Cooking dinner, by contrast, even if I soiled every counter and pot and got plastered on some juicy new Zinfandel and pulled the old I-cooked-you-clean routine and then fell asleep on the couch, held out this gorgeous promise that a man might give back, prove his self-worth, even as he came to see preposterous wine and grocery bills as proud symptoms of his undying male vigor, fully expressed in the domestic sphere. He wouldn't even have to risk his neck on some mountain, or hide out at the corner pub, or slither down to the basement workshop, or go wherever guys had always gone when the baby wouldn't stop crying and he wasn't making enough moneyâlike not
enough moneyâand he missed that serene bachelor pad and he wasn't sure he was really man enough to handle all this, even though he was, and he just didn't know it yet, and he loved his wife and his little girl, and he knew he'd die if he ever lost them or let them down. He could just cook and, through cooking, become a proper father and husband, an adult in the fullest sense.
That's a lot to ask of cooking, especially when time, money, and messâcooking's primary costsâhappen also to be the primary currencies of the contemporary marriage-with-newborn. It's one thing for Dad to grab Whole Foods takeout for everybody, in other words, or to whip together some quick, efficient little pasta while the wife bathes the baby, and then to grab that baby and read nighty-night books while the wife shoves all the dishes into the dishwasher and reads the
on the couch as you lie on the kid's floor desperately wishing the kid would, to quote the title of a recent bestseller, go the fââ to sleep. It's entirely another when he settles on cooking as a means to personal transformation, spending time, money, and mess, day after week after year, struggling to learn what the pro chefs know, not just because he wants to feed his family but because he won't be able to rest until he can whip out dinner-party meals of unassailably professional caliber, proving to himself and everyone else that, despite all the evidence, he really is still a man among men.
That's where this lack-of-a-road-map comes in: my father and I had always been close, and he'd long taken me for a masculine carbon copy of himself, always confident that a few key anecdotes, from his own life, would shine a light through my every dark tunnel. But when Dad realized that I'd back-burnered my climbing and surfing to master French sauce-reduction techniques, and pickling formulas, and the fat-to-lean ratios of Italian
, he sensed the first great gulf ever to grow between us. He began to look at me the way novelist Julian Barnes's father apparently looked at Barnes after the same discovery: with a “mild, liberal suspicion” that seemed to say, “If this is as bad as it gets â¦ I can probably handle it.” The key word, of course, being “probably,” with its implication that one might
be able to handle it, so deeply does all this fancy-cooking bullshit suggest that one's son
wasn't quite paying attention all those years, when you taught him how to be a man. I had been paying attention. But I was facing different circumstances and I was a different person. Unlike my father, I didn't just let my passions overtake my life; I let them
my life, at least until they'd run their unpredictable courses and then settled down, as cooking finally has, into a reasonably integrated part of my daily life.
The aphorism most frequently repeated from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's 1825 war horse,
The Physiology of Taste; or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy
, has to be the one that goes, “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” The old French glutton means something quite different, I believe, from today's more prudish (if linguistically more economical) “You are what you eat.” The contemporary iteration expresses only a Puritanical Anglo-American view of food as fuel, or medicine, or poison, while Brillat-Savarin boasts rather of an insight he's had about the expression of cultural identity and aspiration through dining habits. It's the latter I find most useful in explaining my wife, at the time of our meeting. Exhibit A, first sighted on a knotty-pine bookshelf in the pretty young Elizabeth “Liz” Weil's own studio apartment, on a fine block in San Francisco's Mission District:
Joslyn Presents Bernard Schimmel's Masterpieces
, the obscure 1976 Continental cookery classic published by the Joslyn Art Museum of Omaha, Nebraska, where Liz's grandfather, Bernard Schimmel, had been the leading culinary light and bona-fide inventor of the Reuben sandwich, in honor of a poker buddy, Reuben Kulakofsky, a local Lithuanian-born grocer. (Brillat-Savarin, once again: “The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.”) Liz told me this on our
first date, after an indifferent dinner at a crepes joint and a follow-up drink at a fashionably sleazy dive bar. We were sitting nervously on Liz's perfectly respectable couch, talking fast like the earnest young bookworms we were, when she related a classic immigrant story. Bernard's father, Liz's own great-grandfather, had been raised in a hotel in Russia and come shuffling through Ellis Island before building four hotels along the midwestern rail lines: the Cornhusker, in Lincoln, Nebraska; the Hotel Lassen, in Wichita; the Blackstone, in Omaha; and the Hotel Custer, in Galesburg, Illinois. He'd then trained each son in a different hotel specialtyâhospitality management, accountingâand he'd sent young Bernie to become the first American graduate from the famous hotel school in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1928. When Bernie got backâtall and handsome, in Liz's framed black-and-whiteâa
with an inordinate love for Scotch whisky, he'd married a Jewish girl named Beatrice and taken over the Custer, turning the Homestead Room into Illinois's leading Temple of Gastronomy. Live Maine lobsters on refrigerated rail cars, Blue Point oysters out of New York, fresh Italian truffles, in season: the Weils were understandably proud of this guy, and of the way he'd raised his three lovely daughters, Judy, Mary, and Connie, regionally midwestern and ethnically Jewish but gastronomically French, largely viewing the Reuben sandwich as nothing but a cute family sideshow.