Read How to Cook Like a Man Online
Authors: Daniel Duane
“The mouth's ready!” she'd reply, and I'd place a berry on her tiny tongue, both of us all-over stained with juice.
“Mouth's ready for another!” she'd cry happily.
Plop: yet another, onto the tongue.
“Hold me, Daddy!”
I replied, quoting: “Hold me, Daddy?”
Slinging her up, I kept picking with the other hand, overcome by greedinessâfor berries in their fleeting ripeness, and also for life, in same. Shapes of surprising experience entirely new, satisfying, not so complicated, temporarily liberated from worries about status, or money, or what ever came next. The big hawks looped in a high wind; crows did likewise; Hannah joined me deeper in a thicket, no choice in the matter, thorns at our skin and sun scorching our noses and berries ripe-to-bursting all around. I hadn't surfed in months; I hadn't exercised in weeks; but at least I was picking blackberries, telling myself it counted because the berries were ripe and if I didn't pick every single one that very day they might all fall off and rot.
Everybody's life feels fragmented, in one way or another: the friends we loved in high school, but never see; the sports we played for years; the identities dropped along the way. And many of us find pleasure in stitching those fragments togetherâmuch as I did in all that fishing and foraging. The great joys of my twenties had come almost entirely from the natural world, the Pacific Ocean in particular. So I felt as if coming home to myself
when I tried, say, abalone diving, north of the Golden Gate. Abalone were still plentiful in California back when I was a kid, every Berkeley backyard fence bearing a few of those big pearlescent shells. Berkeley children grew up hearing about dads “ab diving,” and I'd kept on hearing about it throughout my surfing years. But now it felt irresistible, a key part of that California-Edenic dream.
An old graduate-school friend, a former Navy SEAL named Mark, did it all the time. So I asked to meet him one morning on the Sonoma coast. He showed me how to pile all my free-diving gear onto a boogie board. Then I followed him in a long, kicking swim with flippers to an off shore kelp bed. We tied our boogie boards to heavy kelp stems, the sea cliffs about a quarter mile behind us. Then he cleared his dive mask, took a deep breath, and vanished. When I put on my own face mask and looked underwater, I couldn't see more than six feet in the frigid gray-green gloom, and the ocean bottom was apparently much deeper than that.
Not on your life
, I thought, at first.
Not on your life am I going to hold my breath and dive into that murk, with no clue what's down there
. I swam over to a particularly big mass of kelp and tried to float in the middle of itâthe aquatic version of hiding behind a bush. But I was wearing a weight belt, so I could barely tread water, and my flippers kept getting tangled in the weeds.
Mark popped up holding a barnacle-encrusted disk that must have been nine inches across. He was smiling and relaxed, not at all winded.
“You swear you'll follow me down?” I asked.
“The whole way,” he said.
“The whole way?”
Mark noddedâhe's a great guyâso I took a deep breath, turned upside down, and started kicking. Shooting downward with surprising speed, I focused on the small field of green around
my eyes. That green darkened, and then I got too scared and spun around and beat it back to the surface. I tried again, with Mark following: breathe deep, flip over, shoot down, hit the panic point (
Alert! Alert! You must turn back!
), rocket back up. Brushing through a mass of kelp, this time, I felt a rush of panic, but then I was in the fresh air again, gasping.
On my third try, I made it twenty-five feet down before a great darkness approached from belowâthe ocean bottom, absorbing light. Then I got close enough to see the bottom: rock reef, seaweeds, kelp anchors, this deeply hidden little universe thriving in the frigid opacity of the sea. Invertebrates clung to the rocks all around, gorgeous little creatures, and yet I had no sense of the larger topographyâwas this a boulder I was looking at? The edge of an abyss? The bottom of a canyon? A shark or even a whale could've been ten feet off, and I wouldn't have known it. I was already succumbing to my claustrophobia when I saw an abalone: a big round shell stuck to a rock. Flicking it off before it could seize the reef, I grabbed it, paused to look upwardâthe surface was only a distant haze of faint lightâtucked the creature under an arm, and swam.
Home again, that afternoon, I felt more alive than I'd felt since Hannah's birth; closer to my younger self than I'd thought possible. But I felt something new, too, richer emotions available only because of marriage and fatherhood: the pride and joy of strolling in my own front door, seeing tiny Hannah explode with joy: “Daddy!” I dropped my ice chest and grabbed Hannah up off the floor and kissed her. Then I spread my hubcap-sized mollusks on the table, for all the family to see. I'd been scared witless, is the truth, twenty-five feet beneath the surf, but I craved feelings like those; I got a plain, simple, indisputable satisfaction from telling my pregnant wife and daughter how I'd swum down to the bottom
of the sea and pried up dinner. Even the gory process of cutting out the guts, like I'd learned from Mark, made me feel competent in a gloriously archaic way. I loved knowing the very thing known by early San Franciscans and Native Californians before themâthat to render my abalone edible, I'd have to slice that tough white meat into thin rounds, pound it toward tenderness, maybe bread and fry it. Or boil it up as a chowder, the preferred technique of San Francisco's original Bohemian crowd, led by a long-forgotten but then-famous poet named George Sterling, author of the great “Abalone Song”: “Oh, some folks boast of quail on toast, because they think it's tony, but I'm content to owe my rent, and live on abalone!”
I loved showing Hannah the pretty inside of the shells, too, imagining that she and her sister-to-be might each keep one all their lives. I told Liz to call up our friends Kate and Jamieâwe had about five total pounds of meat, so why not share? It was a beautiful warm night with the back door open and the sky purple over distant Mount Diablo; I still felt the fresh thrill of cold-water diving on my skin and in each deep breath; and with good wine and the stars coming out, I felt immensely happy and somehow at home, as if everything made sense, everything about the young man I'd once been, the middle-aged father I couldn't stop becoming.
The first great blow to my cooking confidence emerged from the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
, which also happened to be the first book Alice ever published and the last of her books that I ever tried to complete. Liz was quite pregnant by then, and I'd already begun entertaining three or four nights per week, inviting everybody we knew for dinner, as often as they would come. It's hard to believe in hindsight: with Hannah not yet three years old, and Liz carrying all that extra weight and needing all that extra sleep, and with our family finances only beginning to stabilize, I went on a dinner-party tear that would have left me desperate with exhaustion at any other time in my life. Plus, I still put a premium on maximizing the sheer number of recipes I could tackle in a given night. And I still did not see any point in cleaning as I cooked, preferring to tackle every single messy pot, pan, and spatula at the night's end, when I was often plastered. As a result, those meals were remarkably chaotic, messy, and excessive. But they weren't badâespecially when I cooked from Bertolli's
Chez Panisse Cooking
, which I'd grown to love. My mother and father came for Bertolli's masterful Fish and Shellfish Soup, a grand sort of California bouillabaisse, and they returned with friends for Veal Meatballs with Artichokes, Tomatoes, Green Olives, and Sage. I loved the role of the host, experimenting with five
or six different new dishes at a timeâtwenty to thirty per weekâin a mad, frantic rush toward I knew not what. I loved being at the center of the room, the heart of the action, whirling and spinning and heating and chopping. I'd begun writing about wine, too, so I had a lot of open bottles and I'd discovered that if I put out, say, a dozen Pinot Noirs from different parts of California, with maybe two dozen glasses for a grand total of six guests, and if I told everybody to help me sort out the regional differences in flavor profile, they'd all get drunk. And if I then presented four different varieties of shucked oysters and said everybody ought to compare and contrast, and do the same with a plate of Bertolli's own
, from this new company he'd started, and if I then hit them with a pile of whole Monterey Bay sardines fresh off my back-porch grill, and if I showed everybody how to pick up the whole fish and suck the meat right off the skeleton and then discard the head and guts, everybody would get a little disoriented and begin stuffing themselves even before we sat down to the bone-in pork loin roast and the pancetta-wrapped figs and the creamy polenta. I'd get stuffed and disoriented, too, while Liz dealt with Hannah. When the very last of the guests had gone, I'd stay up cleaning for hours and then feel our bed's mattress moving in odd, uneven circles, as if floating on a whirlpool.
Even now, I'm impressed by how supportive Liz was through that period. She's an introvert by nature, finding social life more exhausting than exhilarating. But our dinner guests were mostly old friends of hers, so that helped. She knew also that my relentless entertaining was a means of fighting back against all we'd been through, a way to embrace life and insist upon a good time. So Liz meant only to encourage restraintâa move toward less destructive eveningsâwhen she suggested I learn a little about menu composition, constructing our evenings not just for maximum
drunkenness, stuffed-ness, and recipe completion, but for perfect enjoyment. Through her own mother, Liz had a deep grounding in the core principles of hospitality: she knew that a great dinner party had to reflect the exact mood of the occasion, even one's relationship to each of the guests. I found these suggestions meddlesome at firstâif I caved even a little, I feared, I would lose control over my forward progress.
That's how the
Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
caught my eye. I'd long assumed it to be the authoritative manual for the white-tablecloth cuisine of the formal dining room, and therefore a natural someday destination in my journey, a peak I'd have to climb. But I'd noticed that, in homage to Olney's
The French Menu Cookbook
, Alice had arranged her recipes entirely in complete menus, meaning I'd have to prepare them in complete menus if I wanted to master the book's core teachings. I'd also recognized early that I would have to spend a week and several hundred dollars to prepare any single one of the menus by myselfâa bridge too far, even for me. But now, I saw an opportunityâtaking on these ridiculously elaborate meals under the guise of bending, for the first time, to the will of my wife. Plus, I saw a solution to the problem of time and expense: perhaps our friends would consider tackling a menu with me, in potluck fashion.
When they agreed, I gave out assignments. My buddy Rich, a handsome competitive cyclist and pharmaceuticals salesman, boned out an entire five-pound duck, lined a loaf pan with its skin, and then filled that pan with a mixture of the duck's fat, ground leg meat, and sliced breast meat, along with ground salt pork, two eggs, Cognac, and copious herbs and spices, for Duck PÃ¢tÃ© with Pistachio Nuts. Liz's dear, close friend Kate, a pickup-basketball enthusiast and sustainable-energy expert, agreed to host the evening. She and her boyfriend, Jamie, a polymath software
designer, yanked out all the guts from many pounds of Monterey Bay squid, snipped off the tentacles and cut the bodies into rings, and then sauteed all that squid with Cognac flaming in the pan. They used red wine to deglaze the pan, and then they added herbs and aromatic vegetables and set the whole thing to simmer for an hour. For my part, I spent a small fortune on several large racks of lamb. Then I marinated them in wine, herbs, and olive oil while I went through the intense drama of making my first proper lamb stock and then reducing it to a demi-glace for the sauce. Finally, for dessert, a hard-living liquor executive named Jon provided all the Sauternes for an Olive Oil and Sauternes Cake prepared by Kate, who happens to be a sensational baker.
I don't remember much about the actual evening, except that Hannah fell asleep on Kate's bed and everybody had fun, especially Liz. I felt a warm, happy glow that night, as if a grand new chapter were opening in my life. About a month later, I proposed that we all try a second menu based on an expensive ingredient I was about to acquire in quantity. I'd been offered a freelance assignment to write about foraging wild truffles in the Oregon forest. I knew that European truffles cost almost two thousand dollars a pound, so I considered this to be the only opportunity I would ever get for tackling the “Truffle Menu” of Eggs Cooked with Truffles, Crayfish Salad, Filet of Beef Lucien Tendret completely stuffed with truffles, Pommes Anna, and Raw Milk Camembert. And while our friends had mostly seen that first menu as an exhausting one-off, a crazy lark of a thing to do at Dan's behest, they were unable to resist my new setup, the promise of such a rare culinary experience.
Liz was about a week short of eight months pregnant, in early April, when we all set a date and I flew alone to Portland to
procure the goods. I drove south to a restored-Victorian inn amidst the vineyards of the Willamette Valley. There, I met a gloriously plump country chef named Jack Czarnecki, author of
Joe's Book of Mushroom Cookery, A Cook's Book of Mushrooms
, and the
. Building a reputation and a culinary style around his unlimited access to wild Oregon mushrooms, Czarnecki had become the world's chief booster of the wild Oregon truffle. Brimming with pride, he told me that truffles were, in essence, mushrooms that had abandoned the standard evolutionary adaptation of the aboveground mushroom stem, as a means to reproduction. Growing parasitically on the root-tips of trees, truffles mature well underground. Then, when the time is right, and when most mushrooms would shoot up a stem to spread their spores on the wind, truffles release only a volatile oil that rises up through dirt and carries onto the wind a molecule precisely replicating a mammalian sex hormone found, among other places, in the urine of pregnant women. Strange miracles, but miracles nonetheless: that fungally synthesized copy of our own pheromones slips into the noses of passing squirrels, deer, and people, hijacking our brains to make us dig up the truffles, eat them with a sense of ecstasy, and then defecate truffle spores all over the woods, spawning still more truffles and still more ecstasy. It really is nice to have our brains hijacked in this way; it's a genuine marvel that an organism evolved to be sensationally delicious through that curious pathway of our sexuality, instead of the typical pathways of sugar, salt, or fat. It is precisely this that makes truffles so magical, as a food: they smell and taste like a mysterious and vaguely unclean sexual musk we cannot help craving and loving, unless we happen to
very pregnant women, in which case they seem to make us want to vomit, at least if we happen also to be Liz. But it is precisely this solvent-like off-gassing quality in truffles
that requires, on the part of the cook and the eater, a quality I've never had in much quantity: self-restraint.