Read How to Cook Like a Man Online

Authors: Daniel Duane

How to Cook Like a Man (2 page)

BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
13.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Chain hotels and the rise of air travel, in Liz's telling of the family tale, crushed one Schimmel hotel after another. The last one standing was the Blackstone of Omaha, widely known as the finest hotel between Chicago and San Francisco, along the old Lincoln Highway. That's where all the Schimmels retreated, and that's where Bernie deigned to publish, for the benefit of Omaha's housewives, his tips for Sweetbreads à la Reine, Beignets au
Fromage, and Coquilles St. Jacques. Copies of
had since been given like a secular Torah to every one of Bernie's seven grandchildren, including Judy's youngest, the leggy, brown-haired young journalist passing all this along to me. Herself raised in Massachusetts, matured in Chicago, and devoted to marathon running and to clean, simple food, Liz had long since established a family Law of Nature by which Liz Hates Fancy French Cuisine So Don't Even Bother Trying To Make Her Eat It, and yet none of us can escape the way we've been raised: whether she liked it or not, she could order expertly in the finest of restaurants; her simplest plate of tomato-basil pasta revealed an artistic sensibility, and she certainly knew her
foie gras
from her

As for who I was, sitting on that couch and wishing I had the guts to make this beautiful girl stop talking and kiss me, there's more to learn from the “You are what you eat” formulation. I, too, had a great-grandfather come through Ellis Island, but as an illiterate Irish laborer bound for the New York slums. If you believe Jane Ziegelman's
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
, that pretty much means he didn't have a food identity—as in,
, given that English oppression had long since replaced Irish cuisine with potatoes alone, and then, when those potatoes rotted in the wet Irish fields, with nothing at all (“How do you like the sound of
for dinner, you dirty fucking Irishman? Does
work for you
your ten dirty dying Irish children? Oh, excuse me, I have to go gorge on Beef Wellington”). Couple that with my father's comfortable upbringing in the Irish Catholic schools of 1950s Los Angeles, and with his mid-1980s bodybuilding obsession, when left-wing Berkeley lawyers were supposed to be out jogging or roller-skating, and you can see how divorced I was from any notion of food as joy, or ethnic identity. Dad would hit the gym after work, pump
pyramid sets of bench press and bicep curls, building up those pecs and arms, and then he'd come home to chug a bottle of predigested protein and pick gingerly at Mom's cardboard pork chops (not her fault, just the way supermarket pork was, in the seventies). While I plowed everything Mom made, to convince her that she was a good cook and that we all loved her—true, on both accounts—Dad would leave the table, slip into the kitchen, and taper off with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a stick of butter, cycling through all three with the same spoon. Later, I would open the fridge, stare at Dad's plastic protein bottle, and ponder that word, “predigested,” wondering why my own father drank vomit.

Thus, when a second date brought Liz over to my apartment, she found my refrigerator stocked as it always was with giant whole-wheat tortillas and recycled yogurt containers carrying precooked black beans, rice, salsa, and guacamole, so that I could whip out a vegetarian bean burrito for every day's lunch. As that second date led to a tenth, Liz discovered that I had exactly two dishes in my dinner rotation, each producing a single serving, unless doubled: my Odd Nights Pasta, calling for three cups of dried penne, a single chopped tomato, half a diced red onion, two minced garlic cloves, and four sliced button mushrooms, typically followed by a bowl of cereal; and my Even Nights Stir Fry, calling for one cup of basmati rice, half a standard tofu brick, five broccoli florets, half a bell pepper, and a dollop of bottled Thai peanut sauce, also followed by a bowl of cereal. I could make some other stuff, like quesadillas and the occasional almond-butter-and-honey sandwich, and I was even proud of a little tofu-breading technique I'd picked up from a vegan girlfriend, but all of this food pretty much sucked, and I'm not just playing for laughs when I say that I'd once made a date puke her guts out by mixing tofu
and couscous with far too much cheap curry powder. I wish that were a joke, and that I were just a guy with a childish affinity for puke humor, but I'm telling it straight: tofu + couscous + too-much-curry = nauseated date. And hey, who knows, maybe she vomited for some other reason; maybe I made her nervous. That young lady was no Julia Child, either, specializing, as she did, in a Hungry Hippie breakfast of whole-wheat-and-canola-oil vegan pancakes with a side of soy bacon, a classic example of remorse cuisine—to steal a phrase from dear old Mollie Katzen, author of
The Moosewood Cookbook
, one of the half-dozen cookbooks I'd somehow accumulated by the time I met Liz, at which point my body was about 75 percent burrito by mass, the rest almost entirely consisting of Trader Joe's.

But here's the funny thing about who we are: it's never quite the same as who we want to be. Precisely because Liz came from that classy Jewish food family, she found my burritos thrilling, a way to break with a personal past she'd always found too fussy and ethnic (there'd been a fair amount of liver, too, in the Weil home). A lifetime of stir-fried tofu and cheap pasta sounded great, to her. And yet, precisely because I came from a family without a clear food identity, Liz's background offered a way for me to put on a little Ritz. Then there was the X-factor, ever present between two people forming a family: marriage creates a new micro-society with its own customs and rules, hashed out between the partners but influenced by unacknowledged sources, like our parents and the larger social classes we think we inhabit.

My mother, for example, cared mostly about how manifestly sane, kind, and lovely Liz appeared to be, and would've encouraged me to eat insects for the rest of my life, if that's what Liz's family wanted. “Look, sweetie, I don't want you to feel even the slightest pressure,” Mom told me, after the very first time she met
Liz, “because I would never, ever want to meddle in your life, or be one of those terrible mothers who's always telling her son what to do, but I just want you to know that my mother left me quite a beautiful diamond wedding ring, and I've got it in the safety deposit box and I just want you to know that it's there for you, if you ever need it. You don't ever have to think it's a big deal or anything to ask me, and I won't make a fuss out of it if you do.”

Me, weeks later: “Hey, Mom, how are you?”

“Fine, honey. What's up?”


“Oh. Well, I'm glad you called.”

“Yeah, how are you?”

“Everything's really good. Umm … let's see. I had a wonderful walk last night with your father, he was just so funny talking about …”

“I need the ring.”



“Forty-five minutes, outside the Bank of America?”


I met my mother at the neighborhood branch across from Alice Waters's hallowed Chez Panisse. Mom handed me a blue velvet ring box like it was a meaningless brick we'd never discuss again.

Then she suggested lunch.



That would indeed be the only Jewish deli in the entire city of Berkeley.

“Matzo-ball soup?” she suggested, with a playful laugh.

To be fair, Saul's really was the obvious lunch spot in that
neighborhood, and when Mom suggested a side of latkes, she openly cracked up, enjoying the tease. But the message was there, inside the joke:
Accommodate, my son. You'll never meet a better girl as long as you live, so eat whatever the hell these people like to eat, to make this lucky marriage soar

Then there was Liz's family, although I certainly didn't think of them while I was driving my crappy Toyota truck back over the Bay Bridge with a diamond in my pocket, all my energy focused on the proposal, and on getting to “Yes.” I'd contemplated Grandma's rock long enough to figure it would suffice; I'd settled on the apartment building's roof for the proper place to pop the question; and I'd pictured Liz's pretty lips forming my desired answer. After that, however, I'd pictured nothing but joyous white light filling the scene, followed by years of undifferentiated bliss. Never once had I contemplated all the other human beings that a marriage proposal implicates, least of all the late Chef Schimmel's three daughters: Liz's mother, Judy, back in Wellesley, Massachusetts, screaming into the phone upon hearing the news; Liz's Aunt Connie, across the bay in Piedmont, likewise screaming into the phone; and Liz's Aunt Mary, living near their mom, Bea, in Omaha, where the Blackstone had long since been sold to the Radisson chain and, finally, turned into an office building. Aunt Mary not only screamed, she asked the pressing question on every Schimmel girl's mind: filet mignon, rack of lamb, or salmon, at the reception?

The Weils, in other words, did not exactly take Liz out for tacos to celebrate her union to this California surfer. Judy had boots on the ground in San Francisco within two weeks, knocking out the flower contract
the wedding dress before lunch on the first morning. Liz's father, Doug, a dedicated gourmand, golfer, and real estate investor—who had perhaps loved his father-in-law's
cooking more than anybody—then drove us all around the greater Bay Area to look at the grassy outdoor wedding spots Liz and I liked. Judy, meanwhile, strategized about how to cope with Grandma Bea's inevitable objections—not to my being a gentile, but to the far more serious family-cultural breach of Liz's wanting an outdoor wedding in the middle of the day, instead of a blacktie affair in a grand hotel.

“And the coffee,” Judy asked the dazed manager of a casual coastal California inn, at two o'clock that very afternoon, “how will you serve the coffee?”

“Well, ma'am, typically, we do a very nice coffee buffet with hot-pot thermoses and cups and saucers and cream in silver creamers, but … I suppose we could have table service, if …”

“Table service.”

“And Dan,” asked Judy, on our return drive toward the Golden Gate and San Francisco, as the autumn darkness settled over the commute-hour freeway. “Have you thought about how you're going to raise the kids, in terms of religion?”

Traffic so clogged the road, and the air in the car had become so thick, that Doug had an inspiration: Why not pull into that there mall and start in on the wedding registry?

I should say up front, before I describe the scene, that I'd never really eaten sugar-glazed jumbo pretzels. In fact, I'd never heard of sugar-glazed jumbo pretzels. But something about standing in that crowded Crate & Barrel, anxiety mounting as I gazed across pile upon pile of purple, pink, and yellow plates and white and blue bowls and green mugs, violet soup tureens and shining steel knife holders and leather-clad ice buckets and white plastic spice racks and calico kitchen towels and cheap Martini glasses and dish-drying racks and stainless-steel blenders, gave me a desperate jones for a snack, a really big snack.

“You don't have to get involved in this,” Doug said to me, in his first of many kindnesses. “Just let the girls have fun.”

Excusing myself, I stepped into the flow of shoppers in that mall's pedestrian walkway, marching fast until I saw the local Wetzel's Pretzels franchise. Moments later, I returned to Crate & Barrel, with liquid sugar glinting white on my chin, and asked Doug if he'd like a bite—“ 's really amazingly good, I mean, you just wouldn't believe how good, you sure? You sure you don't want a bite? I mean, okay, okay, but don't be shy, because, in fact, I think maybe I'll just pop on back and score another one of these babies and, man, I'd be so happy to score a honey-glazed for you, too, Doug. Or even Judy—any interest? Sugar-glazed? I mean, I'm sure they've got other kinds …”

Nothing came of that night, no list of goodies, thanks largely to Liz's understanding that my sugar-glazed pretzel mania had to be a cry for help. But we found our way to Williams-Sonoma weeks later, for the confusing experience of picking out an entire kitchen's worth of great gear with the reasonable expectation that the lion's share might magically appear from UPS. I'd never before bought anybody a wedding present. Berkeley weddings tended toward a polite request for donations to an elementary school in the Guatemalan Highlands, and at the few normal weddings I'd attended, I'd always been too cheap even to ask how the registry process worked. So I discovered only at Williams-Sonoma the food-centric nature of the middle-class American wedding registry at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The primary purpose of marriage, it appeared, was not child rearing so much as home entertaining dependent upon professional-grade culinary equipment affordable only by an entire community's pitching in. At Williams-Sonoma, where avaricious couples just like ourselves (or, rather, like me, as Liz didn't find kitchen gear all that interesting)
bumped elbows in the aisles trying to pretend this perverse combination of conspicuous consumption and lottery-style windfall was simply a very serious matter of good middle-class values, I discovered that cooking equipment marked status in a language known to every couple who'd registered in the prior ten years. Every upscale kitchenware chain offered precisely the same five strata of every kind of gear, most obviously in the pan department. So as we browsed the aisles, and noticed some super-skinny good-looking couple in expensive shoes checking off the Copper Core 11-inch Sauteuse, we knew without a doubt not only that they were richer than ourselves, but that they also had richer friends and family, because we were only looking at the 5-Ply Stainless collection. Knives were a bit of an exception—nobody wanted to gift the murder weapon, and the pricey Japanese upgrades hadn't yet hit those stores—but it was absolutely true of appliances, where we had to gauge the gamble of listing that four-hundred-dollar toaster. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, of course, and Liz might well have had an aunt or uncle willing to go big, but we also risked offending all seventy-five of the people that I personally had invited to the wedding, as they all asked each other the reasonable question such a listing would raise. To wit:
Who the fuck does that asshole think we are?

BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
13.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Twist of Fate by Demelza Hart
A Cowboy's Woman by Cathy Gillen Thacker
Bling Addiction by Kylie Adams
Apartment in Athens by Glenway Wescott
Once in a Lifetime by Gwynne Forster
Two For The Lions by Lindsey Davis
Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
Domino by Ellen Miles