Read How to Cook Like a Man Online
Authors: Daniel Duane
Liz and I lived together during that year of engagement, but we had a lot on our minds besides food: the mounting financial disaster of that eviction lawsuit, for example, as our home's then-current tenants, a pair of graduate students, decided they were in fact the victimized proletariat under capitalist assault from yuppie scum, and therefore had a moral obligation to all mankind to make sure that Dan and Liz either paid an enormous cash settlement to make them move or else found the experience of moving into their own very first home, to start a family, so morbidly painful
and costly that nobody else would ever consider it, and real estate would return to its rightful owners, the People. Once that was all over, our energy went into blowing the remainder of Liz's money on a carpenter's doing what I could not yet do myself: lace up the work boots, strap on the old tool belt, crank some tunes, suck a few bong hits, and fix up yet another home, for yet another pretty young woman. We had to eat, of course, but we mostly patronized cheap ethnic joints in perfect conformity with our young/liberal/creative peer group: Indian food one night, Thai the next. Once a week or so, we snuck beers and relatively quiet handheld foods (burritos, falafel, nothing with a loud wrapper) into arthouse movie theaters.
This lack of culinary focus created a vacuum easily filled by Judy and Doug, who flew out once a month to work on wedding plans and treat us to grand Francophile meals at great San Francisco restaurants like Gary Danko, Charles Nob Hill, Zuni CafÃ©, and Boulevard. I had a doctor tell me, at about this time, that I'd officially become an Overweight American with High Cholesterol, and that does dampen one's gastronomic enthusiasm. Plus, every time I'd gone to a decent restaurant with my own family, growing up, there'd always been stern looks and cleared throats to make sure that nobody ever got the foolish idea it would be okay to order a starter, and that everybody noticed the bargain-priced burger at the bottom of the entrÃ©e list, a perfectly fine choice for the entire family. Worse still were the nights when my grandparents took us to the Burlingame Country Club, where even kids had to wear a tie. My hippie parents, despite knowing this, never once made me arrive with a tie, so I always had to wear some heinous blood-red knit tie kept by the maÃ®tre d' as a kind of Scarlet Letter, announcing to all the members eating their curiously shitty food in the club's dining room that I Do Not
Belong. That's where my sister Kelly, a born Child of Nature, once leaned over to sniff her ridiculous shrimp cocktail. Grandma flinched in horror and then whacked Kelly in the back of her pretty head, smashing Kelly's freckled nose into that canned cocktail sauce. Kelly looked up in astonishment, smeared with blood-red goop. Dad marched out of the club to avoid punching somebody. Mom bent over and sniffed the hell out of her Cobb Salad, in protest. And I developed a deep-seated association between fancy dining rooms and rage, and a total inability to link formality with pleasure.
Liz's own anti-
ordering habits reinforced this killjoy attitudeâcalibrated, as were hers, toward hammering home the point that she could not be corralled into putting silly undue emphasis on expensively stuffing her face, nor could she be talked into having even one itty-bitty little teeny-tiny taste of a single, solitary dish that didn't interest her. But after a few fine-dining restaurants in which I copied my betrothed, hoping to fit in, Liz explained that I was going about it all wrong. The proper way to show gratitude to her parents was to order exactly what I felt like eating, price be damned. I didn't have a clue what I felt like eating because I didn't even recognize most of the words on the menus. I also sensed that restaurant ordering, in the company of Doug, Judy, and old Bernie's ghost, served as a proving ground, an arena for the demonstration of culinary insight and, just as readily, culinary stupidity. If you picked well, murmuring approval might burble forth; if your dish sucked, and you admitted as much, you would learn that Doug and Judy and even Liz had all had doubts about the Baked Pasta with Nettles and Duck Confit from the moment they'd looked at the menu. So, with Doug's big-hearted encouragementâ
Order like a man, my boy! Ignore these waist-watching ladies and party with me!
âI began copying
my new mentor-and-benefactor's every move, swinging for the fences with the seared foie gras and fig appetizer, the Kobe filet mignon with sauce Bordelaise and shaved black truffle, the peach crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e. And that's how old Bernie's legacyâand Doug's generosityâawakened me for the first time to the fact that a human mouth can deliver astonishing pleasure. And yet, fawning enthusiasm was not the Weil way. In order to fit in, I had to sit there all calm and collected, pretending that I could make a discriminating comparison of this particular
foie gras torchon
against every other I'd ever eaten, and maybe even the foie served by Judy's own father at Judy's own fancy-hotel wedding, when all I really wanted to do was scream and writhe like a Pentecostal tongue-talker, praising the Lord with choking sobs of ecstatic gratitude for keeping me alive long enough to experience mouthfuls of enlarged goose liver washed down by ChÃ¢teau d'Yquem Sauternes.
Doug phoned, eventually, from the wedding caterer's office. He and Judy were up in Sonoma tasting menu possibilities without us because I was maintaining the ruse, for the sake of my bride-to-be, that I still shared her disinterest in pigging out on fine free food at every opportunity.
As it happened, Doug had a question about cake.
“I really don't care,” Liz said into the phone. “I have absolutely no opinion.” Then she turned to me and said, “You don't either, right, honey? What kind of cake we have?”
“I mean, I'd just as soon not even have a cake.”
“What do you mean?”
“I never even like wedding cakes. They're never any good. I might rather have a cobbler.”
“A wedding cobbler?”
“What's wrong with that?”
“Tell your dad I like lemon cake.”
She looked at me funny. “You're serious?”
“You really want me to tell my father that.”
She did. Then Liz rubbed her eyes, looked away from me, and said, to the wall but really to me, “Okay, so now my dad wants to know how lemony.”
“Super fucking lemony.”
“He's putting the baker on the phone.”
Liz handed me the handset, and I discovered, to my own surprise, that I absolutely did not want this baker putting artificial flavoring into the white cake itself, but that I'd love to have the buttercream frosting and buttercream filling carry a knockout lemony punch.
Then came the Big Day, which really was the happiest day of my life, up until that pointâthe very first thing I'd ever done that felt positively, unequivocally like the Right Move. My folks threw a terrific West Coast barbecue the night before, with live country music and one of Dad's new climbing buddies dressed up in a bear costume, hoping to rattle all the visiting East Coasters. The next morning, the sun shone down on the green lawns at the appointed hour. Liz's regal Grandma Beatrice flinched at my surf buddies in their “dress-up” silk Hawaiian shirts and their best flip-flops. My grandfather toasted not the bride and groom, nor even the bride's family, but his very own law firm. And the very first thing I did, at the ceremony's glorious end, was to beat all the guests in a mad sprint to the raw oyster bar. Nobody had yet told me that a touch of class called for letting others go firstâthat hospitality toward friends and family was the whole pointâso I plowed about a
dozen Point Reyes oysters before I let anybody else get near the half-shells. Then, seeing the line patiently building behind me, I felt the very same shameâthe identical awareness of a misstepâas that described by Francine Prose in
. Recounting how she and her husband joined a friend in eating three plates of oysters at a large cocktail party, Prose says that she overheard another guest say, “They've eaten
the oysters.” Mortified by the error, she and her husband fled the party “as hurried and guilty as Adam and Eve fleeing Eden in a Renaissance painting.”
As A. J. Liebling has pointed out, in describing the challenges of the non-professional eater trying to consume professional portions, oysters offer “no problem, since they present no bulk.” For this reason, I had plenty of room to make myself the only wedding guest demanding not just a second but a third helping of the rack of lamb with more and more Pinot Noir, all provided by Doug and Judy.
I was cutting into the gorgeous yellow wedding cake, congratulating myself on my choice of in-laws, when I saw a sterling opportunity for a display of the selfless mensch-like concern for others that was going to make me such a terrific addition to their family: handing that second slice (after the one for my wife) to my new father-in-law.
“Oh, no thanks,” Doug said.“I actually hate lemon.”
“Sweetheart,” I hissed quietly to Liz, “why on earth did you allow me to insist on a lemon cake, knowing your father hates lemon?”
She had a great answer: Old Bernie, it turned out, loved lemon so much he always kept lemon drops in his pocket, even had lemon boughs on his coffin. “My mom loves lemon, too,” Liz told me. “It's her favorite thing. So you got huge points.”
Most of us own cookbooks we never use, largely because we buy cookbooks for reasons other than a clear intent to cook from themâas mementos, maybe, from some beloved restaurant, or in aspiration toward a given lifestyle. I'd acquired Mollie Katzen's all-vegetarian
, for example, despite being neither vegetarian nor a cook, because the Moosewood Restaurant happened to be the best restaurant in my college town of Ithaca, New York, where Katzen taught generation after generation of bright young things to think of her Russian Cabbage Borscht as a thrilling cultural experience. As for the two slab-like amber volumes of
The Gourmet Cookbook
, compiled by the magazine's editors from recipes published in their pages, they caused me a sick self-hatred because, every time I saw them, I remembered the day my grandfather and his second wife moved to an old-folks home. I'd been mostly focused on grabbing everything of value he'd meant to leave for the Goodwill, including those miserable books. Even my three Alice Waters cookbooks had come into my life for goofy reasons: she'd been my Montessori preschool teacher, in Berkeley, before she opened my hometown's most famous restaurant, Chez Panisse. I'd felt a certain pride in thatâlike somebody who's once been a schoolmate of a president, and who therefore buys that president's biography because
its presence on a shelf will generate warm feelings of connectedness to power.
Most of the time, when a cookbook finally does draw you into the recipes, the reasons remain mysterious; but sometimes we can easily identify why a given text electrifies us, at a given time in our lives. Take
Chez Panisse Vegetables
, an austere, vaguely totalitarian, shiny-black hardback arranged AâZ, from Amaranth Greens (Wilted) to Zucchini (Pasta, with Walnuts and Pesto). I'd carried
Chez Panisse Vegetables
from apartment to apartment, throughout my twenties, without any inkling that it would someday be the portal through which Alice began to whisper into my ear. I'd carried it along in our U-Haul, too, when Liz and I finally parked in front of our asbestos-clad, peak-roofed, child's drawing of a two-flat house. Tenants still occupied the downstairs flat, so we schlepped everything up the front steps into our sunny, four-room, 750-square-foot apartment. The front door opened into a short central hallway with a cozy bedroom on each side. At the hallway's end, on the right, another small door led into a small living room, while the left-hand wall opened into a cheerful kitchen where
Chez Panisse Vegetables
spent months on a shelf, performing a duty akin to that expected of any other knickknack.
When I did open
, I sought help only with my Odd Nights Pasta, the one with the tomato. I'd noticed that whenever Liz made tomato pasta, it was terrific. My old stand-by paled. So I'd flipped open
, turned toward
, for tomato, and, because the moment had not yet come, felt not the faintest temptation toward Champagne Tomato Salad, Tomato and Basil Bruschetta, Tomato and Cantal Cheese Galette, Italian Tomato and Bread Soup, nor even Chilled Tomato Soup. I just followed Alice's instructions for Garden Tomato and Garlic Pasta, dicing
three “perfectly ripe tomatoes,” peeling and chopping three cloves of garlic and a bunch of basil leaves, and then accepting Alice's entirely novel command to “have all the ingredients prepared and ready by the stove.” Next up, I set a “heavy-bottomed skillet” on a burner, lit the burner with a match, and glugged in a
of extra-virgin olive oil, which completely blew my mind. That was basically all that was left in our bottle, and it was probably like a full dollar's worth and about four hundred calories:
, I thought,
this is some serious restaurant-style cooking
. But I did as told: warming the oil first, tossing in the garlic and “right away, before the garlic starts to brown,” adding the tomatoes and stirring, which completely confused me, because I'd always, always browned garlic. I'd thought that was the whole point. Equally perplexing: Alice said the tomatoes “will probably spatter a little,” and they didn't. Oil not hot enough, apparently. But, onward: add the basil and “cook just a minute or two, until the tomatoes are warmed through and have started to relax.”
“Hey, will you remind me,” Liz said, as we ate with the back door open to the warm dusk, “why we want to wait a few more years to have a baby?”
A first hint, in other words, of the anxiety that would soon make
âand, therefore, tomato relaxationâa worthy place to hide. Overall, however, we were leading what I considered the idyllic life: Liz wrote magazine articles in one of the front bedrooms while I flailed at writing the Great American Novel in the other. We used our little living room as a bedroom, and our life felt like an unbroken stream of interesting work, movies, exercise, romantic bliss, and beer. Liz didn't much care for wine, but she loved a good IPA, especially after a long run in
Golden Gate Park. So I couldn't fathom why anybody would pursue change, much less the headache of cooking actual recipes. But then it began: