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Authors: Daniel Duane

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BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
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“Just remind me,” Liz said. “I'm getting confused. When we said a couple years, did we mean a couple years to birth or conception?”

“More pasta?”

“I don't want to be an old parent.”

“I'll get you pasta.”

“But tell me how long you really want to wait, just so I know.”

“I love our life the way it is.”

“Two years?”

Shortly thereafter, for the first time in my whole entire chickenshit existence, I was a young man with a happily pregnant wife. Two weeks later still, giddy with hope and excitement, Liz drove herself clear across San Francisco to the Kaiser Permanente hospital for the initial prenatal checkup—letting me take a pass because she's great like that, always joking that she ought to be more of a demanding, high-maintenance bitch, but constitutionally incapable of being anything but accommodating. Meanwhile, I sat at my desk—a solid-core door supported by two cheap file cabinets—looking out my tall window at the yellow house on the other side and trying not to hyperventilate, thinking I was totally screwed and I had to finish this novel
so fast
before my life ended and I had to get a lobotomy and become a CPA just to pay the bills and then slip into a depression and kill myself because I'm not capable of adapting to any existence except the absolutely perfectly orderly and peaceful one I'd already gotten mastered before I somehow lost my way and agreed to have a baby.

The phone rang: Liz, sobbing, saying the sonogram found only what they'd called a “blighted ovum.” No heartbeat, in other words. No baby.

I wasn't a total pig, so I felt a freaky admixture of intense concern for my hurting girl, average-to-middling sorrow about our lost pregnancy, and weirdly exuberant relief, as if I'd gotten a death sentence commuted by God. But then I saw Liz walking down the crummy sidewalk all dressed in white, with her black hair shining and her eyes all red as she hugged herself and cried openly and hurried up our shitty, rotting steps to rush in the front door before the neighbors saw. She went straight into the living room, threw herself onto our bed, wept some more, and told me she felt certain she'd never bear children, and that her teenaged anorexia had somehow ruined everything. She now wanted nothing more in the universe than to be a mother and couldn't possibly wait another second without losing her mind.

Two months later, and now a serious crackerjack with that tomato technique, I managed to feign excitement when Liz got pregnant yet again, though less so over the surprising new emotional imperative she felt toward yet another elective responsibility of the kind I'd always eschewed: Liz needed a puppy, she told me, right away, so that she'd have something to love throughout this pregnancy, regardless of what happened to the baby.

“Now wait,” I said, “hold on, this is an emotional time, but is that really a great idea? Because, I mean, I'm going to flip the first time I have to skip surfing to walk a dog.”

Liz dropped eight hundred bucks—far more than I could've gotten for my pickup—on an English setter puppy, a dog so comically cute it looked like a Disney creation, all black-and-white and silky smooth, with long soft hair and floppy ears and big floppy feet. She named the dog Sylvie, and as Liz's belly began to
swell, we walked Sylvie together in the park atop Bernal Hill. It happened to be late winter just then, a time of year resembling spring in other parts of North America: grass greening up from the rains, a few poppies and other wildflowers appearing tiny on the steep slopes, and little white butterflies driving our bird-dog puppy crazy. Liz and I would stop on our walks to chat about which showing of which new-release movie we ought to catch that night. Then we'd gaze out over San Francisco's sweeping-flat Mission District. Off to the left, pastel homes swept up the green hillsides of Twin Peaks, where my mother had grown up. Dead ahead, due north, we could see the downtown office towers where my grandfather had been a lawyer. We could see the gunmetal gray of the Bay Bridge, too, arcing eastward into Berkeley. But mostly that view was about airy impermanence, for me, all the old wooden houses, rising and falling on the undulating San Francisco landscape like windblown sea foam on the swells, lifting into a sky equally changeable, by the day and the hour, with the constant coming and going of the white fog banks, blowing past our hill in bits and pieces.

Socializing tends to fall off as the pregnant lady grows increasingly fatigued. Falafel and burritos become unattractive to the pregnant lady's palate. Pancakes migrate from the breakfast menu to lunch and even dinner. Movie rentals displace theatergoing, for the increased comfort of the pregnant lady's own couch, and also for the greater access to ice cream. But even here, a book like
Vegetables
can't quite get a man's attention, given that nostalgia for his lost life-about-town pushes non-pancake food conversation in the direction of, say, “Sweetheart? If I could ever figure out how to make a vegetarian kung pao like we used to order at Eric's on Church back when we ever, ever went out to dinner, do you think you'd be interested?”

Nora Ephron, screenwriter of the classic romantic comedy
When Harry Met Sally
and of the movie adaption of
Julie & Julia
, Julie Powell's memoir of cooking every recipe in Julia Child's
Mastering the Art of French Cooking
, has admitted that, after she got married, she “entered into a series of absolutely pathological culinary episodes. I wrapped things in phyllo. I stuffed grape leaves. There were soufflés. I took a course in how to use a Cuisinart food processor.” My own such episodes began with a search in that dark-and-dirty basement, underneath our tenants' flat, among all my old climbing gear, and my neglected surf boards, in order to find Liz's old wok. Then came a cursory glance at
A Spoonful of Ginger
, by Nina Simonds, and a whole new tofu technique: pressing it in paper towels under a weight, to leach out excess water; then slicing and frying it hot, so it wouldn't stick to the wok and disintegrate like it had all throughout my graduate school years; broccoli boiled a little first, and then tossed in tender, and then,
boom
, a bellyful.

Still, the drumbeat deepens, the Anxiety Army grows closer. Natural nesting instincts provoked Liz to wish we had at least a few flower boxes beautifying the little patch of concrete we called a front yard. I wasn't about to get punked by an actual carpenter again, so I bought
Better Homes and Gardens Step-by-Step Basic Carpentry
along with a Skil “worm-drive” circular saw, a “contractor grade” hammer, a “contractor grade” tape measure, and an embarrassingly new tool belt. I built and then hated and then destroyed and then rebuilt my first flower box about five times, anxious to get it right. Liking the outlet, I tackled our three-story back-stair assembly, a rickety pile running from our top-level flat down past the tenants' street-level unit and then on down to the basement/backyard level: rotten to the core, it turned, far too dangerous for my pregnant girl. Endless rookie-carpenter screw ups meant endless
lumberyard trips—and an alarming number of carcinogenic asbestos-siding tiles breaking off the back of the house, releasing their toxic particles into the air. But an underemployed man in that position craves the excuse to put his head down and work like hell with his own body and hands, while his baby grows closer and a few thousand more of the wife's dollars get spent on still more cool tools during early-morning drives out to the manly world of a place like Sierra Point Lumber, where I could smell the salty-cool bay and see the bright white fog up on San Bruno Mountain and learn how to speak confidently of two-by-eights and framing angles.

Liz really was a nauseous pregnant lady, and she didn't always want vegetarian kung pao, so I did make that Garden Tomato and Garlic Pasta once in a while. I came to appreciate the quick and definitive way in which Alice had made me markedly better at a useful and tolerably masculine chore that also included filling up my belly. But still, the conditions weren't yet right for total
Vegetables
immersion. Even if I did think of building on my positive tomato experience, I didn't consider doing it through Alice's Beet-Green Pasta, or Broccoli Raab Pasta. I had not the slightest idea what beet greens and broccoli raab even were, but they both sounded healthy, and therefore I could not see how either could be worth eating—an adult version of the three-year-old's view,
Even though Mommy wants me to taste bacon, I've never heard of it, so it's probably rat poison
. So I tried to replicate that Garden Tomato competence-experience in ways that called for no meaningful change in my self: seeking out a book to help me tackle this other go-to restaurant dish we'd both liked in our pre-pregnancy days, the Chicken Tikka from Shalimar.
The Bombay Cafe
, by Neela Paniz, led us to the discovery of an old dusty Indian grocery in the Mission District, bringing self-congratulation at being so
urban-adventurous, and then repeated mention of same to our friends (“And you've just
got
to check out this amazing old Indian shop on Valencia”). Paniz had included a few other Indian-restaurant standards—Lentil Dahl, Curried Eggplant—so Liz suspended her pancake preference just long enough for me to acquire a complete Indian spice collection, including pounds of whole cardamom pods green and black.

Then we turned a critical corner. While we were lying in bed one night, in our living room, Liz put my palm over the lovely bare skin of her belly.

Boom!
I felt a kick so firm that it pulsed through my skin up my arm into my brain as a crystal-clear message from my daughter-to-be, saying, “Wake up, asshole! It's time to give up on the novel and sell that beater truck and get a real job!”

Late in the seventh month, as I tracked a pot of basmati rice with my digital-watch timer and screwed down the very last of the back-stair handrails with a power drill, my father asked if I felt ready for fatherhood.

I said, “Nope, but I don't have to be. I have five more weeks. I'm maturing right on schedule, and I'll be ready when the baby comes.”

Dad asked, “If the baby comes early?”

“I'll never mature. I'll remain forever stuck, five weeks short of full emotional adulthood.”

The very next day, still not seeing how a cookbook might provide all the medicine I needed, I woke up, had breakfast, and demolished the front stairs in about an hour—crowbar, wrecking bar, Skilsaw, ripping that structure right to the ground. This meant Liz had to climb down a ladder to her next ob-gyn checkup, but I thought I was golden for at least a month. Then my cell phone rang. It was Liz, telling me that our baby wasn't fattening fast
enough. The brains and the bones were on track, but the kid was just too skinny. By the time I showed up at the hospital, scared witless, doctors had found symptoms of preeclampsia, a mysterious syndrome often fatal to the baby, sometimes fatal to the mother, and incurable without immediate delivery. They shot up Liz with labor-inducing medication and told me it might take twelve hours for the contractions to begin.

A few hours later, when nothing had happened, Liz encouraged me to take a break. So I left the hospital and devoured a
carne asada
super-burrito and walked the puppy on grassy Bernal Hill, up the block from our house. I felt out-of-body anxious in the heat of a San Francisco Indian summer. Then I walked home and, as if it made any sense at all, buckled on my tool belt.

Liz called and said, “I just have a feeling stuff's going to start happening.”

Once his baby's born, and brought home, a young father discovers that his daily life now offers a lot of time for reflective thought. Not that you're capable of having any thoughts—too little sleep—but hour upon hour passes with nobody really interested in the content of your mind. Sort of amazing: you go from perfect intimacy, claiming that girl's attention for yourself, to zero intimacy, as the baby's claim takes over. Weirder still, the breast-feeding wife looks terrific, thinning down under the immense caloric demands of nursing even as her breasts grow to record sizes, and yet it does her man no good whatsoever. Throw in a dog and it's not long before it occurs to you that your own needs fall well below even those of the canine, in the family's prioritization scheme. In fact, you are the sole member of the household with zero needs scheduled to be met by any other member of the household. And that's the context in which I began flipping cookbook pages uneasily: first in
The Bombay Kitchen
and
A Spoonful of
Ginger
, pondering the idea that I might somehow become a truly accomplished cook of either Indian or Chinese cuisine, during the dark passage ahead.
Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen
presented a similar new identity—Guacamole King—but when taken together these options felt too painfully similar to the cultural anomie that had driven my fellow Californian, John Walker Lindh, growing up across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, to become the American Taliban:
Wow, gee, I mean, I guess I could be a Buddhist if I wanted—shave my head, wear pink robes, all that cool Zen shit—or wait! I know! I'll go Muslim! That'll show my dumb-ass hippie parents!

I'd done my share of yoga, in other words, but not nearly enough to justify still more simmering of onions and tomatoes, nor the endless employment of the same dried-up and dusty spices shipped across the planet to make the only kind of Indian cuisine I knew. Ditto for Chinese. I liked that kung pao just fine, but national cuisines occupy value niches somewhere down in our lizard brains; they have emotional meaning, such that an upper-middle-class white kid's fervent allegiance for, say, Ethiopian food, cannot be interpreted as a mere fondness for flatbread. I probably could've dabbled in Spanish cuisine, see, because that would've satisfied my trained preference for all things European; Italian would've been better; German, not so much; Hungarian,
fuck that
.

BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
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