Read How to Cook Like a Man Online
Authors: Daniel Duane
I shared all these thoughts with Ignazio during our most recent meal together, over at his place. Heather, his wife, said that Ignazio's very own mother, during her semiannual San Francisco visits to hang out with the grandkids, was often viciously critical of Ignazio's cooking (“You call that pesto!? My own son!?”), as if to reassert the primacy of her own judgment, and to reinforce Ignazio's faithful understanding that Mama's cooking, the cooking of the Italian people, and the universal Good Cooking of the human race were all one and the same, inseparable. Ignazio laughed, too; we'd all had a lot to drink, and we'd eaten too much, and Ignazio takes every opportunity to be unsentimental about Italy and the Italians. He even hoped to pitch a reality TV show, he said, in which he and his mother would go around to Italian American restaurants and sample the food and say mean things. A fair-minded soul, however, Ignazio volunteered interesting evidence to support my core point: his grandfather had been a professional chef, as had many of his other male relatives, and every single dish his mother ever made was an established, time-tested part of the Milanese cultural repertoire, long since mastered by members of his own family. Every dish Ignazio had ever eaten while growing up, therefore, had come from a recipeâone handed
down orally, perhaps, but a recipe nonethelessâand he'd have to have been a genuine half-wit not to have absorbed all of those recipes through the very pores of his own skin.
It's not just the Italians, either: I've also been on the receiving end of anti-recipe prejudice through a friend named Sammy, owner of the Bi-Rite Market, which happens to be my favorite San Francisco grocery store. I dropped by one day, to pick up a few things for Alice's Radish, Fennel, and Dandelion Salad, and I got distracted buying extra fennel for a few other random fennel recipes from
Chez Panisse Vegetables
âperfect examples of dishes that sounded awful to me but which I meant dutifully to make in the spirit of expanding my culinary mind. Sammy asked what the hell I needed so much fennel for, and I ended up telling him about my newfound love for cookbooks. I'd expected to bond with Sammy over this, but I learned instead that my recipe obsession conflicted so deeply with his sense of how a real man ought to behave that he laughed affectionately and said something like, “Wow, Danny, I cannot deal with recipes. I fucking
look at recipes.” But, see, Sammy's motherâlike Ignazio'sâwas a great cook from an ancient tradition, in Sammy's case Palestinian. Plus, Sammy himself had been a professional chef before he took over the Bi-Rite Market from his Palestinian-immigrant father; he'd gone to culinary school, he'd interned at a French restaurant in Switzerland, and he'd opened his own little San Francisco bistro at age twenty-four. Like every cook, chef, and culinary student everywhere, therefore, Sammy had followed fixed recipes many thousands of times, bringing to mind the jazz analogy: sure, it's all improvisation if you're already Wynton Marsalis, but it's improvisation on a fixed set of standards, and doesn't a guy get to learn the standards? Even if, for example, you're not really capable of simultaneously watching fennel on the backyard grill and simmering
more fennel on the stove and tracking the doneness of pasta and figuring out that your Radish, Fennel, and Dandelion Salad tastes disgusting because you've bought dandelion greens so old and grown-up they have exactly one flavor: bitter? And while I got the message, yet againâReal Cooks Don't Follow RecipesâI kept right on measuring every teaspoon of parsley without self-consciousness.
To some degree, this had to do with questions non-culinary. For the goals that actually matteredâmy need to bail on the Great American Novel, and to become a responsible father before Hannah discovered that I was not oneâprecise amounts were unavailable. Clear instructions were unimaginable. Completion, in the two or three hours before Liz freaked out with hunger and rage and poured herself a fucking bowl of cereal right in front of my face, was utterly impossible. But right up to the very last of the pasta and salad recipes in
, all of the above satisfactions were palpably available, and precisely because, in deciding that my own palate was stupid, I'd cleared out other considerations like, say, whether or not Liz even felt like eating Pasta with Zucchini, Walnuts, and Pesto on a given night. She'd consistently said she didn't care, during those vulnerable first months with a baby. By the time she did begin to care again, around months four and five, it was too late. I'd already developed a fierce emotional attachment to menu control, narrowing my job down to recipe completion and nothing moreâas if I were building model airplanes that happened to be edible. I'd come to love that I could stop thinking and follow Alice's orders, none of which included cleaning as I cooked. Trim and julienne a little “zucchini or other summer squashes,” boil noodles,
: checkmark next to the recipe's title, in the book's table of contents. Ditto with the next main-course category I tackled: pizza, even when I got flour all
over my clothes and the countertops, and even when the crust came out soggy, puffy, and bready. Yeast in warm water, add flour, let rise, knead again. Then: “Preheat the oven to 375. Dice the onion and toss in a small ovenproof sautÃ© pan with a pinch of salt and enough olive oil to coat lightly,” until, two and a half hours after I'd started, the kitchen ransacked and burned food be damned, I would absolutely have achieved something a reasonable person might describe as Pizza with Broccoli Raab, Roasted Onion, and Olives.
I found yet another stripe of anti-recipe prejudice, which I will call the Lamentation of the Disappointed Cookbook Lover: “Like sex education and nuclear physics they are founded on an illusion,” writes Anthony Lane, the
's movie critic, of his own love for cookbooks. “They bespeak order, but they end in tears.” Similar sentiment from Adam Gopnik, in the same magazine: “The anticlimax of the actual, the perpetual disappointment of the thing achievedâ¦ . You start with a feeling of greed, find a list of rules, assemble a bunch of ingredients, and then you have something to be greedy about. In cooking you begin with the ache and end with the object, where in most of the life of the appetitesâcourtship, marriageâyou start with the object and end with the ache.” (Gopnik skipped adolescenceâthere's no other way to explain a man's thinking that eros begins with a specific object of desire, and not with an aimless ache.)
Ruth Reichl leads the most visible counterattack against the Disappointed Cookbook Lovers, dismissing their pursuit of perfection and claiming to love, instead, the way no dish ever turns out the same twice, guaranteeing that Reichl's cooking will always be an adventure. “I cook for other people, and to me, cooking is an act of giving,” Reichl continues. “When I leaf through cookbooks or magazines I am imagining all the people who will
be sitting around my table, and I am looking for food that will make them happy.” I liked the sound of this, back then; and I know that I wanted the emotional extra credit owed to anybody cooking in this spirit; but even I knew that I was cooking almost entirely for myself, hunting perfection in precisely Gopnik's spirit, horrified by the idea of culinary adventures and of dishes turning out differently, night after night. So I knew what Lane and Gopnik were talking about: recipes always sound good, but they rarely work out the way you've dreamt; words on a page cannot a chef make. And yet, even here, as with that whole Recipes Give Me a Headache ideology, I was blessedly unafflicted in the early days, because my own ache was so unrelated to food. I could no more ache for Alice's Turnip and Turnip Green Soup, to cite a dish from the subsequent soup phase (Asparagus Soup, Black Bean and Roasted Tomatillo Soup, Corn Soup with Salsa, lot of soup), than for the moons of Jupiter. The words “Turnip” and “Turnip Greens” meant nothing to me; together in a combined noun, they might as well have been Fortran. Turnips and turnip greens did sound unlikely to be worth eating, and I suppose that's at least a little bit of meaning, but it was a meaning based on suspicion, not information.
Once I'd cleared that baseless suspicion from my mind, nothing remained, allowing me to see the words “Turnip” and “Turnip Green” as they really were, for me: empty of the power to signify, much less to evoke an ache for Turnip and Turnip Green Soup. And it was precisely this emptiness of specific meaning that acted like a tonic upon my self-hating mind: it was precisely because I hadn't a clue that I could experience the quest to acquire that clue as purposeful, answering this man's immediate emotional need to spend at least one part of each day chasing tangible, useful (edible) results.
When that quest became difficult, as in the case of “2 bunches young turnips, with their greens,” I found pleasure in the pursuit. Turnips may be among the most common of vegetables, available in every grocery store everywhere, but I personally had never knowingly eaten one and hadn't the vaguest idea what a turnip even looked like. So I first had to ask Liz, who did her best to describe them. Then I foolishly began my search in our neighborhood. Full of optimism, I grabbed my wallet and walked down our narrow little lane to Cortland Street, the local business district. I passed a beauty salon regionally famous for expertise in black women's hair, and the Chinese restaurant proudly displaying, in its window, a newspaper review headlined “Hunan Chef Doesn't Suck.” The pet store came next, and then the neighborhood grocery. There, I found only turnips of the type I now know to be ubiquitous: dull pinkish-white tennis balls looking like they've fallen out of a garbage truck and been run over a couple of times before tumbling into the gutter. No greens involved, and therefore no end to my turnip quest.
The next Saturday, with spring finally coming to California, we all woke up early. Liz, the prior afternoon, had consumed her first latte since giving birth. Hannah, as a result, had absorbed copious coffee-spiked breast milk and slept hardly a wink. So I struggled to convince a bleary-eyed Liz that we might have fun on a family turnip mission to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, a place I'd not yet visited. I've since come to see this market as Mecca to the Northern California cult of fine food. Not the Innermost Templeâthat lies somewhere inside the Chez Panisse kitchen, wherever Alice browbeats interns into the endless peeling of tiny fresh fava beansâbut a place of pilgrimage nonetheless, hallowed ground on which aspirants practice all the skills of their worship, reaffirm commitment to certain codes and values.
Thrilled to have company, Liz and Hannah coming along for the ride, I took the freeway north, swooping over the Mission District and past downtown to the 4th Street exit. We passed underneath the Bay Bridge, where I parked along the glittering waterfront. As we walked toward the market, we joined a river of the food-obsessed affluent, a human current of the anxiously inbound (
GOT TO GET SOME FUCKING NETTLES BEFORE THEY'RE GONE!!!
). Legions of the happily outbound hustled the other way, bags bursting with baby leeks and Chioggia beets, wood-oven baguettes and live lobsters:
That's right, got mine!
Finally, I saw the portal through which I'd have to pass to enter the market: the phalanx of sizzling, smoking restaurant booths forming an outer flank of temptation. Like baleen in the mouth of a whale, all those expertly cooked softshell-crab sandwiches, sustainable-pork BLTs and pastured-egg omelets filtered out the unserious by encouraging them to blow off shopping, eschew cooking, screw personal growth, and just buy a big, beautiful plate and settle in to chow.
I paused there a moment, looking up at the Ferry Building clock tower and the blue sky beyond. I felt my pulse accelerating. I hadn't even entered yet, and I wanted everything: I wanted to eat every bite from every booth and thus to know what all these people knew. But then I remembered the turnips with turnip greens and took the plunge. I marched straight past all the breakfast-eating amateurs and right down the throat-like corridor of the lavender-and-flower merchants into the whale's bellyâthe farm stands themselves. There, I found a once-in-a-millennium conglomeration of the world's most beautiful plant foods, with “dry-farmed Early Girl” tomatoes looking like the Platonic Ideal of tomato-ness, and whole plants of basil for sale cheap, and mountains of multicolored sweet peppers, and exquisitely tender
frisÃ©e. The fevered crowd, swirling around me, engaged in the uniquely San Franciscan contact sport of elbowing past the chutney-buying tourists to grab the last of the jumbo levain loaves at Della Fattoriaâsweating the hot sweat of panicky desire, bribing pissedoff kids with five-dollar cinnamon twists and six-dollar smoothies, and then paying way too much for a pig's liver that ought to be free, given how nasty a grown-up pig's liver typically tastes (suckling-pig organs are different). Out of the corner of my eye, in the swirling kaleidoscope of agricultural bounty, I saw a woman holding postcard-perfect French breakfast radishes up to the light, scrutinizing their flawless tender greens for the slightest signs of wilt. I remembered suddenly that
had a radishes chapter, and the memory made my pulse quicken even more. A bead of sweat ran down my ribs. I could see picture-perfect baby carrotsâno bigger than my pinky, priced like jewelsâand I could recall a recipe or two for which they'd be ideal. I could see a sign saying “Tat Tsoi,” and another reading “Amaranth Greens,” and both were key ingredients I'd not only never seen before but never thought I'd find as long as I lived.
Bolting to bag some radishes of my own, I wondered:
How many bunches do I need to knock off every single radish recipe tonight?
My wallet now more open than closedâLiz a little appalled, I think, to see my profligacy with our grocery dollarsâI began to bounce from farmer to farmer, buying anything and everything as if my life depended on my project's completion, as if this market were the only place on earth to find the essential ingredients, as if this very Saturday might just be the market's last day ever, before the Judgment Day upon which a wrathful God might demand to know why the hell I'd not yet completed the shelling-peas section of