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Family: Manning the Stove

He could toast a pop-tart—that's it. And yet, to his astonishment and eventual delight, this father-to-be became the family cook.

Call me a sexist (you won't be the first), but even in this enlightened age I think it's unusual for the man of the house to cook dinner every night. When I tell people that I've performed this task for the last 14 years, they're invariably surprised—not just because I'm a man, but also because I don't seem the type. I didn't go to some fancy cooking school in France, and I've never worn a toque—in fact, until a minute ago, I wasn't exactly sure how to spell toque. I'm not a sensitive New Age house-husband, either, nor am I married to a hapless, can't-boil-an-egg spouse. In fact, my wife is a wizard in the kitchen who tackles recipes that would have stumped the collective brain trust of the Manhattan Project.

So if I'm not a gourmet and I'm not trying to make some sort of statement about traditional sex roles and I'm married to a woman who could easily take down Emeril (a somewhat frightening image, actually), why do I cook? It's a long story, but I promise you, it has a happy ending.

Before my children were born, I never so much as picked up a slotted spoon. Every evening when my wife and I got home from work, I'd sit on the living room sofa with a magazine while she searched her collection of cookbooks for a recipe with a degree of difficulty that was scary enough to be of interest to her. Additionally, it had to contain at least one obscure ingredient that we were unlikely to have on hand. On any given evening, I would hear her voice wafting from the kitchen, inquiring without any trace of irony, "Do we have...oyster mushrooms?"

A sumptuous feast was usually served around 10 p.m., and at 11 we forced ourselves to confront a kitchen that invariably resembled a crime scene—the work of a perpetrator with a marked aversion to using the same knife twice. On most nights, we would finish tidying up as the clock struck midnight—and the next evening, for reasons probably best left to the realm of psychiatry, we would do the same thing all over again.

When my wife became pregnant, however, the culinary balance of power in our home suddenly shifted. The mere notion of cooking made her feel ill. I had no choice but to put down my magazine and strap on an apron. I was cooking for three now.

In those pioneering days, I was something of a tabula rasa in the kitchen, unless you count my knack for toasting a flawless Pop-Tart. Given my limited store of knowledge, I began cooking with what might be considered a serious handicap: a deeply ingrained distrust of recipes, which I found gratuitously, even intentionally, confusing. Nevertheless, I embarked on my new career as the family chef with unbridled (and very male) optimism, following no directions and never asking for help.

Going with what I considered my likely strengths, I relied heavily in my first meals on that most manly branch of the culinary arts, grilling. I discovered that all it took to grill a chicken breast was some store-bought marinade, a grill pan, a few sprays of Pam and a willingness to keep an eye on the meat and take it off the heat before it burst into flames. (This being 1989, "blackening" was considered chic—a vogue that, more often than not, worked in my favor.) I found steaming vegetables unexpectedly doable, and I could make a box of instant rice without incident. Before long, I was putting together meals that were fit, if not for a king, then at least for a pregnant woman suddenly averse to cooking. My wife was eating splendidly, and periodic ultrasound exams indicated that the baby was steadily gaining weight. Consequently, I felt like The Man, even though I was wearing daisy-patterned oven mitts.

When my daughter was born, my wife was too exhausted from late-night feedings to resume her kitchen duties, but by this time I had acquired a repertoire of eight or nine meals and was on a roll. Once I'd learned to grill rainbow trout, I discovered, it was also possible to subject bluefish, mackerel and almost anything else with gills to the same punishment. No sooner had I mastered the art of boiling dry pasta than I boldly explored the possibilities of boiling fresh pasta, adding gnocchi and ravioli to my dinnertime arsenal.

By this point, I was enjoying my new virtuosity and finding the process of preparing dinner shockingly relaxing. Because of the straightforward nature of my meals, we were now eating by 7 p.m. and, thanks to my innovative technique of washing pots and utensils immediately after using them, were done cleaning up by 8:30. Suddenly, I had gobs of free time, exactly the opposite of what is supposed to happen when you have kids.

As the years wore on and our son was born, I gradually expanded my repertoire. I learned how to poach salmon, mash potatoes and roast chicken. (This last dish I generally reserved for Sunday afternoons; there's nothing like basting a bird every 20 minutes or so to give the impression that you're applying yourself to a serious purpose when what you're really doing is logging hours of football-viewing on the kitchen television.) I improvised coq au vin and beef Stroganoff, and just to prove I wasn't in a rut, I introduced venison and quail into my burgeoning rotation. Even my children began to notice my evolution into a culinary daredevil; once, upon seeing a Cornish hen defrosting on the counter, my then 3-year-old daughter asked, "Are we having that owl?"

Over time, my embargo against recipes became something less than total. I found the Joy of Cooking helpful, especially for learning crucial details like how hot the oven should be before you put something in it. But I still eschewed any recipe that had even a hint of complexity. If it advocated the use of cheesecloth or included the dreaded words then set aside, I turned the page.

Cooking has been such a positive experience that I have only one regret: that I didn't learn how to do it earlier, say, when I was single. In those days, my ability to make dinner would have multiplied my attractiveness to women by a factor of 10, easily, and the fact that I cleaned up afterward would have sent it off the chart. As a married guy, I'll never know what kind of raw power I might have had—so I have to content myself with smaller satisfactions, like telling my sister-in-law about my cooking and thereby making my brother look bad.

How long will I continue to be my family's nightly chef? It's hard to tell. My wife recently cast a covetous eye toward the kitchen and expressed a desire to make dinner every now and then. Acknowledging that our children could not be expected to dine at 10 p.m., she theorized that if she started cooking earlier she could get her Herculean meals on the table in a timely fashion. She's tried it, and with astounding success: Now when she cooks, we eat at 7:30, 8 at the latest. Indeed, the happy result of my cooking dinner for 14 years may very well be that I will never have to cook again.

Andy Borowitz is a humorist and the author, most recently, of Who Moved My Soap? The CEO's Guide to Surviving in Prison.

Published June 2003
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