"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 23, 2012

Men As Cooks–Do We Take It All Too Seriously?

I have been interested in food as far back as I can remember.  I cared less about seeing my aunts and more about the cheesy, garlicky, hot, bubbling, sausage lasagna Aunty Angie made; or the antipasto palette of capicola, mortadella, salami, and wizened oil cured olives arranged by Aunty Ona or her corn fritters, ham pies and rich, succulent eggplant parmesan.  The only reason that I didn’t kick and scream more over the enforced visits to my father’s sisters in New Haven is because they could cook.  The minute we walked into the old Wooster Square tenement, I could smell the artichokes, stuffed with parmesan, parsley, and garlic, drenched in olive oil, and roasted until the tips were crispy and the hearts covered with melted cheese.

I knew instinctively that my grandmother’s all-day spaghetti sauce was the real thing, and that the watered-down, garlic free, un-oiled version that my mother cooked was a pitiful imitation.  I learned a few things from my mother who was a decent cook, but my own cooking had little to do with hers – except for Christmas Eve when, in deference to my much more traditional Italian father, she made a passable try at the sette pesce – grilled eels, squid in fiery hot tomato sauce, spaghetti with anchovies, and baccala.  I loved those fishy things and made comparable dishes any time of year.

I did not cook during our almost five years in India, but I learned a lot particularly about vegetarian cooking.  Although much of Indian food was rendered almost inedible because of the stale oil and blazing chilies, the best cuisine was remarkable.  I especially liked Gujarati thali, where rice and dal are accompanied by an array of side dishes.  All Gujarati thali had to have foods appealing to all the tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, and salt – and they were all both complementary and contrasting.  I also learned about tandoori, creamy Punjabi curries, wickedly hot South Indian shrimp, and Bengali seafood fried in mustard oil. 

I did a lot of cooking in South America.  I learned how to make black beans with bacon and coriander, fried plantains, and spicy steamed mussels.  I ate the best Brazilian churrasco misto, a mixed grill with every possible cut from every possible meat.  I loved the Argentine parillada, a different type of mixed grill with innards, testicles, and udders.  I learned that everything is good to eat; and I only demurred when it came to insects.  On a trip to Kinshasa during an outing to the neighborhoods to eat, drink, and dance I noticed in a simmering pot of tomato sauce what looked like caterpillars.  Couldn’t possibly be, I thought, but they were.  “Try them”, said my hosts.  “They are a national dish”. 

After ten years of living overseas, I returned to the US and had a family.  I was always the cook.  I am not sure how it happened; but it was one of those felicitous arrangements where I did what I liked – to cook – and my wife did the rest.  Not a good arrangement, some said, with my wife left with the bills and the finances; but she never complained. Every night I cooked something different, unusual, and tasty. I remember how when I told my mother that I liked to cook, she responded “Not if you had to do it every day”; but I was different from her and never found cooking laborious or boring.  It was something I looked forward to and found myself planning meals in the morning and preparing them in the evening.

My children, now adults, ate everything I prepared and never balked at anchovies, squid, brains, liver, kidneys, or sweetbreads like their friends.  I could make the Indian food as spicy as I wanted and never got screams of pain.  No one lurched for the water between bites.  My son became a vegetarian for about four or five years, and I and the whole family accommodated the change.  What was so vegetarian about Neapolitan spaghetti with peas, or spaghettini al olio, aglio, e peperoncino – a marvelously smooth and sweet dish with carmelized garlic, hot pepper flakes, and extra virgin olive oil, both dishes I had always made?  The same with my Indian vegetarian dishes.  I could make dal ten different ways – different lentils, different spices, different ingredients. I knew how to make black beans, red beans, navy beans, and kidney beans, all in different rich, spicy sauces.

I finally got around to writing a cookbook and putting it online (www.uncleguidosfacts.com search word ‘Recipes’).  I hardly ever refer to it because I still make something different on most days – perhaps not radically different, but slightly different.  A new spice, perhaps, a different kind of fish.

The point of all this is that I love cooking and have never taken it too seriously.  In an article in the Telegraph (11.23.12) Max Davidson wonders if we men chefs are taking ourselves a bit too seriously:

'And what’s your signature dish?” friends ask, with the hint of a sneer, when I tell them that I share the cooking 50-50 with my partner.

“I’ve got three,” I say proudly, pausing from my exertions at the stove to take questions from the audience. “Chicken and tarragon pie with roast Mediterranean vegetables. Canarian garlic soup with paprika and lardons…”

The third is ‘exploding eggs’ a modest mix of eggs, ham, and tomatoes in the microwave, not so much chosen for its uniqueness or specialty but as a winking self-deprecatory reference to proclaim: “I am not a food-obsessed”.

That’s what men chefs have become, according to Davidson.  We take ourselves far too seriously.  It is one thing to enjoy cooking:

For me, as for millions of men, cooking creatively, not just in a spirit of henpecked resentment, has become one of life’s great pleasures. Nine in ten men now cook “regularly”, according to a new poll, with the typical man spending more than 11 hours a week in the kitchen, not all of them looking for beer in the fridge. And a thumping 56 per cent of us regard ourselves as “adventurous” cooks, more likely to experiment than our partners.

It is another thing entirely to transform cooking into something more than it is.  For many men it is a signal that they have signed on to the feminist revolution.  See, I cook, and I still have my balls intact. For others it is the focal point of the radiating circles of PC goodness – locally-produced food, small farmers, organic produce, environment-respectful water use, high labor standards, and health and wellness.  For others it is a creative enterprise within easy reach.  While we may not be able to draw, paint, dance, or play the guitar, we can cook. 

In certain hipster communities food has become an important social glue.  By simply subscribing to the good food ethos, you automatically subscribe to all the liberal, PC awareness movement that surround it.  Food has become a code for a lot more.

There is a whole other aspect of foodie culture that I have overlooked.  It is the competitive nature of male cooking.  Many men are not in it for critical acclaim, but to WIN! Davidson writes about TV cooking reality shows, cook-offs, and no-holds-barred food fights:

These shows see men competing with women on equal terms, sometimes better than equal terms. The final of the last series of The Great British Bake Off was an all-male affair, as the women’s soufflés and fondants failed to rise. The competitive element was shamelessly milked by the presenters…

Why are men so obsessed with winning? This is cookery, for heaven’s sake, the heating up of food, not the 100 meters Olympics final. If a husband doing his part in the kitchen is admirable, a husband out to show he is a better cook than his wife is obnoxious, a recipe for an unhappy marriage.

Or men just compete against each other:

In its all-out quest for a winner – someone who can prepare a perfectly presented plate of food against the clock, using a frankly ridiculous number of ingredients – it takes half the fun out of cooking.

Whatever it is, this obsession with cooking illustrates how wealthy and well-off many Americans are.  Despite a severe recession we cooked, created architectural food-palaces of pork belly, foie gras and coulis, and invented the best possible wine pairings.

The foodie craze will pass.  Already San Francisco hipsters are shunning the baroque and the overblown and are returning to their Alice Waters roots – simplicity, good, fresh, local ingredients, and a no-nonsense presentation signaling that it is the food that matters. I am sure that just as PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer), a tasteless workman’s brew became popular because of its irony, so will hot dogs, hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese.  Let’s see if the hipsters will just eat this good old American chow or will talk endlessly about it.

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