'Man With a Pan'

The Things that Happen When He Dons an Apron

by Diane Leach

19 July 2011


That Most Discerning of Food Critics: the Two-Year-Old Child

Peter Kaminsky writes about that most discerning of food critics, the two-year-old child. He describes arriving home with $20 worth of ill-gotten caviar, only to find his toddler, Lucy, tearing the house apart. She ceases banging pot lids long enough for a taste. Unfortunately, Lucy adores this most expensive of foodstuffs.

Strangely, almost none of the contributors cook with their wives. Keith Dixon did all the family cooking, smugly feeding his daughter, until his wife, Jessica, decided to take up cooking again. Dixon equates this to alternate-side parking, wherein New Yorkers with cars must move them at appointed times or be ticketed by street sweepers. Dixon realizes most would appreciate help in the kitchen. But “I suppose the surprise and hurt and (yes) jealousy I felt was amplified by the fact that the change took place through a keen prism of female cunning….” 

The keen prism of female cunning? Please! The woman is cooking, not secretly running up charges at Saks. 

Mark Kurlansky is even worse, admitting to “a phobia of women who cook”. He blames this on being a child of the ‘60s, a man invested in equal rights for women. He found the same young women who so easily burned their brassieres were often just as likely to want to cook for him, or even worse, clean. He spurned them. 

Man with a Pan is about equality; here, the freedom for men to enter a traditionally feminine sphere. Kurlansky’s take on domestic work struck me as a bizarre reversal. We all have to eat something, and short of living in squalor, somebody has to clean up. Whoever wants to do the domestic work should be allowed to do it. Nay, they should be worshipped: male, female, transgendered. Those of us in truly equal partnerships might even consider tackling the domestic chores together. 

I disliked only two of the essays, which is saying something about a 328 page book.  The first was Jim Harrison’s “Chef English Major”. Admitting you cannot stand Jim Harrison’s writing seems akin to confessing you hate Moby Dick, but I confess to disliking both. “Chef English Major”  is disjointed, bombastic, littered with famous names (Harrison’s friend Mario Batali, his friend Alice Waters, and the pièce de résistance amongst foodies, dinner at his friend Lulu Peyraud’s French villa.). 

Harrison’s rambling essay has little to do with cooking for a family. Instead it abounds in awkward sentences. “I’ve talked to a couple a couple of prison wardens about how food is the central morale item for we caged mammals, which seems to include all of us. At the cabin I’d even walk a couple hours to ensure a sturdy enough appetite to enjoy a meal.” Huh? The remainder is hunting, a favorite Harrison topic, more name dropping, followed by recipes for Grouse Surprise and Elk Carbonade (sic). Somebody get Ted Nugent on the line.

Thomas Beller’s “On Abundance”, another messy piece, offers some cooking for family accompanied by a plateful of repulsive opinions. After moving from New York City to Roanoke, Virginia, Beller experiences culture shock, manages to locate a couple of decent markets, then sets himself up as somebody you probably don’t want to dine with. Here he is on fine produce:

“Some women are more beautiful than others, and some peppers, and cheeses, and lettuces, seem more beautiful than others, too.”

Then there’s what happens once he brings his beautiful peppers, and cheeses, and lettuces home. Despite his wife’s aversion to the formality of family dinners, Beller writes:

“For my part, as the father, I rather like the slight aura of tyranny that come with demanding everyone sit down at once.”

Then there’s the mandatory bit on grilling.  What is it with boys and barbeques?

“There are few things that give man the sense, however false, of being in control of his destiny…When you are grilling, you are running things. You are in charge of important matters that require your attention. Fire is involved.”

A nicer reviewer would give Beller credit for honesty. I am not that person. Beller makes himself look like a sexist, authoritarian jerk who has trouble with the sequential comma, to boot. 

The best part of Man with a Pan is a series of interviews titled “In The Trenches”. The men interviewed run the professional gamut: firemen, lawyers, musicians, software engineers. All cook for their families. Many lack the luxuries of fancy markets, upscale kitchens, or the comparatively larger amounts of time the writing life affords the ambitious cook. All are refreshing in their honesty and sincere desire to prepare nourishing, enjoyable food for their families. Jack Schatz’s description of his mother preparing chopped liver is reason enough to buy the book (and leave Jews of a certain age misty-eyed with memories of their own mothers, or, in my case, grandmother, doing exactly the same thing):

“My mother browned the onions in oil or chicken fat and added the liver to the pan to brown that, too. She then put it all in a big wooden bowl with about a dozen hard boiled eggs.  For the next hour, all I would hear is chop, chop, chop, scrape—chop, chop, chop, scrape.

A discussion of gender roles is beyond the scope of this review. Yet it’s impossible to read a book about men in the kitchen without considering your own domestic arrangements. You may come up wanting. Or not: as I write, a batch of muffins is cooling on the counter. I am the primary cook in my house, an arrangement we are both are happy with. Sometimes my husband cooks with me. He always dries the dishes. It works for us.

A 328-page anthology with well over dozen contributors almost defies reviewing. I’ve left out discussing many fine essays, including the more political writers, writers hailing from outside the States, and Stephen King, who is belatedly receiving his literary due. Man with a Pan truly is far more than a foodie book. The contributors give a panoramic view of what it means to be a man in the kitchen, which every cook knows entails far more than a pan.

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