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There are Men in My Kitchen

I realize many people will look at Man with a Pan and recoil. Not Another Foodie Book by a New York Writer Invoking Ramps.  Don’t be deterred. Whatever your inclinations regarding food writing, Man with a Pan affords readers an engaging glimpse into the second most intimate domestic sphere: the kitchen. The glimpse is edifying and largely heartening, for at a time when obesity and its attendant ails are ravaging the United States, it’s nice to know plenty of people value cooking not as competitive sport, but as a necessity in keeping a family happy, healthy, and harmonious. 


Man with a Pan is misleadingly subtitled Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for their Families. Misleading because many of the book’s essays are written by men who aren’t cooking for families. Rather, they are men who cook, with varying degrees of success. Many are ambivalent about sharing the kitchen with a woman. A handful are outright chauvinists.


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Man With a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families

John Donohue, Editor

(Algonquin; US: May 2011)

Editor John Donohue is a New Yorker cartoonist and editor who cooks for his wife and two daughters. You may follow his cooking exploits at StayAtStoveDad.com, or you can read the introduction to Man with a Pan, which sets the tone:


“Sarah (his wife) and I came of age after the first wave of feminism.  We were swept away by the idea of equal opportunity for the sexes. When we got married, we assumed that we’d split the responsibility of running a house.”


All went smoothly until the babies arrived. That’s when Donohue, ever hungry and willing to cook, assumed kitchen duty and found himself in the grips of a happy obsession.


Many of the essays in Man With a Pan follow these lines—man is interested in food, man cooks for himself, man meets future wife, perhaps winning her over by cooking for her. The children arrive, and man finds himself in the kitchen, cooking for the family, perhaps vaguely surprised to be chief cook, but pleased nonetheless.


Shankar Vedantam’s “The Hidden Brain: Gender and Cooking”, merits special attention. Vedantam’s essay is an appreciation of his Aunt Yashoda’s marvelous Indian cooking, interspersed with a cogent analysis of gender stereotypes in what he calls the “hidden brain”. The hidden brain is a crude sorter of information, allowing us to rapidly categorize concepts like “babysitter”. Most of us implicitly associate babysitters with females. Should we encounter a male babysitter, in person or print, our brains experience a cognitive blip. 


Vedantam cites numerous scientific studies on thought and gender, and how deeply embedded these detrimental stereotypes are: “For generations, men who violate stereotypical behavior by cooking for their families have been seen as, among other things, effeminate.” Vedantam concludes with psychologist Anthony Greenwald’s Gender Career Implicit Association Test, proving that although you pride yourself on transcending gender stereotypes, kitchen and otherwise, your hidden brain hasn’t. 


Mark Bittman’s essay on becoming cook for his family is wonderful, of course. He’s Mark Bittman. He’s built a career around simple cooking for families.  Jesse Green, the sole gay contributor, writes about his partner, Andy, who does the cooking. Green can prepare a few complex party dishes, but they aren’t kid-friendly fare.  He’s honest about Andy’s limitations—he’s a decent cook, not a great one. The garlic arrives pre-minced in a jar, the carbonara comes from Costco. Yet Green is grateful for these meals, along with the bag lunch awaiting him each morning.  Andy’s food is plain, nutritious, and gets the job done. Their two sons get fed and the adults are happy.


Michael Ruhlman’s essay on roasting chicken calls for popping the chicken into the oven, then coaxing your significant other into bed while the bird roasts. He promises the food will be less caloric and taste much better. For those cooks with kids, he suggests a monthly lunch tryst, though he doesn’t seem to realize most working parents likely don’t have long enough lunch hours to attempt this maneuver. Still, a chicken lunch paired with a quickie is a nice idea if you’re on flextime.


Sean Wilsey’s “Kitchen ABC’s: Always Be Cleaning” is laugh-out-loud funny. With the arrival of Owen, now five, and Mira, now two, Wilsey’s childless, immaculate kitchen is but a memory. The children’s discussion regarding the amount of honey in Mira’s morning yogurt is hilarious. As Wilsey tries in vain to hide the honey jar from Mira, Owen peers into his sister’s dish and announces that she doesn’t have too much honey. Mira thanks him. That “thank you” does Wilsey in: Mira gets more honey.


Wilsey offers some useful tips for the kitchen with small children (or without): buy a decent rice cooker. Peel vegetables over the trash bin, not the sink. Wash the cutting board while something else is cooking. Have a pan of boiling water ready at all times, in case you suddenly must prepare pasta or sterilize surgical instruments. 


Mario Batali contributes a surprisingly lovely essay. Surprising because after viewing a few episodes of the American Iron Chef (Yeah, I’m hardcore. I loved the Japanese show even before it was subtitled) and reading Bill Buford’s Heat, I came away with the impression that Batali, though talented, was something of an arrogant monster (not Gordon Ramsay, but not the Dalai Lama, either.) 


He writes of sitting down to dinner with his wife and two sons nightly, even if he has plans. He suggests cooking with your children. He also suggests that when bringing a new ingredient to the table, in his case, cardoons, which look like gray celery but taste more like artichokes, it’s best not to make a fuss. Just cook your cardoons and plop them on the table. On pickling and canning with his children: “You get the Mason or Ball jar. You put it all together. And in six weeks you have something that says something about your point of view…Doing something like that once a month…that in itself speaks volumes about a family’s potential.”


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Diane Leach has a Master's Degree in English Literature from Humboldt State University. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New Mobility, and The Collagist. She can be reached at dianesleach@gmail.com.


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