[19 July 2011]
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.
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.”
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.