The kitchen is mine, but it’s taken me a while to get here. Time was, I was lost in the kitchen. How I got from there to here is not so much about learning to cook and more a recipe for how I put myself together after things fell apart.
Just a few years ago, my marriage was ending. Before my marriage, I’d made occasional attempts to use the kitchen for something other than “heat this up in the microwave.” Baked potatoes were a frequent result. In my defense, I come from a long line of not-cooks. My mom was a hippy and had no time for all that domestic nonsense. She wasn’t the Whole Foods-shopping, locavore hipster mom we all love today, the one who knows just what to do with some organic kale, genuine extra virgin and a sauté pan. No, my mom was a hardcore true believer, an orthodox revolutionary. She was a Puritan. For all her talk of free love, blah, blah, blah, hippy childrearing in the late 1970s was a decidedly un-tasty experience.
What my mom lacked in cooking skills was only enhanced by repetition. Gelatinous blocks of tofu from the food co-op were featured regularly in our home. Skillet-fried. My brothers and I found that giving the tofu a Southern Baptist fullemersion in soy sauce made it mildly palatable. Vegetables consisted of broccoli, cauliflower and squash that had to be over-steamed in order to produce the desired rubber-like consistency. Even today a waft of squash prompts a gag reflex. They never heard of a wok and sesame oil?
By birth, I simply did not know how to cook. I didn’t even really know what I was missing. My ex-wife did know how to cook. Her talent in the kitchen would make an enormous and permanent impact on who I am and how I approach life. She did the cooking because she loved it and because I was horrendous. (She still likes to tell the story about how I destroyed the kitchen early in our marriage while attempting to make lasagna. I’m confident there are still marinara stains in the white floor grout.) Entertaining friends and family became a central part of our lives together. Like the way an artist develops a certain style, these gatherings became part of our voice as a couple.
Over the years, I started to become aware of just how important good food and drink can be in a life. It makes sense. Food imbues our story as a species. Our primordial myths often revolve around it. God provided manna for the Hebrews in the wilderness, and as Buddha finally achieves enlightenment, one of the first things he does is eat. Our popular tales involve apples and candy and wolf-food.
On a personal level, the breaking of bread together is one of the few intimate but non-sexual experiences two or more people can share together. (I know that food can be an excellent addition to sex, but that’s not my point in this piece.)
It’s little wonder that so many truces have been forged over food. You sit down and are forced to lower your weapons and be vulnerable. This is an ideal, of course. Meals are often awkward and people are very capable of causing damage with their words even while enjoying well-made food. At its best, though, a great meal is like the one in the Danish movie “Babette’s Feast.” It breaks down barriers and helps people to really connect.
Launching my grand adventure as a recently enfranchised bachelor and single dad, I knew I wanted to learn how to make my way around the kitchen. I wanted to develop my own culinary voice. It all sounds a bit conceited, but there are just a few times in life when you have the opportunity to think big. This was one of them. I was ready to grow, to mature. Learning how to cook was going to be one of those changes.
How does one ignorant, very bad cook start to get a handle on this task? Three main ways: one great cook book, several inspiring chefs, and many failures.
Cooking has become a kind of faith for me. Like any good faith, it has a Bible: “The Joy of Cooking.” I will assume that you, dear reader, are already familiar with this thick tome. If not, get a copy. Now. My well-worn copy is an invaluable guide. Writers Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker created a true comprehensive guide for everything in the kitchen: equipment, utensils, menus, drinks, appetizers, condiments, soups, eggs, pastas, salads, and on and on and on. You get background material, corollary advice and then dive into page after page of both classic recipes and more adventurous culinary endeavors. It’s exhaustive. I’ve owned it now for about 15 years and haven’t even come close to mining all its secrets.
What “The Joy of Cooking” does so well is avoid voodoo and focus on the process. It’s like the old Volkswagen repair manual I remember as child. These manuals were ubiquitous at the time because they made fixing your Volkswagen seem like something anyone could tackle. With this book in hand,
I had the reference I needed. No idea what the Sam Hill a Dutch oven is? Afraid to take on risotto? Want to try your hand at layered dough? It’s all in the book. As a card-carrying intellectual and geek, this was an absolute necessity. Few meals in my kitchen are pulled off without its guidance.
I didn’t really start reaching for that book until I had some inspiration. Here’s where I need you to cut me some slack. I have some serious crushes on several celebrity chefs and food writers. Say what you will, they helped get me where I am.
- Anthony Bourdain enticed me with prose that made cooking something like being the charismatic protagonist in a Graham Greene novel. “Kitchen Confidential” is an inspired and inspiring novel by a man who found salvation in the kitchen.
- Rick Bayliss was a surrogate father who showed me how to turn what I tasted when dining out into my own home creations. His sense of wonder at the variety and inventiveness of food is infectious. Bayless’ PBS series “Mexico: One Plate At A Time” should be on your playlist.
- Lynne Rossetto Kasper somehow translates food journalism into something incredibly sensual. On her NPR show “Splendid Table” Kasper can make any dish sound enticing. I regularly use recipes from the show’s e-newsletter.
- Eric Ripert’s elegance and charm taught me not to be intimidated by classic European dishes. I learned the value of simple preparations with a few high-quality ingredients. “Avec Eric”, also on PBS, is another show you ought to add to your DVR list.
- Finally, Jacques Pepin’s sheer delight in the act of cooking was infectious. His meals are both family-friendly and continental.
He is also a great raconteur. You know the question about who you would eat dinner with if you could invite anyone in the world? Pepin would be one of my guests.
There were others, but these were certainly the most important. We all need teachers. Everyone I’ve named is successful because they’re genuinely talented and because they’ve all put in the 10,000 hours needed to become true experts.
At this point, as a new bachelor on a quest to learn how to cook real food at home, I now had a stable of masters who opened the kitchen door, and a Bible to guide my journey. The last step in the preparation of this meal was to try and fail.
I did fail. A lot. And often spectacularly. There was the time I attempted to turn the remains of a holiday ham into a soup base. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I ended up with pork Jell-O. Clean up required hazmat suits. There was a pasta dish with too much salt. A lot of salt. It was a saltlick. In another case, I was making whipped cream and figured that if a little whipping was good, more was better. That’s wrong. I made bowl of butter. Butter is not a good dessert.
Over time, though, I had more successes than failures. I started to feel like a naturalized citizen of the kitchen. I don’t know if cooking will ever feel intuitive. Like an immigrant who never quite looses his accent, I still depend on recipes and measuring cups and spoons. But, I can reliably produce meals without shame for guests, the kinds of dinners where people graze because they are caught up in the experience. That is simply transcendent.
A couple of years ago, I fell in love with Jenny, who is now my fiancé. She didn’t just tolerate my encroachment into her kitchen she actively encouraged it. I became the primary cook for our new family. I have meals that have taken on semi-legendary status and generate encore requests. All of this reached a peak not long ago when someone started to put his dishes in the sink and I announced, “That isn’t going to work in my kitchen.” Jenny lost her breath and put her hand to her mouth. “Ray’s kitchen,” she said. “You have no idea how happy that makes me.”
Neither of us are church-going people. But, in a way, we are. Every Sunday, I cook a family meal. Family means more than just our children and other blood relatives. It’s also the people who we love by choice. They all gather in our kitchen and make noise and spill things and play music and gossip and I absolutely love it. We are home.