The Hungover Gourmet


How'd I Get This Way?

I think it's unfortunate that more men don't cook, like to cook, or admit to cooking. Sure, plenty of guys'll own up to strapping on a ridiculous hat and apron to burn a few steaks beyond all recognition, but is that really cooking? If you're one of the culinary-challenged individuals that serves up burgers that resemble hockey pucks, immediately proceed to our Grillarama section. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Increasingly I find that when I'm around "average Joes," cooking as a profession, hobby or art is looked upon with some disdain. Or, as has been suggested by men and women alike, that it is a feminine pursuit best undertaken by those "light in the loafers." Hmm. It often pains me to explain that some of the nation's leading chefs are men (Philadelphia's Georges Perrier, Wolfgang Puck, and Jimmy the guy that owns the New Englander Diner in Danbury, CT), and we won't even talk about the Iron Chef.

"So," I asked myself in the mirror, "How'd I get this way?"

Coming from a family of seven, nobody was actually allowed to "cook" in our kitchen except for my mother. We often had helper tasks, though rarely anything more taxing than opening a can of Pillsbury rolls, shaking the cranberry sauce out of the can on Turkey Day, or stirring the huge pan of scrambled eggs for a typical heart-attack Sunday breakfast of bacon, eggs, buttered toast, and whole milk. What, no scrapple? (Aigh! I can feel my arteries clogging as I write this!)

Yet, my mother never kept any secret about her meals or the source of her cooking acumen. Though her cuisine often had a bland Eastern European flavor, the meals were predictably good, filling, and unwaveringly familiar. To this day it amazes me that every batch of chili, every piece of fried chicken, every bowl of baked bean casserole tasted like the one before it. And the one before that. And the one before that...all the way down the line.

What makes it more amazing is that I never saw her consult a single recipe and she owned a lone cookbook -- Betty Crocker's Good and Easy Cookbook: 1000 time-saving, taste-tempting recipes and hints for busy homemakers. She received the book at some point during the 1940s, probably around the time she married my father in 1945. It still sits in her kitchen drawer, good as new, and filled with recipes and ideas neatly clipped from the newspaper or women's magazines. After much searching, I finally tracked down my own copy of this blessed tome last fall.

A terribly finicky eater as a kid, I was nonetheless fascinated by the cooking process. I'd come home from school and wolf down a quick snack before delivering my paper route, watching Mom start that night's dinner for the troops. I remember my father cooking for us once, when Mom was bed-ridden with a bug or injury.

Though I can't recall how old I was or the time of year, I can still remember the edges of that roast beef taking on a purple hue as it cooked up in the pan. Maybe it was the pan, maybe it was the gravy, but it was less than appetizing, and I knew Ma could've done better. Subconsciously I prayed that I'd never be that hapless in the kitchen.

I never had to act upon that silent prayer until college rolled around and I had to fend for myself. Sure, I returned from weekend trips with plenty of care packages, but I still had to make something of the dried goods, pasta, canned soups, and 64 slices of pasteurized processed cheese food product that ma packed for me.

Pretty soon I started buying cookbooks (Fannie Farmer's, the original The Frugal Gourmet, and New Basics remain my favorite, dog-eared works to this day) and found my nutritional, perhaps I should say "un-nutritional," habits being questioned during a research project for a drug company -- where I first met ER's Minister of Exploitation. It wasn't long before I was cutting back on the cheesesteaks (mmmm!) and making my own stir-fry...sacrificing a Filet-O-Fish (still my favorite, completely indulgent fast-food meal) in favor of a piece of grilled swordfish. Swearing off sweets, candy, and desert in favor of fruit, or a glass of juice.

Though I left the drug company after a few internships, the nutrition info stayed with me. And I got more involved in cooking. I also got more involved with wine, sake, and homebrew, but that's a story for another time.

I hope you dig our debut and continue grace us with your presence. Look for issue #2 of the print edition in October.

In the Next Origins: Howard Johnson's & How it Shaped My Dining-Out Worldview

[This article originally appeared in THG #1]

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