I’ve been cooking for comfort. Nothing fancy, nothing colorful, nothing trendy. Food to read by. Food to hunker down with. I used to think of cooking as women’s work. I know activity has no gender; the person doing the activity is gendered (or agendered), but I steer clear of activities I associate as feminine. At home, I never saw men in the kitchen unless they were mixing drinks or washing dishes.
My mother did not enjoy cooking. She took advantage of the miracle of canned and frozen convenience foods to get dinner for four on the table every night. She believed that everything needed to be fully cooked to be safe to eat (including canned asparagus, frozen tater tots, and steak). My mother owned two infrequently used cookbooks (The Settlement Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking); most of her recipes came from the back of the soup can.
Growing up, I put home cooking in the chore category with sewing, laundry, and cleaning. It didn’t occur to me that it could be a pleasure. I left for college with no domestic skills. A barbarian baby butch.
My freshman year, I set up a mini-kitchen with a compact fridge, a double burner hot plate, and a broiler oven. The first time I cooked I blew the breaker for the electrical circuit. The next day I ran heavy-duty orange extension cords and put each appliance on a separate outlet. I ate bachelor food: spaghetti, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, ramen noodles, canned soup, and sloppy joes.
Leon lived down the hall from me. He was a skinny, long-haired, pot smoking, musicologist, and computer programming major. He taught me how to make a salad and how to shop for inexpensive fruits and vegetables at Haymarket. Instead of using glop from a bottle, Leon dressed a mixed green salad with olive oil, salt, pepper, and wine vinegar (in that order, tossing after each addition). We’d smoke, listen to music, cook, and eat.
Leon preferred to improvise, adjusting by taste. I’ve always preferred to start from a recipe. He could take any random assortment of food and make a meal from it (a spaghetti sauce, an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich, or a composed salad). After a semester of hanging out with Leon, I re-gendered cooking as a masculine activity (or at least as a Leonish one). Cooking as experimental science. Cooking as a research project. I starting buying cookbooks and testing recipes.
I was determined to become a better cook to impress/seduce Donna. We became lovers before I mastered cooking anything. It was years before I understood the ingredients, the cooking method, when a dish was done, and what it should taste like. Now I can read a recipe and know whether it is going to work or not. When in doubt, I refer to my collection of cookbooks. I have over a hundred.
Last week, on a cold day, I decided to make vegetarian chili. Not any chili, but one that I ate, over 25 years ago, at a peacenik potluck at Donna’s apartment. I had filed it away in the “must make that someday” slot in my brain. I recalled it as the “Silver Palate Vegetarian Chili”, which was close enough for Google. I don’t own The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, but I downloaded the chili recipe from it.
It is a mainstream 1980’s recipe (no cilantro or dried ancho chiles). I made two changes (cut the oil in half, and used both cans of pinto and garbanzo beans instead of 1 cup of each to avoid the left over beans fermenting in the fridge). It came out exactly as I remembered it. It was worth the wait.
Home cooking remains the only traditional women’s art/task/chore that I enjoy, or am good at. I’m a little embarrassed that I had to drag it over to the masculine side of the gender spectrum to own it, but I’m glad that Leon gave me the opportunity to do it. Maybe one day I’ll hang out with a guy who knits…
Notes: Becoming a good cook was a rebellion against my mother. She did make a decent brisket (pot roast) and matzoh ball soup. I did not keep any of her recipes; the Eastern European dishes I make (borscht and mushroom barley soup) are adapted from my cookbooks.
While I was writing this post I remembered an article I read on Cooking with Muxes, Mexico’s Third Gender. It explains how to make iguana stew.