The first time I followed a complicated recipe, Ifelt as exultant as I did when I rewired my first lamp hile thumbing through the desserts in James Beard’s American Cookery, looking for something to bake, I found a recipe for an old-fashioned confection called a Lady Baltimore cake. It’s a difficult three-layer egg-white extravaganza, with a double filling rich with figs and cognac-soaked raisins and the entire edifice encased in seven-minute frosting. It’s fluffy and fancy and fussy in a word, feminine, in name, ingredients and preparation. It reminded me again how thoroughly we think of the kitchen as a woman’s space, one that’s too risky for people of the male persuasion, even those who don’t flinch at bungee jumping, hang gliding or facing a frothy set of class VI rapids.
Like playing the flute or doing needlepoint, cooking has long been seen as something that feminizes men, though our perception of this is changing. Many men do cook these days, and some men’s magazines feature regular food columns by writers with impeccable masculine credentials. Still, the cooking process these writers describe often involves alcohol (everything seems to benefit from flaming tequila) and concerns such virile entries as paneed alligator tail or spit-roasted wild boar with juniper berries, recipes that imply the cook has recently returned from mud-wrestling in the bayous or tramping alone through the Ardennes.
Let’s face it: For men, prowess is all, and fooling around with food is still not as sexy as bench-pressing 250 or swinging by one’s fingertips from a canyon wall. Since I do almost all the cooking in my household, this issue concerns me. What exactly is it that so many men find problematic about cooking? Is it merely an atavistic sense that the ones who drag home the carcass shouldn’t also have to roast it? Or is it our hunch that hanging around the hearth will make us soft, lazy and fat? The kitchen, with its connotations of warmth and comfort, is too cozy, too much at the center, when men long to roam the perimeter, lean, hard, hungry and cold, slaughtering weeds with a loud gas-driven Weed Whip.
When I was in high school, boys were required to take “shop,” which involved either working with tools so powerful they could take your arm off in a split second or joining the secret society of those who understood the workings of an internal combustion engine. Entering the Brotherhood meant lying on your back on cold cement with 10 W-40 dripping in your eyes. When, for one semester, we had to take “home ec,” we weren’t required to cook, God forbid; school authorities were alert to life’s realities. Instead, we were asked to make objets d’art by gluing dried beans onto a piece of Masonite.
Garages, not kitchens, are where men tend to hang out. Unheated, separated from the house itself, crowded with automobiles and engine parts, oil spills and gas cans, they’re neither comfortable nor cozy, but a place where a man can be alone. The kitchen, on the other hand, is the house’s heart, the place where everyone congregates. The fear that a place like that will feminize a man is everywhere in our culture. What can be worse for a boy than to be “tied to mommy’s apron strings?” The message is clear overexposure to pots and pans can seriously af-feet a man’s ability to make his way in the world.
This is not to say that men won’t cook, as long as the conditions are right. Thick slabs of testosterone-enhancing meat are generally OK, if cooked outside over a fire. And some kinds of food, spareribs for example, are indisputably masculine they need to be picked up in the hands and gnawed.
So what’s to be done? Perhaps designers could create life-threatening kitchen appliances that make more noise and start with pull ropes, like lawn mowers. Kitchens could be located in outbuildings and equipped only with fireplaces and a sign on the door that reads No Women or Children Allowed. Of course, all Salad Shooters will have to be collected, destroyed and replaced with Roughage Guns. Otherwise, women might have to continue to do most of the cooking into the next century. (At least at home; restaurant kitchens with their status and power are another story.)
Meanwhile, I’ll keep at it. The first time I followed a complicated recipe and it turned out well, I felt as exultant as I did when I rewired a difficult lamp or took apart and repaired the vacuum cleaner: I’d negotiated one of life’s small mysteries.
It’s almost time to start dinner. Tonight I’m making chicken piccata. Saute quartered mushrooms and set aside. Bone two chicken breasts and slice thinly. Dip in beaten egg and dredge in seasoned flour. Saute quickly; the sauce is a brief simmering of chicken broth, white wine, fresh lemon juice and pepper. Steamed rice. Green beans with garlic. Done.
There’s magic in this, a kind of alchemy, learning the way that humble ingredients can be transformed into something nourishing and delicious. As a way of calming the world’s chaos, cooking is a form of meditation, like jogging, woodworking or cutting the grass, good for the soul as well as the body. While it’s not as dangerous as motocross racing, it gratifies, soothes and sustains. More men should try it.
Steven Bauer teaches fiction writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.