LONDON, ONTARIO – All through the years of our life together – me a night owl and she an early riser, me usually working at home and she usually going out – it’s been unusual for my wife and I to sit down to breakfast or lunch together. But before we had kids and all through their growing up and in the years since they’ve moved out, we’ve always made a point of gathering for a properly observed dinner which either one of us will have made.
My last part-time day job evaporated five years ago so I’ve produced most of our dinners since then and have developed about a dozen greatest hits which I feature in rotation. Probably the most ambitious of these is a Greek stew which has to burble away on the stove for a few hours but before that passive process gets underway, it only takes about a half hour to chop stuff up and throw it all together. And that would seem to be the case with all of the meals I make. My attention span as a chef starts to conk out at the thirty-minute mark.
While I might feel like a kitchen wizard compared to some of my male friends, I know that deep down I’m just a piker; a short distance sprinter who is ignominiously elbowed out of place when someone is required to oversee a more serious epicurean production – like spanakopita, big honking roasts, or anything involving a turkey. On occasions like this weekend’s Thanksgiving feast, I can help my wife out with supplementary tasks if she’ll show me what to do. And as the big bird aromatically bakes away through the better part of the day, I’ll definitely oversee a few preliminary shifts of washing bowls and basters and a host of mysterious implements that I never employ in my more pedestrian kitchen adventures.
While every world famous chef except Julia Child has been a male, the average man’s incompetence in the kitchen has long been recognized and derided. I remember back around the turn of the century when the technicians at Kraft Foods Inc. were advertising a faster and easier-to-prepare format of their loathsome Kraft Dinner called Easy Mac which was pitched almost exclusively at men. This bland and glutinous approximation of macaroni and cheese – already a mainstay in male dormitories and bachelor hovels throughout the Dominion – had been slightly rejigged for microwave preparation in individual serving pouches and the big boast was that it cut the preparation time from ten minutes to five.
The best news of all was that the culinarily challenged could finally dispense with that treacherous business of having to measure and add precise portions of milk and margarine at just the right moment in pasta production. And provided you pushed the right buttons on your microwave’s control panel, it was supposed to be impossible to burn this starchy orange concoction into that gelatinous mass which – in the old format – could stubbornly adhere to the bottom of saucepans for weeks at a stretch. As no pots or measuring cups were necessary at all with this new format, the only dishes left to wash were one bowl and a fork.I was decidedly unimpressed by this great innovation because almost a quarter century before Easy Mac’s debut, my bachelor slum roommate, Doug, had devised his own recipe for Chef Boyardee Ravioli which cut Kraft’s latest prep time in half and left even fewer dishes to wash. Doug’s little innovation went like this:
Fill small saucepan with vigorously boiling water from kettle.
Puncture two small holes in lid of Ravioli can with opener (otherwise can could explode), then set can directly into boiling water for two minutes.
When timer rings, turn off stove.
Lift can from pan with oven mitt on left hand and set the can in sink while removing the entire lid with opener.
Still wearing that protective mitt, carry hot can in left hand over to couch, having previously tuned TV to channel showing cartoon reruns. In right hand, you have a fork which you use to transport steaming hot Ravioli from can to mouth.
When dinner is completed (this was back in the benighted age before recycling) throw out can and lid and empty pot of water down the drain. Clean fork.
For decades Doug’s Ravioli routine took the cake as the most ingeniously lazy dinner preparation I’d ever heard of. But he eventually got trumped, not in the departments of ingenuity or speed but for sheer, shameless laziness by a friend of my brother’s named Keith.
When his wife of twenty-some years moved out of the house for good, Keith was up a bit of a creek for a while when it came to cooking dinners. His friends advised him of the incredible array of pre-prepared entrees to be found in contemporary grocery store freezers; simple, no mess packages which only need to be popped in the oven for forty minutes or so and voila – a well-balanced dinner.
A hearty Canadian to the soles of his feet, Keith started with that staple of the Quebec diet, tourtiere. Unfamiliar with even the most elementary concepts or principles of cooking, he didn’t realize it was advisable to set a metal baking tray under any sort of frozen dinner.
When the timer went off, Keith put on his oven mitts and, with a hand gripping each side, started to pull the entree from the oven. He was completely unprepared when the weight of the meat pie shifted to the centre, causing the thing to collapse in his hands and spill all over the inside of his wide open oven door.
What was a fella to do? By the time he cleaned up this mess, he knew that his dinner would be unappetizingly cold. So instead – and here is where that reprehensibly male genius really shone forth – Keith pulled a chair right up to the oven, sprinkled a little salt and pepper over the accident site and dug right in. He knew it was time to think about dessert when he could see his feet through the window of the oven door.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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