Men Cooking Badly
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.
8/10/2022 06:41:54 am
"Loathsome Kraft Dinner"? I beg to differ. The noontime meal of choice for a fussy little boy whose acceptable dining choices topped out at well under a doze and whose cost-conscious mother would sometimes supplement with a slice of bologna to ensure adequate protein intake. A careful application of freshly-ground pepper and voila- perfection on a plate. I would also note an old trick of truckers and road musicians on the go. Select your favourite single-serving frozen delight, set it on the manifold of your engine and hit the road. An hour or so later, give or take, grab an old towel (sequestered for the purpose) and transfer the now-steaming-hot entree to a folded newspaper easily balanced on your lap (or, in some cases) the steering wheel. Bon appetit! Or, as we used to say, "Bob Appetite"!
8/10/2022 07:32:41 am
Ah, KD.How it often fed and nourished me as a young journalist working 90 hour weeks for small town newspapers. A glutinous mess you say. Nothing a liberal application of catsup couldn't cure. Thankfully my tastes and skills have progressed to the point where I can produce delicious soups and stews with produce from my garden, home-made cheesecake, my own pasta sauces, salsa verde, curries and more. But even now, if we have leftover noodles in the fridge, there is nothing better than to nuke some in a bowl with a great glob of catsup and shredded cheese with lots of black pepper. Divine. KD forever.
8/10/2022 11:49:54 am
Short sweet and enlightening Herman. My kids to my shame can compare away from home days too. Pot Noodles and spaghetti with ketchup two favourites. I say shame because they grew up with evening dinner at table with parents who could cook and conversation. Visiting them at their various Unis I was amazed at how many middle-class kids missed out on this family ritual. Mum and dad feeding them microwave in front of the tele while later that evening feed themselves or entertain. Kudos Herm that your brood was raised properly. Glad you survived those years of Kraft. During secondary school I would sometimes bring home friends to Gran's proper Spaghetti, as this was the 50s I dreaded the return visit to the mate's house where his adventurous mum would proudly serve Heinz Spaghetti the English way, on toast. What could I say except great.
9/10/2022 01:02:50 am
TOASTED BALOGNA SAMMIES
31/10/2022 07:07:17 am
The Keith story made me laugh, which few stories do nowadays. Never knew Doug as a Ravioli king. When my pals and I were 10yr. olds, out in the woods / by the lake, we treated bean cans similarly and chucked a few spuds in the fire for a good balanced (if somewhat burned) diet. The Nudge (band) cooled their beer bottles in the toilet cistern (flush now and then) back when car seat belts were only used as bottle openers. No Kraft dinner in Sweden, so I make my own, and chuck a few frozen meatballs in the boiling macaroni water. Then there´s my old story about when as a 3 or 4 yr. old, I thought chewing gum grew on the sidewalks and was gathered, packaged and sold in stores. I prefered the wild, sidewalk variety.
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