A man who cooks becomes a permanent part of his children’s lives.
It might be tempting to believe that robust male participation in today’s world of the “foodie” has translated to more men cooking for their families at home. The Food Network’s primetime lineup caters to a largely male demographic, suggesting that men have adopted home cooking in a departure from our fathers and their fathers before them.
But are American men flocking to the kitchen in full force, or is the reality that they remain only occasional guests at the stove? The Food Network, which should know the culinary habits of American’s better than anyone, airs primetime shows that feature harsh competition between antagonistic contestants to appeal to male viewing habits. However, programs intended to actually teach one how to cook are relegated to daytime when, by the producers’ calculations, the viewers are mostly female.
It seems obvious to me that life would be better for all if men did more of the cooking at home. And the reasons this remains true go far beyond the need to embrace equality in our relationships or how a daughter will approach her own relationships if she’s never seen her father julienne a carrot.
It was not my father who taught me this lesson long ago. He was a good but infrequent cook, leaving my mother to master the art of cooking and to teach her son why it mattered.
Male or female, the hand that nourishes you rests on your shoulder for the rest of your life, an ever-present source of comfort. As chef Jacques Pépin said, “you can’t escape the taste of the food you had as a child. In times of stress, what do you dream about? Your mother’s clam chowder. It’s security, comfort. It brings you home.”
When you think your children are fixated on their cartoons in the next room, the sounds and smells of you in the kitchen construct a permanent harbor of comfort that they will take with them long after you are gone. They know you’re in there. They hear the clinking utensils, the boiling water. They smell the dough as it begins to brown in the oven. The are comforted by these sounds and smells, but they do not yet know that their love for you is being painted in their memories that their own meals will someday allow them to relive when they need to most.
As I chop onions in my own kitchen, I rekindle memories of my mother’s Kitchen Aid mixer whirring in the background and her ritual complaint that it always leaves some unmixed dough at the bottom of the bowl. Jacques Pépin and his friend Julia Child would be on public television, teaching us how to cook quietly and with dignity. The Bach playing on her radio and the sound of the whirring Kitchen Aid were a cozy lullaby urging me to nap on the couch. The chipped orange enameled crock pot would later be placed on the table, the aroma of its stews and sauces filling the room and waking me from my rest. It was time for dinner.
These memories have fortified me when comfort was scarce. All these many years later, I still instinctively settle into the couch after a bad day, drifting to sleep with Bach on the radio and my own Kitchen Aid stirring in the background. The memories these moments sustain became vivid last year when my mother passed away unexpectedly and I stood in her dark kitchen alone, knowing for the first time how a string of small moments across a lifetime can be all you need to understand who you love and how that can be eternal.
I don’t have children and I will not have these moments to imprint on my children’s hearts. For me, apart from enjoying a good meal, cooking is my last umbilical to a past I have lost and miss very much. My sisters and I took my mother’s ashes home in her chipped orange crock pot, a cradle for our memories of her and a declaration that for all its machinations, love is nowhere more genuine than at the table. It will remain in our family and if we’re lucky, future generations will know the dented old pot as a source of security, comfort, and home.
When you first put on an apron and attempt your first dish, you will not recapture the flavors of the one who first crafted them for you. My mother’s stained recipe books tell me what to do, but my attempts to recreate her flavors are futile.
For many years, Chef Pépin has warned us that this is so. “You cannot escape yourself” when you are cooking, he once said. A dozen chefs making the same dish with the same tools, the same stove, and the same ingredients, will nevertheless create a dozen unique dishes. He is right, of course. Jacques Pépin always is.
But I haven’t stopped trying.
For your children, the unique combination of flavors you will create will not be a failure to recapture a moment from your past. They will be your moment, one your child will later unwrap and embrace every time they feel hungry or seek comfort when they learn of all that is out there. In that moment, you will be everything to them a parent should be; a harbor that shelters them from pain, even if you are no longer there to hold them.
If you are like most men, your wife is already in the kitchen, imprinting these moments on your child while you sit in the living room watching cooks scream at each other on television. But there’s room for one more at the stove and it’s never too late.
Ask your wife to show you what she’s making and how she does it. Call your mother and collect some old recipes. Purchase Jacques Pépin’s New Complete Techniques at your local bookstore. Start on Page 1.
You may not understand how or even why, but your children in the next room will see more than a father who knows how to julienne a carrot. They will be seeing their own future memories you will some day hope they are lucky enough to enjoy.
More importantly, they will have moments they will desperately need when you are gone.