Tis the season for eating. And therefore, tis also the season for cooking.
I can’t help but notice that my favorite cooks (i.e., anyone willing to make me a meal) have particularly strong preferences when it comes to how things are done in their kitchen.
A kindly woman can turn ferocious when guarding her kitchen. Not even a glass of water may be filled within the confines of her kingdom without permission, lest the wrong glass be filled or water be drawn from the tap when there’s filtered water on hand.
We’ve come a long way in terms of gender equality. But when the evening meal calls for more than spaghetti or hamburgers, it’s usually the woman in the household who answers the call.
For this I feel gratitude and, yes, a bit of guilt. I can think of several dozen things I’d rather be doing on any given evening at 6 p.m, rather than figuring out what to make for dinner.
It can be a true pleasure for a couple to spend an evening cooking together. But my participation in this scenario is usually limited to washing the vegetables, choosing the wine, and saying, “Whatever you want to make is fine with me, dear.”
I’ve learned to be as agreeable as possible, for a couple of reasons.
First, I’m not the one doing the heavy lifting.
My masculine identity does not depend on my ability to make an excellent crepe with whatever happens to be in the fridge. Nor do I spend my free time leafing through the “Joy of Cooking.”
In fact, when I hear the words “joy of cooking” my thoughts go immediately to a semi-obscure Sixties folk-rock group whose music I was never much into.
Second, I’ve discovered I get fed much better, if I am as agreeable as possible in the kitchen.
I have over the years become quite skilled at respecting the peculiarities of whoever is running the kitchen.
The High Church of the Middlebury Natural Food Co-Op holds a special place in the culinary pantheon for the cooks I know.
The co-op’s green beans may be twice as expensive as at the supermarket, but they’re organic and therefore must be (mustn’t they?) inherently of superior nutritional value – even though the latest study has thoroughly debunked that notion.
Organic foods have environmental value, it turns out, but they’re generally not more nutritious.
But don’t tell that to a Vermont female for whom the co-op is a kind of substitute church.
Just smile and ask her if there’s anything else she’d like you to get, while you’re at the co-op buying organic, hand-watered, heirloom tomatoes grown over dust-free, imported straw in a field watched over by an especially mellow Labradoodle.
Of course once the food is home, any cook worth her salt knows that the choice of proper cookware is also pivotal.
For example, aluminum pans once, many decades ago, leaked metals into the food. So even though that problem is long past, cooking on aluminum is out. And everyone knows (don’t they?) that Teflon causes cancer.
The only acceptable cookware is specially clad and blessed by the High Priestesses of Sonoma Williams.
If chicken is on the menu, extra precautions must be taken – beginning with donning a haz-mat suit to handle the chicken, followed by sterilizing every item with 20 feet of the chicken.
Apparently chicken is the most hazardous substance known to humanity, worse even than the Black Death that decimated Paris in 1466 and the sarin gas they used in the trenches of World War I.
The stove you’re cooking on matters, too. I chose electric for my new stove because you can generate electricity using solar photovoltaic, and because in Vermont most of our electiricty is generated from hydro. That makes it cleaner than carbon-producing gas stoves.
But apparently no self-respecting cook would be caught dead cooking on an electric stove, whatever the consequences for the climate. Another mark against my culinary cred.
I do what I can to help out when dinner is being prepared. For example, if there’s any water to be boiled (my specialty), I always pitch in.
It turns out, though, that there’s even a right way and a wrong way to boil water — having something to do with the size and type of the top you place on the pan.
I didn’t really get the details the last time this subject came up. I just said, “Yes, dear.”
Another area of deep concern to many cooks is the dishwasher.
One hostess of my acquaintance, for example, seems to take it as an insult if I try to help load the dishwasher after dinner. The guest’s proper place, she seems to feel, is at the dinner table.
Another hostess, however, sees it as a sign that I am an incorrigible male chauvinist if I don’t load the dishwasher the moment dinner is finished.
And then there’s the dilemma about which way to load the silverware in the dishwasher.
One friend feels it should go in handle-side up.
Another insists that civilization as we know it will be imperiled – and no piece of cutlery will ever be clean again – unless the handle is placed downward in the rack so the eating end of forks and knives is exposed to the full, explosive force of the $1500, estra-quiet Bosch dishwasher with 17 options for the “wash” cycle.
Here, too, I do my best to respect the cooks’ preference.
Without people like her, I know, I’d be eating every night out of a can.