“You know” he says, struggling to look humble, “I’m actually a pretty good cook.” Most of the time, this guy-speak can be safely translated into what it really means: ‘I grill things.’ Barbecuing, as we all know, is a man (beer in hand, silly apron on) prodding a couple of steaks on the backyard grill, while his other half dashes around, making salads and side dishes, garlic bread and dessert, only to have everyone at the table later sit back, burp contentedly and enthuse: ‘great meal, Bob!’
But there is a dangerous sub-species of the basic Cooking Man: the pure breed, the real thing. And this guy is capable of inflicting far greater damage than a sticky barbecue brush and a trashed kitchen for you to clean up, or the cutting barbs of a Gordon Ramsey. Those lovely words: ‘let me come over and make you dinner,’ suggesting romantic-slash-culinary adventures beyond your wildest dreams (plus an escape from the dreariness of having to cook anything) must be viewed with extreme wariness. Because a man who truly cooks is a man who is deadly serious about it. Like any man, engaged in any chosen pursuit, focus (did I hear ‘obsession’?) is key.
The first line of attack will be your kitchen, where there will never be enough counter space, where the range is (disappointingly) electric, and the absence of a convection oven glaring. I mean, how many of us really know what a convection oven is? Let alone how to use one? Let alone go out and buy one? Let alone care?
Then Cooking Man’s laser beam will be turned onto your spice rack—assuming you have one—and his comment, as he picks up the tiny jar of greying oregano, opens and sniffs, will be: ‘Something you forgot to smoke in the ‘sixties?’
Your so-called cooking equipment will be next. What? No iron skillet with a lid, nothing with Le Creuset branded on the bottom, no slope-sided omelet pan? (He certainly won’t be around to make you breakfast.)
Sadly (him) and nervously (you) will survey the collection of dinged aluminum pots that you bought in your undergraduate days at some discount department store or inherited when your grandmother passed away. Well, they always seemed adequate to you, and to your level of (single electric burner or microwave) cooking before. But Cooking Man will be secretly gleeful, because if anything he ultimately prepares in your sorry-ass mess of a kitchen is not up to his standard of perfection, it will be easy enough to blame your pots (i.e. you).
Cooking Man will then insist on a trip to the nearest farmers’ market, distraught to discover there isn’t one within twenty miles of your apartment. (Well, why would you ever look for, or go to, one? You’re not a farmer!) But he will make the arduous trip regardless. There, he will insist on everything being fresh, fresh, fresh. He will sniff and sample and taste and frown and ask embarrassingly accusatory questions like: ‘is this Parmesan really aged 10 years?’ and ‘is this fish fresh?’ while you fantasize about the freezer section at Kroeger with its bounty of Lean Cuisines, musing over how good (and easy, and fast!) they are, and the bad old days when you could enjoy one of them while watching back to back episodes of Game of Thrones. And by the way, you will NEVER be allowed to eat a meal in front of your TV again, unless Cooking Man is out of town, and even then, he’ll probably set up a Go Pro in your living room before he leaves.
But you have miles to go before you eat, and he has promises to keep. Cooking Man is a mad bustler who cares not a whit about the time it takes to prepare the meal nor the ruin he leaves in his wake. So stand back, have a drink or three, and be prepared to do the tedious, low-level jobs he might actually entrust you with, like digging the eyes out of the potatoes (you’re not yet qualified to peel). He will be aghast at your prep habits: the dangerous way you handle raw eggs, the cross-contamination you create when you move those chicken parts from fridge to counter. Remind him that there’s a hazmat suit in the garage, and that you have somehow managed to live for 50 (or however many) years without killing yourself in your own kitchen, unless, perhaps, the reason is that you’ve so rarely been in it.
Everything Cooking Man has in his culinary repertoire will be preceded by the words ‘my famous’ as in my famous coq au vin. The meal that Cooking Man ultimately produces will be very good, it might even be great, even sensational, and certainly way better than anything you could ever make. But that was a forgone conclusion, wasn’t it? What will accompany the meal is not so much a fine Cabernet but Cooking Man’s critical assessment of the feast, the tally of its cost, and the (foregone) conclusion that it was far better than any meal one could get in any restaurant, anywhere. And all for less than twenty dollars!
You will try not to think about starched table linens, romantic candlelight, obsequious waiters and the chance of a celebrity-sighting you missed. You will nod and smile as you nudge the kitchen door shut, not wanting to be reminded of the nightmare lurking within, waiting just for you. Because Cooking Man sure as heck doesn’t think it’s his job to deal with the mess. He is after all, the artist, the man, the God!
And so the romantic evening, chez nous, ends with Cooking Man nodding off in a comfy chair while you don rubber gloves to attack the gobs of stuff welded to the kitchen ceiling, the pools of grease around the burners, the mucky bowls and the crusty pots.
At the end of my short relationship with Cooking Man, I did take away one thing, aside from the 15 pounds I’d gained. It’s a little gadget called a vertical roaster, available in any discount department store. You simply jamb a whole (salmonella-plumped) chicken onto it and stick it into your regular old oven, where it cooks to perfection without you having to do a anything but turn the oven on—something I discovered that even I could manage. I call this dish My Famous Poulet Verticale. Perfect for righting those upside-down days we all have occasionally. And all or less than ten dollars.