Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Slightly Longer History of the Kitchen and Me

My road to the kitchen did not begin near one. At a tender young age I was milking cows, raising chickens and tending garden on a small farm outside of Logansport in northern Indiana. I grew up under the guidance of a mostly-employed mother and father. When Dad wasn’t employed, he busted my butt daily with chores around the farm. Mom worked to make ends meet yet still rose every morning before everyone else and went to bed after everyone else. When home, she and the kitchen were inseparable.

I ate just about everything. I don’t recall it being an option. First, there was raw hunger. Farming did that to a young boy. Second, rejecting my mother’s cooking would have displeased my father.

If pressed into duty, I could have boiled water for instant coffee, fried some eggs, or a rasher of bacon. Simple stuff. Mostly I gathered - eggs from the henhouse, milk from the cows, veggies from the garden, or fruit from the orchard. The closest I came to meal preparation involved the separation of chickens from their heads.

Chasing down the fowl became a sport. (There wasn’t a lot to do for entertainment on a farm.) Once captured, I gripped the legs tightly, stretched the neck from two narrow nails atop a block of wood, then separated the head from the body with an axe, preferably a sharpened one. I was always amazed by the prowess of a headless five-pound rooster or hen. If not gripped tightly enough, the bird would flop violently for several minutes. This did not please my mother who was standing by with a tub of scalding water. Plucking feathers and gutting chickens was woman’s work. Mom’s fried chicken was legendary - at least to the end of our driveway.

We spent a lot of our waking hours in food-related activities - irrigating the grazing pastures for the milk-cows, or the meat from a steer butchered each year - planting, fertilizing, weeding, spraying and growing vegetables and strawberries for our roadside stand -nurturing the orchard and standing guard against predator blackbirds - raising chickens for fresh eggs and fried chicken. (There was only one way to prepare chicken - fried.)

This relationship with the land is an art now lost in most of the country, though there is a minor movement back. Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, speaks to this. Growing up, the naturalness of the four seasons and the evolution of plant and animal life seemed integrated into whom we were. Sitting down to eat around the kitchen table, or Sunday dinners in the dining room, connected us to each other and to our environment. The kitchen was the center of our family’s lives. We rarely think much about that kind of life until it is gone.

After marriage, PJ and I tag-teamed the kitchen duties. Whoever had the toughest schedule stayed out of the kitchen. One of us (alternately) was both working and taking classes the first eight years of marriage. It was pretty simple fare in those days. Our wine tastes hadn’t progressed much past Almaden Hearty Burgundy. When I formally banded her from the kitchen 20 years ago, it took some serious scrubbing to get the tire tread marks off of the floor after she burnt rubber while exiting.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Brief History of Guys and the Kitchen

For you historians out there I thought you’d appreciate a brief history of guys and the kitchen.

Before there was fire, there was beast tartare and sushi. Following fire there was scorched beast tartare and sushi. God sampled scorched beast tartare and was not pleased. So God invented the cook – a guy. Then there was roast beast, fired up rare, medium rare, medium well, and charred – plus sushi. And God said, “This is good”. But God still didn’t touch the sushi.

Man grunted, “This not good”. (Man was not grunting in complete sentences yet.) Hunting all day, risking his life among raptors, and having to return to the cave to cook the beast, made Neanderthal man grumpy. So he pulled Neanderthal woman by the hair into the cave’s kitchen*. This domestic arrangement remained until God created the Weber, Emeril Lagasse, and the Food Network.

*Pulling a woman by the hair into the kitchen is now a felony, except in Texas.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dressing for Success

I’m proud to say that I no longer own a suit, and I can’t remember the last time I wore a tie. Still, I usually make an effort to look presentable, something without holes, or food stains, and color coordination on even days.

The other day I grabbed a sweatshirt out of my closet. I thought it was our daughter’s commemorative college sweatshirt that reads: “Dad, UC Santa Cruz Banana Slug”. (UC Santa Cruz is not big on college sports - too slimy.)

After chatting with PJ in the kitchen (where my sweatshirt’s front was in full view), I dashed out for a few errands. At Trader Joes while checking out, the cashier commented that her sister had matriculated from UC Santa Cruz. (She didn’t say matriculated, but being the sister of a UCSC grad, I like to think that some of it rubbed off.) We exchanged a few pleasantries and I headed to the car, noting that this sweatshirt was often a conversation-starter.

Something made me look down. I had donned PJ’s sweatshirt that reads, “Mom, UC Santa Cruz Banana Slug”. The Trader Joes’ cashier deserves an award from the political correctness police. Fortunately, the fashion police were not patrolling.

This was not a Freudian slip waiting for a slip-up. Being a Domestic Engineer Guy is not another term for Mr. Mom. And no, I’m not sensitive about it! Besides, I’ve never worn a slip, Freudian or otherwise.

I had four options: return home and re-attire, take off the sweatshirt, accessorize with a purse and scarf, or turn it inside out. I chose the fourth option. Option one wastes gas, option two is not a pretty sight, and I don’t stock my car with female accessories.

I finished my errands, frequently assuming the pledge-of-allegiance position whenever someone was close enough to notice my attire aberration.

Returning home I confronted PJ over her wively duty failure. After so many years of marriage (guys never ask our wives how we look – we’re not metrosexuals), she rarely comments. Conversely, nary a day passes where she doesn’t ask, “How does this look on me?” – close cousins of another entrapping question, “Does this make my butt look too big?”

The more relevant question is, “What was her sweatshirt doing in my closet”? Fair question. In case you were wondering, I am not accustomed to choosing my clothes from her closet. Because I am Laundry Man, the fault is mine. Since our sweatshirts matched in every way but one word, I inadvertently hung her sweatshirt to dry on my laundry line section, which then ended up in my closet. I’m a guy who considers clothing options for about three seconds. Without access to a queer eye for the straight guy, this was a faux pas just waiting to happen.

Maybe I’ll dye her sweatshirt another color. I may not always be color-coordinated, but I’m not colorblind.