I don’t remember the first meal I ever cooked, although I’m sure it happened during college. I’m almost 100 percent positive that it involved ramen noodles swimming in butter, and I’m certain what hit the plate that day could only broadly be defined as a meal.
What I do remember is that I cooked because I was hungry and because I had, as a boy, watched my father cook. My mom cooked more often, with more variety and with more flair, but seeing my father in the kitchen and in front of a grill sent me a subtle message: Cooking is man’s work, too.
Charlie Houck’s knuckles were flecked with scars from fixing engines. His skin was baseball-glove brown from working in the yard and fishing on weekends. He carried a briefcase and wore a tie with a short-sleeved shirt to work as a car salesman. But several nights a week, and certainly on holidays, the kitchen was another of Dad’s workshops. I’ll never forget the reaction he got one Christmas when he made an appetizer of perfect, tender, garlicky escargots in their shells. For a guy who drank Busch in a pull-top can and loved to watch running back Larry Csonka bulldoze defensive linemen, it was an impressive culinary achievement to witness as a boy.
That’s how I knew it was acceptable to do what he did. And I knew it was cool to cook in front of my son, who as a middle-schooler took kid-geared cooking classes. We still talk about the amazing pan of sticky, flaky baklava he made after those lessons. The mini pumpkin pies he made in muffin tins for Thanksgiving have become an annual story we tell to his embarrassment.
I don’t know how other fathers pass on that message to their sons. But I do know that in this era of “Iron Chef” and the Big Green Egg, there has never been a better time for men to cook. Which is why I found Steven Raichlen’s new book “Man Made Meals; The Essential Cookbook for Guys,” so interesting.
“There are certain tasks involving food a man should know how to do without hesitation,” Raichlin writes. “Call it culinary literacy for men. Or simply what every guy should know about cooking.”
Every well-informed male should know the proper way to stir a martini, carve a turkey, smoke ribs, make pancakes for his kids and a rich chocolate dessert for a romantic dinner.
“You should know how to execute kitchen tasks with confidence, aplomb, and — I dare say — showmanship,” he says. “The act should not only assuage your hunger and bring you respect but should give you satisfaction and pleasure.”
Someone wrote it down, I thought. About time.
Men should know how to shuck an oyster, grill a steak, steam a lobster, roast a rack of lamb and “cook up a pot of kick-ass chili,” he writes.
Oops. Of those five, I was missing the lobster and the lamb.
I write about food. I should know these things.
If I have these holes in my culinary résumé, surely other dudes do.
That’s what Raichlin’s publisher thought, too. As an established barbecue and grilling Jedi master and cookbook author, why not teach men the other aspects of cooking, the publisher reasoned.
When I called Raichlin, he told me his idea to cook as a young man didn’t come from his father. Only once a month would he and his father have Men’s Night, where they’d whip up a Caesar salad and some stuffed mushroom caps for the family. When Raichlin graduated from junior high school, an uncle gave him the classic “Playboy Gourmet Cookbook” from 1961.
“I still have that book,” he said. “Every third recipe had anchovies and garlic and blue cheese. In a funny way, I think it was subliminally in my mind when I set out to do this one.”
What wasn’t in his mind when he wrote the new book: stunt-cooking for Neanderthals. There would be no pot roasts cooked on engine manifolds or foil-packed salmon steamed by the heat of a dishwasher. This would be a proper cookbook with step-by-step instructions.
“In general, guys like food that’s simple, until we want to complicate it,” he said. “When we want to make barbecue sauce, we want to really complicate it.”
The book is well-stocked with masculine-flavored tips, advice and recipes for the novice as well as the accomplished home cook. Pork shoulder is a man’s best friend, he says. There are three methods for telling when fish is done. “A guy should know how to cook with beer,” he writes. Even the recipe titles are printed non-girly, in all-caps.
He wisely taps a few notable food gents on the shoulder for advice, including food writer Andrew Zimmern, activist author Michael Pollan and chefs Thomas Keller and Jose Andreas, who quips, “To lead the tribe, you have to be able to feed the tribe.”
We can quibble with leadership stereotypes later. Until then, it’s time for men to grab a spatula, fill a pan and get to work.
Dinner needs cooking, guys. You’re just the men to do it.