Robert A. Heinlein wrote in The Notebook of Lazarus Long that a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. I have to admit that it’s been some time since I’ve been called on to pitch manure but I think I could manage most of this list with the one big exception being ‘cook a tasty meal’, the cooking part I might be able to manage but the problem is in the tasty part, that’s where I’d fall over.
It is said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – although a friend of mine disputes this and says it’s with a big knife through his chest. I can understand this because her husband is completely useless in the kitchen; he is quite capable of burning water and can’t be left alone unsupervised in the kitchen for more than a few minutes. There’s only one thing more exasperating than a spouse who can cook and won’t, and that’s a spouse who can’t cook and will. One can only hope he makes up for it in other ways. I have to say I have some sympathy for him (and obviously her) for when I was growing up I was always thrown out of the kitchen, not just because I got in the way but because big pots of boiling water and young children do not mix and if there are nine kids in the family then that’s an accident waiting to happen.
However, since I was born in 1961, there has been a five times increase in the amount of time men spend in the kitchen, at least according to this report (one assumes this doesn’t mean from one minute to five minutes but one cannot be completely certain). I feel I should point out that this remarkable rise has not been entirely down to me. The report ‘Emergence of the Gastrosexual’ cites the popularity of superstar chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver as a factor in making cooking a macho pursuit. However, like all men coming from un-reconstituted Northern Ireland, the land that the sexual revolution, woman’s liberation, equal rights (and the concept of deodorant) managed to pass by, I’ve had to develop my own cooking skills since leaving home, not because I like to cook but because I had to cook. I didn’t have the advantage of Domestic Science that my sisters were taught for five years in Secondary School or the encouragement of my mother to bake a Victoria Sandwich Sponge Cake on Saturday afternoons like both my sisters did.
Interestingly the findings indicate men’s new found enthusiasm for the kitchen does not mean they are interested in other household chores. The cleaning of the home, washing of clothes and shopping for groceries are still forms of work dominated by women. Men spend just 4 minutes a day washing clothes, less than a quarter of the time spent by women. Judging from the smell coming from my two rug-rats I suspect they spend even less time washing themselves..
So my cooking has been quite a hit and miss affair, it has to be said much more miss than hit, since I was chucked out into the Northern Irish Serengeti to fend for myself at age sixteen. I think most blokes will recognise the following list, it’s a kind of sliding scale of our version of what we laughingly term ‘cooking’ and you might be surprised how long it took me to get from stage 1 to stage 12, especially when we considering buttering bread ‘cooking’.
- Peanutbutter sandwiches
- McDonalds/Burger King
- Local chippie – fish and chips
- Chinese home delivery
- Indian home delivery
- Pizza (you can probably see a pattern emerging here..)
- Microwave (when desperate – and broke)
- Oven cook (when desperate and feeling rich)
- Friend’s house – always female
- Raw ingredients – chicken and packet sauce (half cooking)
- Proper Cooking – separate raw ingredients and making your own sauce
You will notice I haven’t put trash cans/skips/dumpsters in the very beginning of that list but when I was 16 and working at Stewarts Supermarkets I had a friend who was a Dumpster Diver and regularly took home food that was past it’s sell-by-date and we had disposed of. Despite my pressing need, I never ate at his house.
I was further dis-advantaged in the cooking stakes (steaks?) in Northern Ireland because I’d never really heard of exotic terms like pasta and rice and ..vegetables. Almost every meal consisted of spuds, usually fried or mashed to a pulp but if I was on a healthy phase then I might make a baked potato and put half a ton of butter in it. The term ‘potato salad’ seemed like a contradiction in terms as far as the Northern Irish were concerned. P. J. O’Rourke said that the only really good vegetable is Tabasco sauce. Put Tabasco sauce in everything. Tabasco sauce is to bachelor cooking what forgiveness is to sin. The next best vegetable is the jalapeño pepper. It has the virtue of turning salads into practical jokes. I’m inclined to agree.
However, according to ‘Emergence of the Gastrosexual’ 48 per cent of people say being able to cook makes a person more attractive to them and 23 per cent of 18-34 year old men say they cook to potentially seduce a partner and this rings true with me. I have clear memories of thinking I would really impress a girlfriend by cooking her an exotic meal so I cooked her a Vesta Curry. This involved boiling the dehydrated ingredients of two separate plastic bags in water for 20 minutes and pouring, yes, pouring, our gourmet meal onto two heated plates. Mere words cannot describe just how vile and un-curry like this meal was but as neither of us had actually ate a curry in our life we didn’t actually realise just how ABSOLUTELY AWFUL it was, it was like eating Pedigree Chum and fried lice. It’s somewhat ironic that I have lived in New New Delhi aka Tooting, London for most of the last 25 years. She dumped me after that. Actually she dumped me about a week later because it took about that length of time for both of us to recover.
Zoom forward on this youtube clip to 1:15 seconds to see the delights of the Vesta curry, now you know where the term ‘making a right dogs dinner of that’ comes from.
However, since that time my cooking has improved. Slightly. Certain factors have help, I moved from Northern Ireland to London and was introduced to the concept of a meal that didn’t include the four basic staples of food;
- Mashed potatoes
- Jacket potatoes
- McCains Oven Cook Potato Wedges
and I discovered terms like pasta, rice and something called ‘vegetables’. My sons still think vegetables are the spawn of the devil and won’t touch them but like nearly all parents I sneak them into their meals unnoticed (and unloved). I have also learnt to grill rather than frying everything in lard and that all vegetables didn’t have to be boiled to a mush to become edible. I now possess a proper wok and a reasonable selection of utensils including a steamer, griddle, various weird tools that my mother wouldn’t recognise (and wouldn’t look out of place in the bedroom). I have to fess up to still owning a pizza slicer and Domino’s Pizza phone number takes priority above the Police and Fire Brigade emergency numbers on my landline. I should really admit that I have not yet progressed to the stage of all my female friends who have items called herbs, spices, soy and fish sauce spilling out of their cupboards and I’ve as yet to knowingly purchase a bag of self raising flour but give me time, I’m only fifty.
The report also shows 60 per cent of British men now regularly cook for friends and family, favouring complicated foreign dishes over traditional British food. Excuse the pun but I think this is a bit of a red herring, I suspect we men cook all these foreign dishes simply because we can bluff our way through and tell everyone that’s how it’s meant to taste.. (well, it works for me!).
These are important matters, I once dated a woman who was even worse than me in the kitchen (yes, I didn’t think it was possible either) but somehow she had managed to go through life without picking up even the most rudimentary basics of cooking and in order to avoid being poisoned each weekend I did all the cooking – or should I say the local Chinese, Jackie Chan’s did all the cooking. This wasn’t so bad because by this time I had picked up some knowledge and this was like a crash course in proper cooking. She was British and it’s said that heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and it’s all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lover’s Swiss, the police German and it’s all organised by the Italians. I was in Hell.