Ruth Reichl writes in her memoir ‘Tender at the Bone’, ‘I learned to cook in self-defense.’
Reichl is a staple in my house. She’s the famed editor of the now-exeunt ‘Gourmet’ magazine, the food critic so feared and so recognized, that she had to dress up in varying levels of disguise to remain anonymous on the NY food scene.
Her curated tome—‘The Gourmet Cookbook’—sits solidly on my kitchen shelf. 1000 pages of culinary how-to. It shares borders with books by French culinaire Madeleine Kamman, Korean-American impresario David Chang, the heralded four-star hound Thomas Keller. My copies of Ottolenghi have broken spines and there are dustings of sumac in the page creases.
I devour cookbooks as if they were paperback novels.
Recipes can read as short stories if you don’t mind the enumerated steps and the often dull, tradesmen language. Occasionally a cookbook author will work some prose—Frida Kahlo tells us to begin a rice pilaf by frying rice until it sounds like wet sand in the pan—but usually ‘salt a pot of boiling water’ begins the story, ‘garnish with herbs’ most likely closes it. Still—there’s drama to food, the act of transformation. The Maillard Effect informs the searing of a steak and the browning of bread; creating a swirling typhoon within a pot of simmering water is conducive to perfectly poached eggs: swimmy proteins wrap about themselves to become the seductive stars of eggs Benedict. Hell—even the simple addition of olive oil to a quartered tomato results in a more perfect food, the classic Mediterranean combo being the prime example of one ingredient elevating the health benefit of the other. Larder to dish: there’s always a story.
Back to the idea of cooking in self-defense. I first heard Ruth Reichl on NPR where she’s been interviewed often over the years. Reichl’s mother had gusto for food, but notoriously lacked a palate. Not that she was a philistine, as Reichl has defended—just that she literally couldn’t taste the spoilage she was serving. Apple pie and questionable meat would go into the same pot for a Friday stew. She would buy rancid goat from early-morning New York vendors in hopes of showcasing an exotic centerpiece for Saturday-night dinner guests. It was culinary fail after fail, but not for lack of trying. Little-girl Ruth became accustomed to standing sentry at her mom’s exhaustively prepared buffet tables. ‘Don’t eat that,’ she’d whisper to unsuspecting eaters. ‘No. Seriously, don’t.’
People ask me, often: ‘How’d you learn to cook?’ (I’m that annoying guy on your social-media feed who can’t help but post pictures of food. It’s my passion; I daydream about asparagus and—yes—a poached egg on top of any plate necessarily makes it better). Tongue-in-cheek, I often paraphrase Ruth Reichl–that I, too, learned to cook in self-defense. By saying so, I’m perhaps being unfair to my upbringing because spoilt food was never an issue, and my nightly dinner never provided an impending threat to my immediate gastronomic health. Still, a lot of what I ate as a kid was processed, canned and/or bagged: the inheritance of mid-century’s ‘better living through chemistry’ credo. On my particular plate, vegetables were in a food group subterranean to sugared cereal. I did, however, have multi-vitamins with my morning breakfast, something Casimir Funk had invented to compensate for America’s growing fascination with bleached grain and twice-synthesized corn. Calories were fast becoming empty, food marketing even emptier. White bread, white lies. It was the great modern experiment and it could’ve worked had it not actually failed miserably.
Processing food is not necessarily a modern thing, though. Hundreds of years before Cookie Crisp colored a bowl of milk, the sixteenth-century Moghuls in Kashmir fetishized white food: white rice, white yogurt, white meat, pale coriander and bleached cardamom. Some centuries before Wonder Bread, we were already changing food to match a palette, and not the palate. Being healthy is very much a choice, often counter to the culture.
When I moved out of my parents’ house with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, I did so with a copy of the ‘Joy of Cooking.’ At the time, I knew how to cook exactly two things: fried-egg sandwiches (Kraft singles and deli-meat FTW) and enchiladas. I declared I was going to change everything, re-define our eating. A friend scoffed: what? —more varieties of pasta and steak? His cynicism was not unwarranted. Truth being, I did not eat a salad until I was 25. Lettuce had never passed my lips as a kid. Greens were those over-boiled peas and powdery lima beans I surreptitiously dropped on the floor. Thank goodness for, 1) shag carpet; and 2) cooperative pets. But I was determined. And—yes—for the record it began with beef and noodles. Always mushrooms and then experiments with different herbs. A friend served my first greens to me: innocuous leaves of baby spinach that I nibbled with trepidation. They were fuzzy, but ok.
I got a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s ‘World Vegetarian’ by accident, belonging to a cookbook-of-the-month-club I was remiss in paying. I never sent back the cards in time: I wound up with a strange assortment of tomes. Books on chowder, pork-cookery, New England-style quahogging. I bought a set of All-Clad pans on thin credit, and—with a shrug—started cooking out of Jaffrey’s book exclusively. Indian food, Indonesian morsels, Sri Lankan eggery, Vietnamese fare. My first kitchen was a poorly tiled claustrophobia of a room (and I really shouldn’t mention the cockroaches). Then again—the kitchen isn’t always about registering a restaurant grade; conquering a kitchen is about technique and prowess and savoring every ingredient in a trajectory towards health. I overloaded the garbage disposal a few times over in the process, broke the spine of Jaffrey’s book as well. But I learned to eat as much as I learned to cook.
I started eating salad before becoming a dad and then re-inventing salad before my wife became a mom. (It’s my favorite thing now to make: a well-composed salad) But—hey—I still cook out of self-defense. Margarine is always on the offensive and chicken nuggets menace the horizon. My kid asks for McDonald’s on occasion, and I give a polite re-direct. ‘Something else, Cayde.’ Then he asks me a thousand questions regarding ‘what’s healthier—this or that?’ A bean and cheese burrito or a smoothee? He pretends(?) to like broccoli a lot; but regardless of him perhaps or perhaps not liking it, he at least wants recognition for choosing something healthy. He’ll choke down some broccoli in lieu of a cheeseburger because he wants to be a healthy son to a #HealthyDad. That he has the ability to even identify and ask for rapini in a store has me thinking I did something okay.
‘Rapini’s better than broccoli, Cayde. Try it.’ And he does, and the fact of him trying at five versus twenty-five is a positive.
‘I like it, Daddy!’ he’ll sometimes say with a grimace, other times with a grin.
Once, he jumped up and down in front of the produce section begging for asparagus. A near-by patron bent at the waist to be at his level: ‘Little Boy: I’ve never heard any child beg for vegetables.’ And she patted his head.
Food remains a journey. Cayde’s eating new and green things as I’m still changing the family palate. I char broccoli to a carbonized other-form on the grill; I treat lima beans to a drenching of lemon-juice and za-atar. Certainly chicken still exists in the repertoire—boring boring chicken—but basted in yogurt and jeweled with pomegranate seeds. Had we a dog, he’d at least be fed well under the table. Atop the table, we’re doing pretty well.
I chose the name Daddymediumwell as the tongue-in-cheek name of my blog: a reference to the self-effacement we provide ourselves as parents, but also reference to my life in food. Most every entry I write references the kitchen. It’s where I feel healthiest, most centered. It’s where I serotonin-up, work the knife, and have my best conversations with the kids.
This is a sponsored post and I thank Anthem Blue Cross for the compensation. I was invited by the XY Media Group to write for the HealthyDad community and it was a fit seeing as it dovetails well with my passion for food and nutritional health for my kids. There’s a reason I’m in the kitchen everyday. I encourage you to visit the HealthyDad community at https://www.facebook.com/healthydads. Currently they’re promoting a contest and if you have your own manner of being a healthy dad, post a video. I hear they’re passing out Amazon gift cards. I’d use one to buy the new Ottolenghi cookbook. Meat and pasta is fine. But try out lemons, chickpeas and sumac. Add a new spice to your rack and labne to your vocabulary. Boil a pot of mograbiah: the water, it turns out, is just fine.