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July 28, 2008

Cooking: recreation or drudgery?

Filed under: American Food,Philosophy — Mr. Henry @ 10:48 am

Many years ago when Mr. Henry first approached a stove with motive and intent, he did not have the confidence he has today. Sweat collected on his furrowed young brow. From the start, however, he felt rookie confidence in tackling the grilled cheese sandwich.
There was the bread, of course, and the cheese, as well as a bit of butter in the pan. Through arduous trial and error young Mr. Henry honed his technique. Unguided and alone he discovered that to achieve even browning one must depress the sandwich lightly so that runny cheese not ooze embarrassingly out the sides. This required finesse with the spatula, a delicate up-and-down, chip-and-putt touch like Greg Norman’s, a touch you are born with, not a touch you can learn.

More important, he found from the beginning that cooking suited his innate talents. He likes to be in control of his own destiny, and he likes to eat. From his success with the grilled cheese sandwich, he strode on ahead to new challenges.

In short order, as it were, he became master of the scrambled egg, too. (Or so he supposed. Now he knows better. Truly velvety scrambled eggs must be cooked slowly over mild heat. After the eggs begin to clump you add a touch of milk or cream to retard the process.)

When faced with more complicated fabrications like soups or stews, however, he wilted. For help he stole peeks at Fannie Farmer or Joy of Cooking, furtive scans in the corner lest a big sister discover him in feminine occupations thereby obtaining premium ammunition for teasing.

In the Henry household, real men did not cook. Mother Henry herself only cooked under duress. Genuine slow cooking – gravies, stews, cakes – was conducted uniquely by women in household employ who closely monitored and roundly discouraged children in their kitchen. That is, cooks shooed kids out the back door.

While the skill of cooking held commercial value, the act itself was looked upon as drudgery. Since maids did not come on Sunday, traditional Sunday dinner slumbered in the freezer, R.I.P. And to think those little prison-issue aluminum trays once held genuine excitement. Ah, yesterday.

Now for Mr. Henry cooking has become a form of recreation and relaxation, a task that fully occupies the mind and the hand, a task concluding in a treat for the cook and his tablemates. Since he works more and more from home, and since he shops for food on foot, the burden of driving the car has transformed into something similar, too, a pleasure and a pastime.

In a completely unforeseen cultural development, TV cooking shows have become the teen-age rage. Once the daily grind of servants, cooking has entered the pantheon of applied arts.

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Well, today taking the heat has become cool.

Who saw this coming? What does this seismic cultural event portend?

Today’s kitchen is the focal point of the house, its beating heart. Traveling salesman know that if you can get the client into her kitchen, you can close the deal. Someone who allows you into their kitchen has allowed you into their family.

Interior design today usually favors an open plan with no wall between kitchen and living area. The shift in America’s approach to cooking has changed not only living patterns but architecture, as well. Mom standing at the stove in a kitchen cubicle has become Dad standing at the stove in the center of the house.

This happy arrangement leaves Mom free to pursue her destiny – free to discipline the children and pay the mortgage.


  1. In my home growing up, cooking and baking were unisex pursuits. Yes, my father spent more time baking while my mother spent more time on meal cooking, but my brothers were expected to learn to cook just as much as I was, and we all took an ocassional turn in the kitchen feeding the family.

    Clearly the Twistie household was well ahead of the wave, since we were doing this before Elvis left the building.

    I am so cool!

    Comment by Twistie — July 28, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

  2. Even though my mom worked full time, she did ALL of the cooking.

    And, I am a SAHM who does ALL of the cooking.

    And yet, both my dad and my husband are two of the most progressive guys you will ever meet.

    Comment by Glinda — August 1, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

  3. For the past two weeks Mr. Henry has been a stay-at-home-Dad himself, and boy, are his feet killing him.

    You can be a progressive guy and still hate to cook. So long as someone in the family has the knack, good meals will appear on the table, meals that maintain and perpetuate the romance of the family.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — August 2, 2008 @ 8:57 am

  4. I have been cooking since I was 5 or 6 years old. I had a 30 year career in a creative field and coked for fun. Then I moved abroad and went to culinary school as soon as my language skills allowed. Now I cook for money.
    Cooking has usually been a pleasure for me, but when I had to cook 21 meals a week whether I felt inspired or not, it was profoundly boring a lot of the time. I know it isn’t fun for everybody, but it’s the only way of knowing what you are ingesting and what those loved ones are getting inside them. I sympathize with today’s home cooks. It’s a jungle out there!
    I think if you hate to cook and generally don-t cok, you should learn one fabulous dish and make it your signature.

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — August 3, 2008 @ 4:08 am

  5. @Judith: I think you may be discovering for yourself something I always wondered about – if you take your hobby and make it your full-time living, what will you do then for fun? I’ve seen a few folks go that route, and too often it seems to have spoiled the hobby, without providing a replacement.

    I was always more concerned with being ABLE to make a living, and was darn glad I was flexible enough that if one thing wasn’t making enough money to live on, I had something else to help bring in the cash. I wasn’t worried about “spoiling a hobby.” However, when the option became available, I did opt to sew either as a gift or strictly for myself. It’s not that I objected to turning one of my skills to earning money; I objected to having it undervalued.

    Fortunately, people both really like to eat, and really need to eat, so I trust that you are able to keep boredom at bay with that reflection.

    Comment by La BellaDonna — August 5, 2008 @ 10:41 am

  6. Mr. Henry,
    For the ultimate grilled cheese experience, try a southern favorite: grilled PIMENTO CHEESE. But where can you get it in NY? There are groceries for Peruvians, Ukrainians, and Haitians, but is there one for American southerners?

    Comment by Michael — August 8, 2008 @ 8:47 am

  7. Too true, Michael. As Senator Jim Webb points out, rednecks are the last group you can make fun of with impunity.

    You could buy pimento cheese on any U.S. army base in the world, but here in N.Y.C. it’s absolutely not for sale.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — August 8, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

  8. BellaDonna, I have a bunch of leisure activities to fall back on, but still like cooking, especially since I am NOT responsible for the eaters’ nutritional or dietary needs, which was what made me nuts as a mum.

    Micheal, really, pimiento cheese is as easy to make as a peanut butter sandwich with no jelly!

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — August 9, 2008 @ 2:23 am

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