A few years back I read Daniel Duane’s book How to Cook Like a Man. I was intrigued by the title. The truth is, as I look back, the cooks I have most respected are women. While their gifts and technical skills were often admirable, what I came to value was their innate understanding of cooking’s real worth: to cook is to care.
Duane came to it honestly. A new father and desperate to be helpful, he decided to look after dinner. Without a shred of kitchen experience, Duane found a copy of an Alice Waters cookbook and began to cook his way through it, one recipe at a time. Having “conquered” Waters, he did the same with others. The original instinct to provide dinner for those he loved was swiftly overtaken. Mastering cookbooks became Duane’s obsession and this book is a memoir of the journey.
Part way through Duane’s book, he notes the contrast between his own and his mother’s approach to cooking. Clearly, it surprised him.
“Cooking wasn’t something she’d ever had to discover, or fret about, or explore. She simply cooked, with pleasure but without pretension. Meatloaf, cinnamon toast, spoon bread, lasagne and cheesecake for my every birthday: I recall all of this with tingling warmth. And yet I do not recall a single cookbook ever present in our home.”
I have similar memories. Though mum’s repertoire was different — lamb roast, grilled chops, sausages and mash, chocolate pudding — her motivation and her lack of cookbooks were the same: she simply cooked to love and “without pretension.” First and last, cooking was an act of care.
Writing in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane has wondered why so many of the best food writers are women: Alice Waters, M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth David. Here we can add Marion Halligan, Jill Dupliex, Gay Bilson. The answer, Lane suggests, lies in their presumption that “it is enough to be a great cook, whereas men, larded with pride in their own accomplishment, invariably try to go one step too far and become great chefs.” It is a grander calling, no doubt, but as Lane concludes, “somehow less respectable, and certainly less responsive to human need.”
I have observed as I get older that my own kitchen repertoire has settled, even shrunk. I am less driven to improve or impress. While I cannot claim anything noble in this, I notice I don’t want so much anymore to cook like a man. To cook like mum seems a more compelling vision.