© October 28, 2010
(Illustration by Marie Guillot)
How I discovered my feminine side in the kitchen.
Nowadays, we cannot speak of women's work or of men's work either, for fear of giving offence. Women are challenging and overcoming barriers and prejudices in work, sport and public life. Men are more evasive when it comes to breaking through their glass ceiling, by changing nappies, cleaning the house or watching romantic movies starring Colin Firth or Hugh Grant. For most men, cooking belongs in a secret codified feminine world, right next to pregnancy and childbirth.
When our youngest child started school, Deirdre decided to study for a BA at the university. I was very supportive, offering to adapt my working hours by collecting the children from school on two afternoons per week. This arrangement allowed her to take lunch in college, and return home in the evening, inspired and refreshed. As for the kids, the novelty of being collected from school by Dad, who played good cop by allowing TV before homework, lasted well into the second week. Then tempers began to fray, as reports filtered back to mum that Dad's cooking skills began and ended at the can-opener. Matters went downhill when my Smash ™ (a brand of instant mash potato) came out of the pot all lumpy. Deirdre (alias CSI Woman of the House) then found empty cans of salmon, steak and kidney pie and baked beans in the trash, and my cover was blown.
My first instinct was to do some plea bargaining. If she would teach me some of her recipes, then peace would return and a repeat of the Irish Potato Famine might be averted. This was a great idea in theory; working it out was the hardest part. My first lesson was on Beef Stew, a thing of great depth and beauty in Deirdre's hands. As I trimmed the round steak, the carving knife slipped and I almost added a fingertip to the menu. Band-Aid applied, I smiled bravely if tearfully through the onion slicing. It is a healthy thing for a man to cry. Once the carrots and celery were scraped, peeled and chopped, (Oops, I forgot to wash them first); Deirdre's helpful instructor tone of voice had by now taken on a definite edge. So, it had taken me 35 minutes to reach this point. She could have done the same in ten minutes, while simultaneously multitasking homework supervision and talking on the phone.
Prepping finished, now for the actual cooking. As the commands were barked out, I coated the onion in butter melted in a pan, added the chopped meat tossed in plain flour, browned them for a minute or two, then gradually added boiling water. Voila! A smooth brown sauce was formed. Not a lump in sight! Proteins, carbs, fats and water cuddled up in an amorous embrace. Transfer the contents of the pan to a casserole; add more water, followed by chopped thyme, carrots and celery. Turn down the heat, turn down the tension and glance at the clock. Just over an hour so far, and not a potato peeled yet. Deirdre gave a weary smile as I poured two glasses of our best house wine. It was time for a case conference.
She spoke first. "At this rate of progress, you would have to spend 80 minutes each evening preparing dinner for the following day, and I would have to take 80 minutes per week out of study time to coach you in a new recipe. I think that you should take proper cookery classes." "Great", I replied, barely covering my wounded male pride at this remedial step.
A week later, I climbed the stairs of Cork College of Commerce, caught up in a tide of adult learners. Nobody would guess my secret destination. I could be attending classes in computers, accounting or marketing. Room 302 was tucked away from the main corridor, and on the door in bold print were the words COOKING FOR MEN. The room was furnished with two rows of work benches, punctuated with sinks. At the top was teacher's bench, and along the side wall a line of cookers. Other men stood self-consciously about, one wearing a striped apron. Teacher swept in, a lady who took command of the situation immediately. We introduced ourselves. "Hi, I'm Aidan, and I can't cook". There! I had taken the first of the twelve steps.
That night she demonstrated sponge cake, passing around the still-warm finished product. Now for the homework. There would be three recipes per week, one starter or baking product, one main course and one dessert. Pick your preference, buy the ingredients, and cook the item next week in class. In this way, we saw and tasted three recipes per week. Best of all, we brought home a finished product. Sometimes we did not, as she allowed you to burn your queen cakes or to quietly bin your failures. In time, the male pupils started to display certain other female habits, like meeting for coffee, shopping together in the market and swapping tips. My Irish Mutton Stew got thumbs down from the kids, as I had failed to skim off the sea of fat globules at the top. But my Smoked Fish Bake has entered the family repertoire. And my Brown Soda Bread recipe, with its secret X -Ingredient, puts Darina Allen in the shade.
Thanks to my kids, I get a comical apron for Christmas every year since. That's over thirty aprons to date.