Man and the Kitchen

I am a husband who cooks. This is a convenience for both my wife and me, in much the same way as it is handy for both mates to be able to drive the car or change a fuse. She knows I won’t starve if she must go out of town, and if our daily routine is shaken up — as it was during the war, when she took on a job that delayed her getting home in the evenings for an hour after I had arrived — we can switch roles. During that period, I was the one who got acquainted first with red and blue points and experimented glumly with a meat loaf made of nuts.

I mention this background to establish the point that I am a kitchen cook. A patio cook is something else again. Most men like to cook. Watch them around a campfire sometime. But they tend to be specialists. “Doug’s so good with steaks,” we hear from his wife. We hear less frequently that he is a wow with salads, and almost never that he makes a marvelous chocolate cake. This is too bad. Doug cannot live by steak alone, or not long at today’s rates. But steak is a virilesounding food, and a man can cook it without apology.

There is also another large and secret plus. The Dougs of the culinary world, if only they knew it, are secure from a form of female suspicion that plagues and saddens me. The woman who casually accepts a man-and-steak relationship regards my own behavior with, for example, buttermilk biscuits as a shady affair.

My buttermilk biscuits are worse some times than at other times. But, at their best, they are a fair-tomiddling biscuit. However, if some woman besides my wife tastes them,

I can expect her to remark, after a delicate and surprised nibbling, “Hmm. I suppose the recipe is a secret?”

No, it isn’t. I got it out of a cookbook. You sift a teaspoon of baking soda and half as much salt with two scant cups of flour. Then cut in four tablespoons of margarine or lard. Mix in a scant cup of buttermilk, stirring quickly with a fork, and don’t handle the dough much. The stickier the better, as long as you can manage it.

I have given this childishly simple recipe to several women who demanded it. Getting it has seldom satisfied them. I have been accused, in an arch way, of holding something back and have been crossexamined on such points as oven temperature. It is 450 degrees, and the biscuits bake in about twelve minutes on a cookie sheet.

My wife and I lived on a farm for several years — not as a living, but as a place to live — and when we dressed out a steer, there would be fifty or sixty pounds of hamburger or more, so we had meat balls frequently, in between steaks and roasts. If it fell to me to mix the meat balls, I used no special recipe. We had plenty of milk and eggs on the place, and to a couple of pounds of ground meat I usually added about a cup of milk and two or three eggs to moisten it, a handful of bread crumbs to give it body, and for seasoning, a chopped onion or so, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, and salt and pepper.

This was roughly the way I remembered my mother making meat loaf years ago. But one of our friends from the city formed a theory that I was slipping in some secret country ingredient. This was flattering, but when she grew pointed about it, I mixed up a batch with her looking on, pencil and paper in hand.

She made no comment until we got to the bread crumbs, which I happened to put in at the last minute because she distracted me and I nearly forgot them. Then her eyes flashed. “Aha!” she cried. “So you toast them!” There was some toast left over from breakfast, but like bread pudding, meat balls to us were a way to use up any leftover of bread — toast, crackers, biscuits, anything. The toast I was using on that occasion was purely coincidental, but not to our friend. She saw that she had caught me slipping something over, and I suppose she never trusted me again.

We raised most of our own food on the farm, and since this meant infrequent grocery shopping, I took up bread making on weekends. Ever since, I have not found a woman, except my wife, who regards my bread making as quite fair. If I had used the yeast to brew beer, no one would think twice about it. And hardly any of my wife’s friends bake bread themselves, or care to start. They will sometimes ask for the recipe for some variety of bread, but they don’t mean it.

Speaking of bread, I have never found a French bread recipe with which I could match the flavor of the bread served in the good French restaurants of New Orleans, though I must have baked hundreds of loaves trying, varying recipes as I went, to see if I could hit on the delicate fragrance. For a time I used a sour dough mixture, but it wasn’t right. It did make a fair bread and gave an interesting cheeselike flavor to biscuits, but after a while the sour dough bowl so dominated the kitchen air that I gave it up. Sour dough is easily made by adding half a teaspoon of dry yeast to a thin paste of flour and water — say, a cupful — and then stirring in more flour and water each day or so for over a week until you have perhaps a quart of bubbly batter. Keep it at room temperature, with a cloth over the top of the bowl. I used half a cup of this batter to a batch of biscuits, in which there were two cups of flour, and reduced the buttermilk by about a quarter cup. They say you can keep sour dough going indefinitely, adding more flour and water as you use the mixture.

I should mention that, during the sour dough experiments, the attitude of women toward my cooking softened. It evidently seemed to them fitting that a man might be involved with such stuff, and some were even cordial, smiling and holding their noses when they inspected the bowl. But when I dropped the sour dough tests I forfeited their tolerance, and they became as snippy as ever again.

Baking bread on the farm led to my trying coffeecake, and the best one was a brown-sugar mixture with a crumb topping. My wife liked it, too, and one day we sent one to a neighbor across the road.

She reported to us that the coffeecake was a sensation with her family, and though she could not quite keep a note of indignation out of her voice when she learned that it was I who had made it, she asked for the recipe.

To keep things open and aboveboard, I loaned her the printed recipe. Believe it or not, she said it wasn’t the same coffeecake. Her children affirmed that hers was pretty good but not as good. She questioned me closely, and I gave up. “I’ll write it out for you, Anne,” I said, “next time I make it.”

She nodded. “And write out everything,” she said warningly.

I did. What I wrote was a duplicate of the printed recipe: Sift two and a half cups of bread flour, add two cups of brown sugar, one half teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg, and cut in eight tablespoons of butter. Reserve a half cup of this, and add to the rest one tablespoon of baking powder, one half teaspoon of baking soda, one half teaspoon of salt. Beat two eggs, combine with one cup of buttermilk, add to the dry ingredients, and stir well. Pour the batter into two cake pans lined with wax paper, sprinkle the reserve half cup of crumbs on top, and bake twenty-five minutes at 375 degrees.

This would never do, I saw. Anne was setting a trap, and there was nothing here to catch. I tore up the recipe and wrote another, with one little difference. I knew it would work, because I had accidentally tried it. The last time I had made the coffeecake, I had forgotten to save the half cup of crumbs for the topping, so I had to mix some up separately. This hadn’t made any difference in the batter as far as I could see. And I was then out of brown sugar, so I had to use white sugar for the crumb topping — three tablespoons to a quarter cup of flour and a tablespoon of butter.

I wrote this out and gave it to Anne. She was happy as a lark, or perhaps as a hawk swooping on her prey. “I knew there was something funny!” she said.

The last I heard, she had substituted sweet milk for buttermilk and added an extra egg and omitted the nutmeg and included chopped hickory nuts and a little citron in the topping, and was still referring to the recipe triumphantly as the one she had pried out of a man who was trying to hold something back.

KEN KRAFT, who lives in Del Monte Forest, California, has written light articles and a book called LAND OF MILK AND OMELETS.