“There’s a Man in the Kitchen!” exclaimed a 1949 article in The American Home, pretty well summing up the phenomenon. Sometimes the prototypical male cook starring in this literature has been a professional chef, sometimes a sophisticated amateur, but invariably he plunges into the kitchen, hurls ingredients together, never looks at a recipe, wouldn’t dream of measuring anything, and comes up with a brilliant meal he has invented on the spot. Nowadays we see him on television as an Iron Chef or an expletive-spewing restaurateur. In the blogosphere, he goes out hunting for his lunch, slays it, and posts the pictures.
It’s particularly important for this garish male figure, surrounded as he is by pots and pans, to plant himself firmly outside the conventions of housewifely cooking. In the ’50s, that meant he disdained casseroles, level measurements, and perky salads. Today it’s more of a challenge: he has to get past two of the most progressive culinary movements of the 20th century, since they were launched by women and dedicated to transforming the domestic table.
First, of course, we had Julia Child encouraging the home cooks in her vast television audience to revel in fresh ingredients and take the time to work with loving care regardless of whether they were making pâté de canard en croûte or a ham sandwich. What’s more, all of her teaching was aimed at putting good food at the social, cultural, and moral center of American life—a genuinely radical message as the 1960s began. Then came the revolution inspired by hippies, environmentalists, and, most famously, Alice Waters, with “fresh and local” on its banner. Small farms began their resurgence, and for the first time in decades it became possible to taste delicious fruits and vegetables without growing them yourself.
So where does this leave the wild and free male cook? He’s got to distance himself from a food world that’s in better shape today than it has been in decades, awash in or at least paying homage to great-tasting ingredients and convivial meals at home.
Cue the bugs and testicles. Extreme foodies have created a universe all their own, with no relation whatsoever to ordinary kitchen life. It’s as though DC Comics has taken over Cook’s Illustrated, with a frat party thrown in. Mom is entirely out of the picture. In fact, the very concept of feeding people—her raison d’être at the stove—is beside the point. These cooks are busy combating the slimy texture or the wriggling legs of the main course, not dreaming up a theme for a 5-year-old’s birthday cake. Even the physical surroundings are para-domestic. The swashbuckling chefs at the forefront of the movement seem to do a lot of work at night, in borrowed kitchens, occasionally with guards posted at the door. Call it cooking, if you must. I call it running away from home.