How cooking gave me purpose

Before I became a food writer for the NYT, the kitchen was where I found confidence -- and took care of my family

Published May 21, 2011 6:01PM (EDT)

Mark Bittman
Mark Bittman

Parenthood and the necessities of daily life taught me, as they have billions of others, to cook. And while I was learning to cook, I learned to work (and ultimately to love, corny as that may sound; but that's another story). I did not, however, set out to teach my kids to cook. I didn't have to. They figured it out on their own.

My first child, Kate, was born in 1978, when I was twenty-seven. I had been cooking for ten years, but not regularly, and really not in any kind of concentrated fashion. I was curious about the process, but I wasn't disciplined; there was no need to be, and discipline was not yet a part of my character.

I was self-taught (that is, book-learned) in cooking -- as I was in many other things -- but I picked it up pretty quickly once I began; it isn't, after all, very difficult. My dad, of all people -- he can barely scramble an egg -- showed me how to scramble an egg in 1954, when my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my sister. My mom didn't directly teach me much, but she set a pretty good example, which is precisely what matters. She cooked daily, and for the most part she started with real ingredients. She wasn't inspired (you might say she didn't care), but she got it done, and without fuss.

There was a self-defensive quality to my earliest cooking, the cooking that happened before Kate was born. It began when I was in college, in Worcester, Massachusetts; this was the late sixties. The dining-hall food was unsurprisingly abysmal, even worse than that of the cafeteria in my New York public high school. The differences, however, were stark: In high school, confronted by sliced meat and reconstituted mashed potatoes covered with shiny brown glop, I could bolt out one of the unguarded doors and hit the local greasy spoon (thirty seconds away) or deli (forty-five seconds) or pizza joint (maybe a minute and a half); this was risky -- it was rule-breaking -- but it wasn't uncommon. And there was always a real dinner, and there was New York all over the place. Even in the sixties, the city had real food, perhaps more so than now; while there wasn't the same diversity we see of styles or ingredients, many of those ingredients were of higher quality -- they hadn't yet been industrialized -- and much more of the cooking was done from scratch, using truly traditional methods.

In Worcester, the situation was nearly opposite, and grim. All meals were in the cafeteria, which as I've said was, um, challenging. There was, nearby, pizza cooked by Greeks (at the time, nearly inconceivable), but because I didn't own a car, I barely had any other options. When the first McDonald's opened a few blocks from campus, there was joy. It didn't last long.

I lived in an apartment with a kitchen my sophomore year. My roommate worked weekends as a short-order cook. We took the rack out of the oven, put it over the range, and invented gas grilling. This nearly destroyed the stove, of course, but it was a rental and we were spoiled, inconsiderate eighteen-year-olds.

The first real change came the following year, when I transferred to NYU. It was the school year of 1969 to 1970, and it was formative. My soul was politicized -- everyone I knew was marching in the streets, for good reasons, it seemed, so I joined the crowd. Perhaps more importantly, at least in the long run, I learned how to follow a recipe. The combination of politics and cooking was powerful: having never been especially successful with girls -- who practically overnight had become women -- I found I could gain, if not sex appeal, at least some modicum of respect (or lack of scorn) by demonstrating that I was someone who was not only willing but eager to participate in kitchen chores. (My mother did teach me how to wash dishes, which has always seemed to me like water play.)

It took a few more years until I realized that there was something about cooking that appealed to me. I didn't know what it was then, but I do know now: along with child rearing, it gave me a sense of competence that I'd never had before. I had been a terrible student, and in fact I didn't appear to be good at much of anything. I had been a cab driver, a trucker, an electrician's gofer, a substitute teacher, and a traveling salesman. I was now married, with a newborn child. My lifelong sense that I would “become” a writer wasn't working out.

So I became a cook.

When Kate arrived, everything changed. My wife was typically busy and tired, and she soon began medical school. It was clearly incumbent upon me, not to mention easier and more sensible, to lighten household burdens rather than try to nurse the newborn. I enjoyed the cooking. I was providing sound nourishment to my wife and kid, and I liked that. The shopping also appealed to me, especially the oddity of the whole thing. Strange as it may sound to those who did not live through those times, in the late seventies and early eighties there were no men in supermarkets, at least in New Haven, where I was living. Since I was a writer (I didn't write much, but that's how I thought of myself), I could wander into Pegnataro's (now defunct) or Stop & Shop (now a behemoth) at ten thirty in the morning, when there were no crowds. There was just me and a few dozen bewildered housewives.

I was cooking daily, and it lent my life a purpose it hadn't had before. The morning trips to the supermarket were often followed by travels about town, looking for then difficult-to-find ingredients like Parmesan, good olive oil, and soy sauce (really), and near-daily trips to the fish store, which became a kind of temple to me. In a shop not far from the Yale medical center, we would gather, working- and middle-class women, academics, the nearly poor, the occasional student, and me.

Because I had time, and because I was beginning to write about food, I would stay after I shopped to marvel at the monkfish (my fishmonger called it anglerfish), tuna (rarely seen fresh in those days, and though I know I sound like an old-timer, it's true), whiting, mackerel, porgies, spots, mako, dogfish, and of course cod, flounder, scallops, and shrimp. I was learning about the wild, vivid, gorgeous assortment that was common in a good northeastern fish shop in those years.

Kate ate this stuff, as she ate the Chinese, Indian, and Italian food I was learning how to cook. I didn't give her much choice. (Years later, she and her sister, Emma, would tease me publicly about “the month we ate nothing but squid,” or “week after week of pig parts.”)

Do you see? I had to cook; I had taken it on as a responsibility, maybe the first I really owned, the first I generated myself, the first that wasn't imposed by others. This was becoming my work; I was getting on-the-job training. In part it was sheer joy, and I was lucky as hell: There was urgency and necessity -- there was no way around it. My need to develop a career and to get dinner on the table combined to bring me from a mostly undisciplined posthippie pot-smoking politico to what used to be called a responsible member of society better than anything else could have. My antiauthoritarian personality was not uncommon, but my solution -- find a skill set that can be useful in daily life, solve two problems at once -- was peculiar.

And the crying need to figure out a career while being a responsible husband and father as newly defined in the early postfeminist years pushed me in ways that journalism school or even a newspaper job never could have. I was perfectly capable of showing up in the kitchen every day at five or five thirty, armed to cook, but I was equally perfectly incapable of showing up at an office every morning, armed to listen to a boss's bullshit. I know, because I tried.

The eighties cooking craze -- hello, Paul Prudhomme and Alice Waters -- was under way, but I wasn't much a part of it. I rarely tried anything fancy, and my cooking never became complicated. I was incapable, from the perspectives of both my skill set (limited) and my patience (limited), of spending more than an hour in the kitchen. (In fact I still can't, and it drives me crazy when I am forced to.) I was cooking for my wife and daughter, occasionally for my friends, and I really wasn't trying to impress anyone; I was trying to put interesting and decent food on the table.

I laid the foundation of my style of cooking, which is really about the same as that of my grandmother, and probably your grandmother, too (or great-grandmother, if you're a bit younger than I): spend a little time each day shopping, spend time with other chores, and then, when the day is winding down, figure out dinner.

In retrospect, I went through what I now believe are the four stages of learning how to teach yourself to cook. (If your mother teaches you, it's a different story.)

First, you slavishly follow recipes; this is useful.

In stage two, you synthesize some of the recipes you've learned. You compare, for example, Marcella Hazan's pasta all'amatriciana with someone else's, and you pick and choose a bit. Maybe one incorporates Pecorino and the other Parmesan. Maybe one uses less onion, more bacon or pancetta, a hot pepper, a ton of black pepper. You learn your preferences. You might, if you're dedicated, consult two, three, four cookbooks before you tackle anything.

The third stage incorporates what you've learned with the preferences you've developed, what's become your repertoire, your style, and leads you to search out new things. What are the antecedents of pasta all'amatriciana? What's similar? What have the Greeks or the Turks done that's related? Are there Japanese noodle dishes that you might like as much? Are there cookbook authors who've succeeded Marcella who might have a different approach? This is the stage at which many people bring cookbooks to bed, looking for links and inspiration; they don't follow recipes quite as much, but sometimes begin to pull ideas from a variety of sources and simply start cooking.

Stage four is that of the mature cook, a person who consults cookbooks for fun or novelty but for the most part has both a fully developed repertoire and -- far, far more importantly -- the ability to start cooking with only an idea of what the final dish will look like. There's a pantry, there's a refrigerator, and there is a mind capable of combining ingredients from both to Make Dinner.

This is not haute cuisine or the culinary arts. This is cooking for a family, and this is the path I went down when Kate was young.

I have directly taught my children none of this; I have set an example not unlike the one my mother set for me, and I have communicated it by deeds, not words. Kate expressed little interest in knowing what was going on in the kitchen, and I had no interest in forcing her, or ability to compel her, to pay attention. Cooking was my thing, and she was welcome to observe or ignore as she chose. She cheerfully accompanied me on my shopping rounds, she set or cleared the table when asked, but if there is a mystery or a romance to the kind of cooking I do, these did little to attract her, and that didn't bother me.

She is now a terrific cook, well into stage two.

Emma was a different story. As is often the case with second children, she had the benefit of the wisdom (or, if you prefer, experience) I'd gained in raising her sister. She also had the good fortune to be born to a practiced and dedicated cook. She, however, did spend time in the kitchen, and when she was ten she insisted that we cook together one night a week. She actually worked at it.

She is barely cooking at all right now, largely because she's working in a restaurant. But I'm quite sure that whenever she picks it up it'll come easily. You don't need to teach them, really, for two reasons: one, it's easy enough to figure out by yourself; and two, if you're cooking, they're learning. It just happens.

From Man With a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families, edited by John Donohue. © 2011 by John Donohue. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

Mark Bittman has been writing and speaking about food for 30 years, much of that time for the New York Times. He is a regular on the "Today" show, a star on three PBS food shows, and the author of three blockbuster cookbooks, including "How to Cook Everything," which won three international cookbook awards, the IACP Julia Child Award, and the James Beard Foundation Award -- twice -- and is now the bible of cooking for millions of Americans.

By Mark Bittman

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