Equal opportunity kitchen

MY abdication as Queen of Cookery came when our two resident princelings entered adolescence. From my throne - a kitchen stool - I solemnly announced that my long and delicious reign was coming to an end. Goodbye, monarchy - hello, democracy. Henceforth, we would have an equal opportunity kitchen. While my husband was agreeable to this decree, our twin sons greeted it with uneasy suspicion.

``You mean we're all going to cook? asked David.

``We all have full-time work or school obligations,'' I explained hastily, defensively. ``I see no reason why I should have full and permanent responsibility for meal preparation in this household.''

``Because,'' Greg responded with triumphant unoriginality, ``cooking is women's work.''

There were numerous responses that he could have made which would have kept the discussion on a reasonable, adult level. The one he chose was not among them.

I did not point out that some of the world's finest chefs were men nor did I deliver a lecture on the genderless nature of work. I didn't even mention that knowing how to cook was a valuable lifetime skill. With a smile of noblesse oblige, I smoothly set forth the ground rules of my proposition: the cook was responsible for meal planning, preparation, and table setting. Cleanup duties rotated on a weekly basis as did cooking.

My husband was the first cook of the week. The grocery bill skyrocketed but his meals were superb. He made sauces for everything. No one complained of these exotic meals. David, who was on cleanup duty for his father, did complain bitterly of the state of the scullery which, he implied, might qualify for federal disaster funds.

The erstwhile chef waved this small matter aside. He was an artiste and a bit of clutter was a small price to pay for his culinary masterpieces. As this was the only small price associated with his efforts, I suggested the prudence of making some flexible budgetary guidelines for the cook.

Next it was David's week at the range. Sunday he did a nice little number with hamburger and tomato sauce. Then came Monday night.

``Well?'' he asked anxiously as we gathered at the table.

``How come everything's white?'' asked Greg.

``Everything's not white,'' came David's instant contradiction. ``The corn's yellow.''

``Yeah, but there's white rice, white noodles, white mashed potatoes. Where's the color?'' He surveyed the table again. ``And where's the meat?''

``It's a meatless meal!'' screeched his sibling. ``Didn't you ever hear of budget cutbacks? I worked hard on this meal and nobody appreciates it!''

Well, I certainly knew how that felt. It would, I decided, be diplomatic to delay a lecture on balanced meals till calmer times.

David, like his father, turned out to be an experimental cook. This caused him to request that inquiries regarding a precise account of ingredients to be phrased other than ``What's that?'' with its connotation that, whatever it was, it was not likely fit for human consumption.

Strictly for purposes of feedback to the cook, we began a rating of meals on a scale of one to 10. David's hamburger dish earned a seven, his all-white meal was a one.

It was not until Greg's tenure in the kitchen that we got into minus ratings. His Sunday meal should have foreshadowed things to come. When we assembled at the table we found 20 small bowls of leftovers.

``Ugh, leftovers!'' said David, giving an immediate, unmistakable evaluation of the meal.

``Waste not, want not,'' said Greg virtuously.

``Cook not, exert not,'' countered David.

``Very thrifty,'' observed my husband uneasily.

His uneasiness was justified. The rest of the week Greg featured beanie-weenies, fish sticks, frozen chicken pies, boil-in-a-bag creamed tuna, and finally canned soup with peanut butter sandwiches. By Saturday night mutiny was clearly on the family's agenda.

`WHAT did you plan for dinner tonight?'' I asked my son grimly. Innocent gray eyes gazed down into mine. ``Chipped beef on toast,'' he said.

``Are you trying to sabotage this operation?''

``No - I just don't know how to cook real food.''

So I handed him a cookbook that was so basic, the initial instruction was: ``First, face the stove.''

After a three week respite it was my turn in the kitchen. I embraced these responsibilities with an eagerness I hadn't known since I was a bride with skills limited to jello and fudge. Why, it was almost fun to cook again when my imagination hadn't been ground to a nub from overuse.

We all gained from the equal opportunity kitchen experience. My husband discovered his own culinary talent and the boys took giant leaps toward independence.

I took an unanticipated leap toward independence, too. My husband was up to his apron strings preparing stewed chicken one day when I breezed into the kitchen and asked if he'd had time to repair that towel rack in the bathroom. He gave me a reflective look, washed his hands, then led me to the basement workshop.

``First,'' he said softly, ``face the toolbox....''

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