Cooking with Dad or (Thank heavens for peanut butter)

The other morning, bored when I couldn't find the Boston Globe to read, I picked up "The Joy of Cooking," which my wife had left open on the counter. I browsed through legumes, popped over to pastries, then back to baking. Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me. I slammed the book shut.

"What were you doing?" she asked in a suspicious tone.

"Nothing."

"You were reading a cookbook, weren't you?"

I sheepishly looked at my slippers, my head hung low in shame.

"Maybe."

My wife's eyebrows arched, and her expression turned grim.

"How many times have I told you not to do that? We have enough things to worry about without having to worry about you trying to cook."

It's not my wife's fault, really. She comes from the South, a culture that takes its cooking seriously. Very seriously. I come from Canada. I remember reading a "National Lampoon" article in the '70s that parodied eating habits of different countries. You could always tell a Canadian, the article read, because they are the ones who run screaming from the restaurant the moment they detect any flavor in their food.

In many ways, marrying a fabulous cook was very good for me. At least for my stomach. But if she had known that I'm the Bill Buckner of the kitchen, I sometimes think I might still be single.

It's not that I don't appreciate good food. It's just that, well, I don't really care if it's good or not before I actually eat it. Food is as much fuel to me as it is finery, and several months of watching The Food Network hasn't really shaken this belief, no matter how much my wife "kicks it up a notch."

I've always believed that the basic food groups break down this way; at the bottom of the pyramid, the most important group, is peanut butter, which can be spread on anything. And I do mean anything. Then follows burgers, macaroni and cheese, M&Ms, Froot Loops, Ramen noodles, cold pizza, and Diet Coke. It worked quite well when I was a bachelor, and even during the early days of wedlock. But once children enter the picture, lifelong habits become BAD habits.

We had to model good eating behavior, my wife told me.

Good eating behavior? Is that, like, keeping your elbows off the table?

No, she replied. It means eating apples for snacks, not Apple Jacks. It means not putting ketchup on pancakes. And it means drinking lots of water and juices, not Jolt Cola.

I could see that this wasn't going to be easy. I had to chance some of my other habits as well.

True story: One night, years ago, my wife and I were having dinner at a friend's house in Vermont. Now this friend is, shall we say, a bit picky about proper table manners.

While serving myself, I dropped a dollop of mashed potatoes on the floor. Without thinking, I leaned over, scooped it up and popped it in my mouth. I swung back up, still licking my fingers, to see the horrified expressions on everyone's faces, especially my wife's. The situation was not made any better (at least for me) when I blurted out, "Oh, it's OK. We do it all the time at home."

I won't tell you about what my wife said to me once we were alone, except to say that eight years later, she still gives me a sour look every time I eat a potato product.

I've tried to be more culinary-minded over the years. I've bought, or received, cookbooks that talk about quick meals. I've learned how to squeeze tomatoes in the supermarket, and why it's important to check the expiration date on milk cartons. I even buy organic macaroni and cheese.

Two summers ago, my wife took a six-week trip overseas. This meant that I not only had to do the housecleaning and laundry (both of which are worth columns on their own), but I also had to cook. For six weeks. She spent days preparing a guide for me on fast and easy meals to prepare. Then she flew away, clutching the hope that her children would be properly nourished.

Every time she called, she asked if I was using the book. And I ... well, I lied and said I was. Not that I completely ignored it. I did look at it once or twice. But I figured as long as I had hot dogs, mac and cheese, and a phone to call for take-out, we weren't going to starve, and I wasn't going to poison anyone.

I did create one original dish – Tom's Cheese and Chicken. Basically, I sprinkled shredded cheese (cheddar when I was in a hurry, Monteray Jack when I wanted to be adventurous) over chicken breasts and baked them until they were, well, done ... or the cheese was on fire. My kids loved it, because (like me) they share in the belief that almost everything tastes better with cheese on it.

When my wife returned and saw that I hadn't even cracked the back of the guide, she decided that trying to turn me into Jacques Pepin was like trying to turn Saddam Hussein into Mahatma Gandhi. That's when I got banned from the kitchen.

But every now and then, when she has a conference or needs to work late, I get to make supper. And so I get to stand in the kitchen, loom over the stove, glance at the pots and pans, peer into the fridge ... and then load all the kids into the car and take them to Bugaboo Creek.

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