Man With a Pan

Stories from dads who cook, by fathers from Mario Batali to Stephen King.

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    Man With a Pan:
    Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families
    Edited by John Donohue
    Algonquin
    331 pp.
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Some men take up cooking when takeout isn’t available or restaurants bust their budgets. Others seize spatulas when their wives go back to work, or are tied down by nursing infants. Most say that barbecuing makes them feel macho, but that regularly manning the stove improves their home lives – and their intimate relationships with their wives.

John Donohue, a New Yorker editor and cartoonist, cooked long before parenthood – because he loved food and was always hungry. When his daughters came along – with the accompanying exhaustion, loss of discretionary time and funds, and household tensions – he “ducked into the kitchen ... and came out a conquering hero.”

Noticing that he’s part of a growing phenomenon, Donohue rounded up a full pantry of writers, chefs, and cooking dads to contribute to Man With a Pan, an entertaining stir-fry of essays, anecdotes, recipes and cookbook recommendations. Fathers, he notes, “now account for nearly a third of the time a family spends cooking. In 1965, that figure was only five percent.”

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Needless to say, things have not yet changed so drastically that a book about mothers who cook would be noteworthy. It should also be pointed out that quantifying gender divides in home cooking in terms of time expended rather than percentage of meals produced is potentially misleading. Could it be that men’s culinary output is still disproportionately skewed to breakfasts, barbecues, weekends, and vacations? (My father, who considered reheating prepared food in a microwave to be cooking, had a single, signature, weekend-only dish: a scramble of bagels, eggs, ham and cheese we called Daddy’s Special.)

In this era of Iron Chefs, how much male cooking time is swallowed by elaborate culinary stunts? “Sorry, fella, it doesn’t count unless you are doing it every day,” Mark Kurlansky writes in “Confessions of a Foodiephobiac.”

Donohue links the increase in paternal cooks to the increase in working mothers, which has doubled over the past 40 years, “hitting nearly 80 percent of all mothers this decade.” But here’s one figure Donohue doesn’t spell out: the percentage of stove dads who have come to appreciate their mothers’ unsung kitchen heroism – nearly all.

In addition to Kurlansky, “Man With a Pan” boasts an impressive roster of writers and chefs, including Mario Batali, Mark Bittman, Stephen King, and Paul Greenberg. Batali writes – not without some pride – that his sons love monkfish liver, tripe, and duck testicles. He advises that “the easiest way to get kids to try something new is to have the child assist in the production” — though others comment that everything takes much longer if you do this.

In his witty entry, “Kitchen ABCs: Always Be Cleaning,” memoirist Sean Wilsey keeps a running count of the dirty dishes that pile up during breakfast with his honey-obsessed toddler. Wisely, he doesn’t even try to assess the damage from three versions of spaghetti carbonara – gluten free, cow’s milk and egg white free, and traditional – produced simultaneously to accommodate his family’s food allergies.

Not surprising in a book about cooking for children, Italian recipes predominate. Donohue offers Weeknight Chicken Parmigiana, while Bittman presents Pasta alla Gricia. There are also a smattering of curries, a Vegetarian Bobotie, the Low Country Red Rice that This American Life writer Jack Hitt grew up eating in Charleston, and, in case you’re feeling ambitious or ravenous, Peter Kaminsky’s instructions for Whole Roast Cow. New York magazine writer Jesse Green, forced to take over in the kitchen in his two-dad household when his partner is sidelined by a hernia operation, suggests a Spinach and Rice Torta adapted from Marcella Hazan.

While few of the essays or interviews would qualify for a volume of classic food writing and several feel downright half-baked, there are some standouts. Ever a lusty breath of fresh air, Jim Harrison confesses that “The off-the-wall arrogance that allowed me to become a novelist and poet didn’t pan out in the kitchen, and it has taken me nearly 50 years to become a consistently acceptable cook.” His wife, he writes, “had the specific advantage of not cooking with her ego.” He offers recipes for “Grouse Surprise” and “Elk Carbonade,” and advises befriending accomplished chefs. “Your meals in life are numbered and the number is diminishing. Get at it,” he admonishes.

“Man With a Pan” could make a terrific Father’s Day gift – either a not-so-subtle hint from a burnt-out wife, or further inspiration for that paragon, the cooking husband.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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