Jay Byrne didn't waste time suggesting a new angle for my Father's Day article. "Perhaps you're missing a trend," the St. Louis father said from the start. "At least in my neighborhood, dads don't just cook when mom's away. They cook all the time!"
As we spoke, a much more interesting story emerged than the one I'd intended.
Mr. Byrne is so passionate about cooking that he makes meals regularly, not only for his wife and two-year-old daughter, but also for his friends and neighbors. Two other dads on his inner-city street, Bill Ziegler and Steve Vossmeyer, are just as zealous. Several evenings a week, usually on the fly, this threesome sifts through cookbooks or online food sites, swaps homegrown herbs, and throws together a gourmet supper for whoever shows up. "It's a great way to unwind after the work day," says Byrne, an executive with an agricultural company.
This tradition evolved when his family relocated from the East Coast, and he had to move before his wife. "The neighbors took pity on me, thought I'd starve without her, and invited me to dinner all the time," he says. "Little did they know that I'd been cooking since I was a teenager."
The Byrnes have since struck up a happy rapport with those neighbors. "We take a great deal of pride in outdoing each other's cooking," says Byrne, the group's grilling guru. "I might make a rack of lamb stuffed with garlic, ginger, and mint but need Jay Byrne to grill it," Vossmeyer says, adding that Ziegler is the "smoker king." Vossmeyer is best known for his soups, which he serves to a crowd almost every Sunday night.
The three dads recently celebrated morel season with an entire meal of them. "We found a source for fresh-picked morels, each dad grabbed 2 to 3 pounds, and then we had to show up at dinner with our creations." That evening's menu turned out to be morel soup, morel pasta, veal with morel cream sauce, and even a morel crme dessert.
The kids weren't exactly ecstatic about the morel theme, but some of them have learned to cook up a few of their own creations for just such occasions. Mr. Ziegler's son, George, no longer merely shadows dad in the kitchen. "I like to cook grilled cheese for my friends," says the 11-year-old, shyly confirming his father's boast that he created a meal of broiled salmon filet, couscous, and salad - all without mom or dad lifting a finger. Like father, like son. When Ziegler was a teenager, he cooked for 40 people at a summer camp, and discovered it was "a lot of fun to satisfy that many people with my cooking."
Vossmeyer's 19-year-old son Robert is also talented in the kitchen. "He really knows good food," says his father, adding that he is even talking about going to cooking school. His nine-year-old daughter, Becca, pitches in too, shelling peas, peeling carrots, or washing herbs.
To spark children's interest in cooking, Ziegler suggests parents let them cook what they like - even if it's hot dogs in a microwave. "They have to start where they are comfortable, and they have to enjoy what they make," he says.
Next, parents should be supportive as children try - and especially when they fail - in the kitchen. "Cookies and brownies are confidence boosters," he says, adding that, after these easy desserts, a child could even try roasting a chicken or turkey. "After dicing ingredients for stuffing, assembly is pretty easy," he explains. Although he and his wife Barbara try not to interfere with George's cooking while it's in progress, they keep a close watch on the timer and talk him through it.
Byrne is grooming his littlest chef for culinary accomplishments like George's.
When his wife is away two-year-old Erin watches while he cooks. He sets Erin up with a "station" of her own that includes bowls and spice bottles. "I let her play while I take more time than usual preparing dinner. I explain what I'm doing, letting her mimic me. I let her add ingredients and stir them if they aren't hot or anywhere near the stove."
So far, Byrne has no plans for Father's Day. All he knows is that he hopes to receive a chinois (A fine, conical-shaped mesh sieve) from his wife. He's been dropping hints for months, and he can hardly wait to use it for straining stocks and sauces. Ziegler's got the day off. "George will be doing the cooking that day," he says.
He's not sure what will be on the menu, but it may include cold soup of some kind. On Memorial Day, Vossmeyer wowed 35 neighbors with a large pot of Vidalia Onion Soup. Also on the cookout menu were Southwestern-Style Chicken and Teriyaki Steak.
"The three of us had no idea how many people would show up," recalls Byrne, adding with a smile, "There's no question anymore who does the cooking in this neighborhood."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society