Friday, September 09, 2005

Chefs Are From Mars, Cooks Are From Venus?

Professor Chaos has an interesting take on Mom vs. Dad cooking styles and the lessons they taught us:

"Without saying a word, what our mothers taught us is that cooking is the process of feeding a family. This is in stark contrast to what our fathers believe, which is that cooking is a process in which you invent unique and delicious creations and through which you bond with your kids."

To a certain extent, I can see his point. However, in my family, it was a little more complicated than that, in part because of my parents' backgrounds and upbringing.

My mother pursued a degree in what was then called (quite un-PC'ly) Home Economics. She never finished the degree, because she married my father and found herself in the practical side of the discipline instead of the theoretical, but she never forgot what she had learned. I'm convinced that her abilities in those pursuits were as much talent as skill, but that's a matter for another discussion.

The point is, she knew her stuff when it came to the kitchen. A lot of people, especially women of her generation, that I know, know how to cook the dishes that they were taught growing up. They know that X dish requires Y ingredients cooked for Z time and temperature. But my mother taught me the basics -- how to boil water, and eggs, and how to regulate temperature and not burn milk and how salt or pepper or sugar or any number of spices affected flavor. In short, she laid the foundational knowledge that would eventually allow me to not only follow a recipe, but to avoid catastrophe when not following one specifically. And yes, she did teach me more of the practical side of cooking.

My father had no such formal training in cooking. What he did have was a childhood and adulthood of abject poverty, which taught him quite well how to make do with what he had. This meant that my father was almost an artist at taking the simplest, cheapest of ingrediants and making something flavorful out of them (as witnessed by his potato soup recipe). This meant he was, to admit it, far more creative in the kitchen than my mother was. However, my mothers ability to master any cooking style taught to her is unsurpassed. She can bake pastry, can, pickle, and handle just about any task set before her. My fathers SKILLS were limited to frying, grilling, and a little bit of baking, but what he DID coook was always inventive, interesting, tasty, and well-presented.

One last point to make, as an observation not of my parents but of my own progression as a cook: Professor Chaos should have not only compared men to women, but SINGLE men to MARRIED men. I remember how I used to bristle when I'd hear people make the tired old joke that bachelors can't cook. I knew it was BS because I was a bachelor and I could certainly cook. But I noticed that I didn't cook. Or at least, not much beyond tossing something into the microwave. But the abilities were there. Why didn't I use them?

The answer came to me when I started having a social/party/dating life, and suddenly found myself throwing together some damned good recipes. It was obvious. Men cook fancy only when we have an audience. Why bother going to all that trouble to make something special and present it nicely if you're the only person who'll experience it? But when we have other people who can appreciate the effort, especially if that person is an attractive woman, well then, suddenly we're Bobby Freaking Flay.

That, I think, is the REAL difference between male and female cooking styles. Women cook to feed families, men cook to woo women.