Even in a foodie-oriented place like Napa County, people always seem surprised when I say I like to cook. I don’t think it’s that I am a guy who likes to cook — I think we’re over that tired old “woman’s work” stereotype by now — but rather that there is a modern person who actually cooks regularly.
Pretty much every night after work, I stop by the grocery store to pick up ingredients. My long drive home from Napa is largely consumed by planning what ingredients those will be and how they will fit together to make dinner.
I enjoy eating out, and that’s an exception to my daily cooking routine, but it would almost never occur to me to serve a dinner at home from a jar or a box out of the freezer. And I have no interest in those pre-measured recipe boxes, delivered to your door, that seem all the rage these days. That strikes me less as cooking and more as ingredient assembly.
Cooking to me is fascinating on so many levels. I love to watch the change that comes over food — how the custard that becomes the base for ice cream changes as you cook it, turning from frothy milk to creamy waves, how onions smell as they reduce on medium heat and begin to caramelize. And how flavors interact; when and how to add salt, and how a simple change like ditching the boring old jalapeno and mixing a variety of other peppers in its place can create layers and cascades of heat and flavor.
Cooking is also a way to explore culture. I find it fascinating to explore the tastes and habits of other cultures through their food and to learn the history of their dishes. Our bookshelves are packed with evidence of my explorations: Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Cuban, Russian, Australian, and more. And I feel an almost mystical connection with history as I cook, going through the same processes and rituals of preparing a meal that our ancestors did thousands of years ago.
On work days, my meals tend to be fairly simply, since I rarely get home before 6 p.m. and nobody wants to be eating at 9. On weekends, though, I like to try more elaborate or experimental meals — smoking, slow cooking, braising, baking, woking and anything else I can think of.
Being a prolific cook, however, has an unexpected downside. My family is really picky now, particularly my kids, who have never known a life where dinner was less than fresh-made by an experienced hand.
My younger son is particularly fierce since he has a sharp palate, honed by eating at fine restaurants when my wife used to work in luxury hotels (and where she learned to be a pretty strong cook herself).
“This isn’t the best I have ever had,” he’ll say. And he is usually right.
“This is tough,” he’ll say. And it is.
Once in a while I have to warn the family that I am tired and just want to eat dinner, so feedback is not welcome. “I don’t want to be on an episode of ‘Top Chef,’” I have cried more than once.
But my kids are developing an interest in cooking on their own now. Even though they still enjoy Mac and Cheese from a box and pizza from the freezer for lunch, more and more they’re picking up the tools and creating dishes of their own.
Perhaps when they are grown, they will surprise people as well by proving that cooking is easy and fun and not a chore to be avoided.