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JOSEPH N. BELL

HOME DESIGN : A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : Dividing Up Work Is Easy if Both Spouses Like Chili

August 12, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

A professor at Berkeley has just written a book on the results of an eight-year study of how married couples divide up homemaking chores when both of them work. According to the survey, only about 20% of the men studied share housework equally with their wives. About 10% do nothing at all, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

I think I probably qualify for the 20% category, more out of necessity than virtue. I like a tight ship around home, which would lead to a lot of recriminations if I weren't willing to contribute my fair share. So I do.

There are some perils built into this equal division of labor. Some men have learned that the best way to avoid housework is to do it badly, thereby driving the woman of the house to do it herself rather than complain all the time. Some men really can't master certain chores or--probably more accurately--care so little about how they are done that they don't realize how poorly they are performing. But if the will is there, most housework can be learned. I don't believe that a washing machine or sweeper is beyond the technological reach of most men, even mechanical illiterates like me.

There is, however, one area in which equality may not work, in which the male partner in a marriage really may be unable to function satisfactorily enough to pull his equal weight. An area in which creativity, rather than technology, is required. I'm talking, of course, about cooking.

The way we divide the labor in my household, I cook twice a week. For a spell, we tried going out on my cooking days but discovered we couldn't afford it. So now I cook. Sort of.

Like any other creative activity, cooking requires--or at least is materially improved by--a soupcon of talent. Anyone who can read can follow a recipe, but flying by the seat of your pants in a kitchen--a pinch of seasoning here, a dash of improvisation there--requires good instincts. Cooks who lack those instincts should recognize that fact and stick to recipes or dishes they have mastered. One of my early problems was a failure to admit that my cooking instincts are bad--and nothing is worse than an improvisation that doesn't come off.

To that limitation has been added all my doctor's exhortations about cholesterol (which eliminated my greatest culinary achievement: baked pork chops topped with Swiss cheese and avocado), the undependability of my wife's arrival time from work (which occasionally leads to excessive drinking), the 11-year-old kid's tendency to circle anything I prepare warily looking for hidden vegetables and my own lack of self-assurance.

But I've struggled through all these difficulties to a cooking philosophy in which I've concentrated on perfecting two staple dinners that are rich in nourishment and can be prepared on top of the stove. I offer them here so that other men in similar circumstances can profit from my experience:

CHILI CON CARNE SUPREME

Take one large can of chili con carne (any one of half a dozen name brands will work) and heat slowly over a low flame, stirring regularly so the stuff won't stick to the bottom of the pan. At the same time, prepare Uncle Ben's white rice according to the instructions on the box (two servings per person), avoiding too much water, which makes the rice mushy. Serve in soup bowls with the rice underneath. Garnish with ketchup and grated cheese and accompany with sliced tomatoes, crackers crisped in the oven and a cheap white wine.

HAMBURGERS NEWPORT

Break down 1 pound of lean hamburger meat (beef, not turkey or veal or any other insidious beef substitutes) into four patties, using the heel of the hand to shape them. Fry in vegetable oil over medium heat until interior of patties is pink or wife arrives home, whichever comes first. Serve on buns warmed slightly in the oven and garnish with ketchup, mustard and dill pickles to taste. A nourishing side dish with Hamburgers Newport is hash-browned potatoes. These should be prepared about 20 minutes before starting the hamburgers. Peel four baking-size potatoes and chop into small squares. Fry in vegetable oil over low heat, turning the potatoes over when the bottoms begin to burn. Take off fire when desired crispness is achieved. Also can be garnished with ketchup. Suggest accompanying Hamburgers Newport and hash-browned potatoes with crisp lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a cheap red wine.

Those who find these recipes attractive and serve them in their homes should be warned that professional nutritionists, who tend to be stuffy, may--and probably will--take some cheap shots at them, ignoring the fact that these menus are composed solely of staunch, all-American foods, full of healthy proteins. If this should happen, press on. You'll learn, as I have, that the most important thing is knowing how to make them.

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