Whenever my mother was gone for the evening and my father was left to his own devices in the kitchen, he'd make creamed hamburger on toast. I never understood it. It didn't look good, it certainly didn't taste good, and all that starch and grease wasn't good for anybody. Nevertheless, he prepared it with authority, ate it with relish and, when I was around, expected me to partake with enthusiasm.
Throughout the years, I have discovered that while not all men share his fondness for " . . . on a shingle," many of the men I know, when "batching it," create food they alone can stomach. Upon occasion (all too often as a matter of fact), one of them will offer to share his favorite dish with me.
One friend, for example, lives on sardine omelets. Another loves to cut up leftover pizza or burritos and scramble them with eggs, thereby creating what is essentially a frittata of leftover fast food. Yet another friend poaches oysters in bottled salad dressing. I have never understood whether these offers are acts of friendship or aggression, fits of generosity or pleas for immediate rescue.
Whatever else it is, bachelor cooking is a curious product of our sexist society in which the kitchen was a woman's stronghold. Says one 50-year-old divorced man: "Most of us didn't learn to cook in the kitchen. We learned to cook in the Boy Scouts. Over fire. With tin foil. It was years before I felt comfortable in a kitchen."
"I grew up with two brothers," another man says. "We learned how to make brownies. To this day, my mother's recipe for brownies is the only thing I know how to make."
When I asked yet another man where he learned how to cook, he said: "I didn't. The only thing I ever learned how to do was barbecue because my dad did. It's simple, and you get to make a fire."
Of course, a man can always learn how to cook, but in some cases, there's resistance. A magazine editor I know waited until he was married to become a serious, knowledgeable cook. "When I was single, I cooked Uncle Ben's rice and Mrs. Paul's fish sticks. I used to see how many nights in a row I could eat them," he says. "Four nights.
"And then I went through an omelet phase. Omelets served a dual purpose. I liked them, and I wanted to be able to say, 'You should taste my omelets.' As a way of, you know, asking someone to spend the night without really asking them."
Conversely, there are men who become so attached to their own concoctions that they are loath to give them up. A woman I know says: "When my husband was single, he ate the same thing every night: ramen noodles with El Pollo Loco chicken and either frozen peas or beans. He ate it out of the saucepan over newspapers at the coffee table.
"He's not always comfortable letting me cook for him. Some nights, he says he's not hungry and that I shouldn't make anything for him. Later on an El Pollo Loco bag appears, and that saucepan. . . ."
Whether it's an act of desperation or defiance, many single men who are unschooled in the culinary arts do cook for themselves. As a result, some develop their own unique approaches, approaches that are remarkably untempered by Irma Rombauer, junior high home economics and the legacy of kitchen dos and don'ts traditionally handed down through matriarchal lines. "I essentially regard the kitchen the way I regarded a chemistry set," says one man. "For a long time, I was a slave to recipes because I was so afraid that what I cooked would turn into a stink bomb. But then I began to experiment."
One night recently, I decided to see what was cooking on the stoves of all my bachelor friends. I started off by calling my friend Phil, a 56-year-old divorced artist with an herb garden.
"I have a cold," he said, "so today I put a cup of short-grained brown rice in a pot with three cups of water and boiled it until the water was gone. Then I added a can of chicken stock and some more water and boiled that.
"In a frying pan, in quite a bit of olive oil, I fried up some chopped onion and garlic, fresh rosemary and a big handful of sage until it was all brown. I put that into the rice with one of those tiny, cute cans of tomato sauce. This made a thick soup, which I poured into a bowl. Then, to cool it down, I added a lot of cream."
I asked Phil where he learned to cook.
"Right here," he said. "In my kitchen, just by knowing a little bit about chemistry, what happens when you heat stuff up, emulsification, etc. I could probably follow a recipe, but I'd rather wing it on my own."
After talking to Phil, I called my friend Ed, who's 35, a confirmed bachelor and a vegetarian with a quasi-macrobiotic bent. That is to say, one afternoon several years ago. Ed attended a seminar given by the two most famous experts on macrobiotics. After several hours of lectures, he realized that "putting all the foods together the way they are supposed to go is like assembling a 91,500-piece jigsaw puzzle." At the end of the seminar, he approached one of the macrobiotic lecturers.