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Confessions of a Bachelor Gourmet

January 10, 1991|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I didn't plan to be a bachelor gourmet. The first fateful step came almost by accident, when I earned the Cooking merit badge as a Boy Scout. It wasn't one of the hot-stuff badges, like Wilderness Survival, but I had craftily noticed that all badges counted the same toward Eagle Scout.

To get it, all you had to do was learn how to cook something--your mother would send a note to the scoutmaster when you succeeded. My mother asked me what I wanted to know how to cook, and, like a fool, I told the truth: chocolate eclairs.

When I made them, though, it dawned on me that this was a dangerous knowledge I really didn't trust myself with, so I avoided learning any more about cooking for the time being. In fact, to this day I've managed to cultivate a certain self-protective ignorance in the dessert-making department.

When I went to college I didn't know how to cook anything but hamburgers, pancakes, tuna casserole, pate a choux and creme patissiere (from the chocolate eclair experience). But then I spent a year in Lebanon and developed an intellectual interest in Near Eastern food. Then came Indian food, when a major spice importer opened in Berkeley.

And then I fell under the sway of French cuisine, and the seed planted on that chocolate eclair afternoon bore fruit. My fate was sealed; I became a foodie. I bought a Cuisinart and fell in with a circle of people who cooked ambitious dinners together. Among its members were Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower (after a while I found out they ran a pretty good restaurant named Chez Panisse).

Along the line, I neglected to get married. And now I'm that awkward creature, a bachelor gourmet.

Of course, I no longer have to eat the wretched kind of food I cooked in college. That's the good part; the bad part is that it's now hard to meet women. Well, not all women. It's easy to meet the kind who have a particular predatory sort of smile, which I suspect is the same smile career women get from men who're planning to quit their jobs.

Other women, though, tend to look uneasy and vaguely melancholy, and I've considered posing as the helpless, starving sort of bachelor, which clearly works for most guys. Unfortunately, I have this job as a food writer and it would be a hard pose to pull off, credibility-wise.

My problem, which I suspect I share with other bachelor gourmets, is that I don't think of cooking as providing food--as feeding, or even pleasing, particular people. It's just an abstract task I take on. A matter of duking it out with Fate.

That's why I once bought a Romanian cookbook and eagerly cooked up a six-course meal before it occurred to me to ask who was going to eat all this stuff. I had to call all over town to find people who didn't have dinner plans, or I'd have been eating Romanian for a week.

That's why I have books on Tibetan and Burmese cooking, not the two most attractive cuisines in the world; I just had to have the books. That's why I have a huge collection of medieval Arabic cookery manuscripts where I can look up fascinating recipes for condiments made from rotted barley that only happen to be highly carcinogenic. That's why I own two sausage-stuffing machines, a special knife designed for boning lamb and a plastic mold so I can boil eggs in cube shapes, but not a single serving plate.

It's a strange destiny, but I look at it this way: If I didn't cook I'd probably be making birdhouses or tooling leather wallets or painting landscapes featuring quaint old barns, and trying to unload them on everybody at Christmas. But nobody turns down dinner.

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