Dean cuisine

Food - Bee Wilson on whether the kitchen has anything to offer the liberated man

It has been said that we are suffering a "crisis of masculinity". The role of men has been gradually unsettled by the encroachments of female success, New Age nappy-changing and a transformed labour market. The old certainties of pipe, slippers and whiskey no longer hold. Men - and their underachieving exam-taking younger selves - are in trouble. The crisis, if indeed it is a crisis, is bad news for home cooking. Because when uneasy men look for a sense of self in the kitchen, the results are usually embarrassing, if not inedible. This is not to say that there are no good male cooks. Far from it.

The traditional division between male chefs and female cooks has never prevented male enthusiasts from producing their own delicious concoctions, or even from writing recipes. The trouble is not with the natural male cook who does what he does out of a genuine passion for the culinary arts, but with the kind of man who seeks to restore his dispossessed authority with the tools of the food processor and palette knife. This is the kind of man who lectures you about the "amazing" new flavour combination that he has just discovered - all you do is add some ground coriander to pieces of lamb and sear it on a grill. "Magic. So simple!" he exclaims proudly. He doesn't know that the Greeks have been doing it for centuries, and the Turks for longer still. This is the kind of man who presumes that cookery is engineered by himself from rational first principles, not inherited from the accumulated taste of centuries.

I have in my possession a vanity press publication entitled Dean Cuisine, or the Liberated Man's Guide to Fine Cooking. The authors are Jack Greenberg and James Vorenberg, both American law professors, one the erstwhile dean of Columbia College and the other sometime dean of Harvard Law School. The aim of the book is to explain how liberated men, with busy wives and lives, can beat "sexual stereotypes" and engage in "fine cooking" for themselves and their families. Greenberg and Vorenberg are doubtless very clever men. But their opinions on food, presented in lawyer-ese, are preposterous. They analyse easy procedures with deathly seriousness. For example, there is a "commentary" after each recipe, and headings on "Applying Cost-Benefit Theory" and "A Modular Approach" to cooking. This approach turns out to be the revelation that, if you take some chicken breasts, you can cook them in a number of different ways: "1) covered with cheese and baked as chicken parmigiana; 2) presented on a Provencal sauce; 3) prepared as a curry", and so on.

As you may have gathered, the "liberated man's" food is bog-standard stuff. He just hasn't noticed this yet. The professors fry up mushrooms with onions in butter and call it "Bulka Piezarcki". They give non-recipes for veal chops rubbed in dried rosemary, chilli con carne and steak au poivre. One of the professors calls the other out of a high-powered conference with the urgent news that "I've done it - I've cracked the Ceviche problem. I've brought it in under 60 minutes."

The easier the recipe, the more of a performance they make out of it. So pasta cookery, easily conquered by the most doltish cook, is here turned into rocket science. Under the heading "Impromptu Pasta Sauce Principals: a synthesis", Greenberg and Vorenberg divide sauces into "genus" and "subspecies". Before delineating the urgent difference between red pepper sauce and tomato sauce, they issue an emergency rejoinder: "NOTE: IMPORTANT: WARNING. Since we will be discussing a large number of ingredients, procedures and combinations, read this section in full before undertaking any ventures suggested in it." Is this military commando tone really necessary when the only thing at stake is the question of anchovies versus capers?

For those men seeking to reclaim some dignity in this cruel world, the kitchen may not be the best place to start.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake