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In today’s Seasonal Pantry, I talk about my friend, John Kramer, who died late last month, and his love of artichokes. You can read that column here. In the article, I promise to post a feature story I wrote in the late 1990s, before the paper had a web presence. It is long, nearly 3000 words–ahhh, those were the days–and I’ve edited it considerably, taking out the parts about two other local men and their home cooking and removing John’s recipe for stuffed artichokes, as it is in today’s column. I have left the rest of the article intact, as I wrote it then, in the fall of 1998.

The late John Kramer, picking olives at DaVero's annual olive harvest, sometime in the early 2000s.

The late John Kramer, picking olives at DaVero’s annual olive harvest, sometime in the early 2000s.

Here’s the story:

Men dominate the professional kitchens of the world. As late as 1997, over 95 percent of certified executive chefs in the United States were men. The career path of male chefs is much easier than that of woman chefs, who must battle deep gender bias within the industry in addition to the grueling hours, physical stress, and fierce competition awaiting everyone regardless of gender.

Yet guys left to their own devices in their home kitchens are hopeless klutzes, right?  A recent fundraiser for Sebastopol’s Palm Drive Hospital celebrated those hapless dudes who dare to brave the tame flames of a domestic range with the “Guys Can Cook Too” cooking contest. And every year about this time, newspaper and magazine stories spotlight that bastion of men’s domestic expertise, the backyard grill, the one place in the home where Dad is said to be comfortable dabbling, however clumsily, in cooking.

So what’s the deal?  A guy can feed 300 people a night, yet gets flustered when faced with a family of four?  Demi-glace poses no threat, but a simple vinaigrette is an impenetrable mystery?   Right. You know what I think?  I think it’s a ruse. Men feign helplessness in the kitchen, as women once feigned helplessness with everything from taking out the garbage to household finances. There was a time not so very long ago when these attitudes preserved the social order–albeit, a dubious one by today’s standards–but increasingly, families are abandoning such pretenses and sharing household duties, including cooking and shopping, based on personal preferences rather than gender-based cliches.

When John Kramer, a political science professor at Sonoma State University, describes growing up in rural Ohio, you can practically taste the harvest, the perfectly cooked green beans swimming in fresh butter, corn on the cob picked seconds before being cooked, suckling pigs wrapped in bread dough leftover from his father’s weekend baking and roasted, watermelon like it used to taste. There was always a huge loaf of rye bread in the refrigerator, and both father and son liked to slice off big slabs and sprinkle salt over the top. The young Kramer would sit high up in a gnarled old apple tree, reading and savoring his salty treasure, a pleasure so distracting that he tumbled to the ground at least once.

Although John didn’t cook as a child, he saw both his parents cooking and very early developed a deep appreciation for the pleasures of the kitchen, the table, and the palate. He began cooking in earnest when he moved into cooperative housing as a graduate student at MIT, and when he lived alone as a young SSU professor, he wasn’t helpless, and didn’t resort to fast foods.

“Sometimes I would get home from teaching exhausted and hungry. I’d break up a huge head of lettuce, make some sort of really great vinaigrette, pour it over the lettuce and eat it all,” he says, his face softening as he relives the tangy pleasure.

He didn’t search for a wife to feed him, and now, he’s the one who feeds his wife, Nancy Dobbs, president and CEO of KRCB Television and Radio.  Kramer does all the family’s shopping and cooking, often with their 7-year-old son Andrew by his side. He has been teaching their 15-year-old daughter Annie to make risotto.

Andrew has inherited his father’s fondness for sour flavors, and is often the one to make both the salad and its dressing. “Where’s the salad?” he frequently demands as his papa prepares dinner. The sliced tomatoes with garlic and basil that begin many summer meals do not qualify as salad to his young but well-developed palate. Andrew wants lettuce, and he will head out to the garden, pick the tender young greens, and dress them himself–the vinegar goes on first, he insists adamantly–to insure he gets it.

Kramer also loves grocery shopping, including the social aspect of it. He seems to know everyone as he moves through the aisles of local stores and farmers markets.

The Stag Cook Book, Written By Men For Men. 

A century ago, domestic science, a decidedly female discipline that transformed how Americans eat and think about food, was in full flower. The efforts of a fairly small group of extremely passionate women set on taming the unwieldy art of cookery and sublimating the pleasures of the table in favor of the virtues of nutrition dominated home life in the United States.

“Domestic science was the banner they carried;” Laura Shapiro writes in Perfection Salad:  Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (HarperCollins, 1986), “to change American eating habits was their holy charge; and the recalcitrant nature of the American appetite was their cross. . . . their influence on American cooking was devastating.”

That many people actually enjoyed eating was a challenge to these crusaders, who were proud of their lifeless palates and acknowledged the pleasure of eating with tremendous reluctance, if at all. Rebellion was, of course, inevitable.

The Stag Cook Book, Written by Men for Men (George H. Doran Company, 1922) is both an exuberant testament to the tenacity of appetite and a wry rebellion against the women who were scolding the contributors for indulging, or preventing their indulgence altogether. A few dozen men of the day–Luther Burbank, Charlie Chaplin, John Philip Sousa, Douglas Fairbanks, Stephen Vincent Benet, and Warren Harding among them–contributed recipes, anecdotes, and tales of longing that celebrated the foods they were largely denied at home.

A copy of this little gastronomic treasure, dedicated to Gasteria, whom the great food writer Brillat-Savarin named as the tenth and fairest of the Muses, was found in Luther Burbank’s library and is preserved today in the archives at his home.

 Hash 

 All joking aside, my favorite dish is hash.

I have never actually been in the kitchen to see hash pass through the various stages of its epicurean development, but I imagine hash is manufactured something like this:

First the father must eat a big lunch, the mother must fill herself up on cake in the afternoon and the children must have spoiled stomachs. This condition of affairs ruins the evening meal completely and there is plenty of meat left over for hash the next day.

The cook takes the beef or veal or whatever it is and throws it into the electric fan. The flying bits of meat are caught on ping pong rackets by experts and knocked back into a pot that contains a large quantity of mashed potatoes. Then the fire is lighted and the cook can go out to an afternoon movie.

The beauty of hash is that, no matter how it tastes, you think it is all right. There is no standard flavor for hash. Hash is fundamentally accidental, so it has no traditions to live up to.

–R. L. (Rube) Goldberg, in The Stag Cook Book.

 Asparagus

 The food I like?

The dishes I really crave?

The things off which I would dine every day of my life?

I never see them. I never have them.

Why?

Because Mrs. Bok says there is not a digestible dish amongst them.

But I often think of them, –wistfully, oh, so wistfully!

Here they are:

  • Soft-shell crabs, done in hot olive oil; or hard-shell crabs; deviled.
  • Lobster with mayonnaise.
  • Filet Mignon:  panned in brown butter.
  • Veal loaf.
  • Roast pork tenderloin.
  • Fried eels.
  • Sausages; never had enough; ditto scrapple!
  • Currants with a hot roll lightly wound through them.
  • Hot fresh doughnuts.
  • French pancakes of a thinness like unto gauze.
  • Strong black coffee.
  • Chocolate meringue glacé.

But as I never had the good fortune to know the above foods at first hand, I cannot well give you the recipes for them.

Perhaps you might like to know my favorite way of serving asparagus in my home, Dutch fashion, as I remember it in my native land of The Netherlands.

The asparagus bunches are placed in a double boiler upright, the tips being above the water, and thus cooked by steam. Passed at table, with the asparagus, is hard-boiled egg, put through a ricer, a small quantity of finely ground nutmeg and a dish of hot, melted butter. It always has to be explained to guests, but once the introduction is over the convert is made!

–Edward W. Bok,  in The Stag Cook Book

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