Velasquez, Woman Frying Eggs, 1618
Food and Drink

Cooking Lessons

My friend Marianne is a good cook. She could be an even better one if she weren’t impatient. She’ll take the beans off the stove before they’re tongue-tender. She’ll deglaze the pan before the onions have cooked to a honey-brown softness. It’s not that she’s anxious about leaching the vitamins out of the food or overcooking the fish. She just gets bored. I see her standing over the stove stirring a risotto and I can almost hear her thinking, “Ok, I’ve certainly given you more attention than you deserve, so can’t we finish this so that I can get on to more interesting things?”

Her instincts about spices and herbs are right but she doesn’t always give them time to infuse the food. Odd, really, since she does the exact opposite with her lovers. She gives them too much time.

Her impatience doesn’t matter, though. She brings together interesting people and tells wonderful stories and manages to make everyone feel so special that no one notices that the lentils are crunchy. The conviviality and wit at her table is a seasoning of its own.

I know all this because I’m almost always the first to arrive and thus have the opportunity to watch her cook. I still haven’t accustomed myself entirely to the Mediterranean way of telling time. When someone says, “come around nine” I take them at their word and I’m there are 9:10. Everyone else starts straggling in three-quarters of an hour later.

I’m too polite to say anything, like “I think maybe the lentils need a little more time.” Or, “you’ll want to let the roux cook for a bit more to get rid of the raw taste of the flour.” Well, not exactly polite. Well-trained. I grew up in a house where the kitchen was a high-powered trading room where only one person made the deals. No comments allowed.

Once when I was home for a visit during my freshman year in college I volunteered to make the salad. I had become a vegetarian, one of the many enthusiasms I embraced now that I was on my own, along with Pynchon, installation art, and sex with guys. I had learned that salads weren’t necessarily iceberg lettuce, hothouse tomatoes and bottled dressing.

“Stephen is going to make us a salad tonight,” my mother announced. Not, “Stephen will make the salad tonight.” That would have meant that I was assuming for the evening the chore of salad-making, a taking of turns that suggested, if not that we were equals, at least that I had a part in a common endeavor. Instead, I was making them a salad. She made it sound childish, as if it were show-and-tell and I was presenting a table lamp I had made in shop.

I had gone to the farmer’s market and picked up lamb’s lettuce and frisé and rocket, and then to the deli for olives, goat cheese and the fixings for a vinaigrette. I wasn’t conscious of wanting to make a point but it was a kind of show-and-tell after all. I wanted to show them I was different from the Stephen they had known. I was a young man living on his own who made his own salads. If I had known better, I would have realized that I really wanted to tell them about the guy I had fallen in love with at school. But instead I volunteered to make a salad.

I knew, of course, that the next time she fixed my father a salad, it would be the standard iceberg salad with Seven-Seas bottled dressing, just as I knew that the next time I went home to visit she’d have picked up an assortment of salad greens and goat cheese. “Since you were coming, I thought, well, we ought to have the kind of salad you like eating now that you’re in college,” she’d say, as if one of the effects of going to college was to show your family they’re not good enough for you any more.

She made a big fuss over the salad, of course. “Oh, mustard in the dressing. And honey, too! Just like my ham glaze,” she exclaimed, with the unassailable insincerity of a talk-show host complimenting an author whose book she hasn’t read. “Who would have thought, honey in the dressing?”

I didn’t volunteer to cook again.

As I said, I don’t easily comment on someone else’s cooking. It’s easier to give friends advice on love and relationships, though I’m less qualified to do so. Besides, that’s what friends do: give well-intentioned but not always good advice.

Cooking is different. It’s like driving, a competency most people have or believe they have. Even people who say they can’t cook have a repertory of dishes that they believe they prepare well.

The irony is, most of us, me included, would probably benefit from advice. We tend to cook the same things most of the time and often in the same way. And even if we improvise, we tend to do so in the same way. It’s like relationships. We repeat the same patterns of behavior with the same kinds of people, and to more or less predictable results.

There are techniques in cooking that can be learned—and more easily than one does in matters of love—like how to reduce a sauce. You can pick up tips for, say, telling if a steak has been cooked medium rare by touching it (the feel of your middle finger pressed against your thumb, if you’re wondering). Why do we find it easier to counsel a friend in affairs of the heart than it is to show her how to make a roux?

My friend Nicolas and I have quarreled only three times during the years we’ve been friends. Once about a book, once when I was acting like an asshole, and once over how to cook an omelet.

We were having brunch at my house one Sunday. It was just the two of us, so he was in the kitchen with me as I cooked the eggs.

He watched me lift up the flap of egg that had set at the edge and tilt the pan. The uncooked liquid at the center ran down and slipped under the flap and onto the surface of the pan.

“What are you making?” he asked. “I thought you said we were having omelets.”

“We are. It’s a French omelet,” I said.

“But that’s not how the French make omelets,” he said, in a way that said “I’ve lived in Paris and I should know.”

“But it is.” I insisted. I had lived in France, too. It was a much shorter time, but long enough so that I could feel justified in claiming my version as authentic. “You have to keep the eggs moving around in the pan so that it all cooks quickly and evenly. I’m just getting the rest of the egg under the bedcovers.” I smiled, as if to say, let’s end this conversation, a punctuation mark of pique more than a gesture of mirth.

I swished my fork through the mixture at the center of the mixture to distribute the eggs more evenly.

“I know that, but you’re scrambling them,” he said. “And I think you’re doing it too slowly.”

“I’ll eat this one. You do yours,” I said.

“Now you’re annoyed,” he said. “I’m sure it’s delicious. Who cares if it’s French? It’s eggs and butter after all, what could be more heavenly?”

I slid the omelet onto a plate, wiped the pan and put it back on the burner.

“Your turn,” I said.

“This is silly,” he said. “But since you insist.” He cut a knob of butter into the pan and after the foam subsided, poured the beaten eggs in. He waited a few seconds and then started to stir the mixture. He kept stirring, furiously shaking the pan back and forth, until the eggs began to set. It took less than a minute. He turned out his omelet onto the plate, a papoose of the palest yellow.

We sat down to eat, each with an omelet on his plate, mine a large-curd, slightly wet golden crescent, his a soft creamy white oblong. It looked as if we presenting a crafts project we had done for Boy Scouts. I apologized.

I didn’t tell Nicolas that I looked up the recipe later. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to prove anything. It turned out both our omelets were French. Mine was the down-home country version, his, the urbane classic one. I even found a video on YouTube where Jacques Pepin does both in the same session. I can make Nicolas’ version now, though when I cook for myself I still do my rustic, origami-ish omelet. Old habits die hard.


Image:  Velasquez, Woman Frying Eggs, 1618


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