This Sunday

John Heckathorn

Sunday, July 27, 2003

If you can’t
stand the heat ...

I'm back to cooking. I had five months off from kitchen duties -- thanks to my wife's former employer, who shipped her job to the mainland, where she declined to follow it. In the five months it took her to find another job, she did all the housework including making dinner, usually my responsibility.

It was heaven. Instead of coming home to a bunch of grouchy, hungry people who wanted me to produce food instantly, I'd come home to find dinner on the stove, the table set, just like in a '50s sitcom.

I hadn't had a break from cooking in more than a decade, not since the great job swap experiment. At one time, seized by the egalitarian spirit of modern marriage, not to mention that there was too damn much stuff to do, my wife and I drew up a list of household chores. Then we split the list in two. For a year, she did the first half and I did the second. The next year we switched.

This was not entirely successful, especially the year she cooked and I did laundry. I've never been forgiven for the rayon blouse fiasco. Even after all these years, my wife will tell strangers about it at the drop of a cocktail napkin. If you run into her at a party, you should know the truth. If she'd put her new rayon blouse in the dry cleaning bag, where it belonged, rather than in the laundry hamper, where it didn't, it would never have shrunk to less than half its size and been unusable except as doll clothes.

Let's just say I was as competent at laundry as she was at cooking. She apparently agreed, because once the job switch was over, I stayed in the kitchen, where I belonged.

Still, unlike her unkind remarks on the rayon blouse, I have never criticized her cooking. Especially during the past five months, when I was just grateful. On her last night of cooking before she returned to work, she pointed out to the children that they'd complained about every meal she made. In contrast, I had been a fountain of praise, even the night when, in response to their demands for meals that would preserve their teenage figures, she created her Tofu Surprise.

It wasn't bad once you got over its appearance. While the kids pushed it around their plates, I ate two heaping servings. It helped that I was starving.

I didn't even criticize the night she set the back burner on fire. I calmly smothered the foot-high flames with a large pot lid, though, come to think of it, I did promise never to tell anyone. Never mind.

I'd never criticize, because I've suffered every kitchen mishap known to man. For instance, take it from me: No matter how warm the Sunday morning, no matter if you're newly married and free-spirited, do not fry bacon before you put on some clothes.

In fact, that's what I like about cooking. It's a lot like life: Something unexpected, and usually bad, happens just when you're under the most pressure.

There are many competent cooks who prepare the work area, carefully assemble the ingredients, think through the recipe and proceed calmly to the result. I just fly by the seat of my pants. I find myself rooting through the refrigerator for an ingredient I know is somewhere while the sauté pan is getting way too hot on the stove.

Tonight, for instance, I thought I'd return to cooking in a big way. No quick and easy suppers for me. I decided to make roasted tri-tip steak with a tarragon-red wine-butter sauce and smashed Yukon Gold potatoes with carrots and fresh corn.

Just to mention the major screw-ups, I got the meat more medium than medium rare, even though my instant read thermometer said it was perfect. The smashed potatoes contained sweet baby carrots and crunchy fresh corn kernels. Even so, the dish lacked flavor. I threw in butter and salt and some roasted garlic at the last minute. Worst of all, my sauce refused to thicken. I finally resorted to adding cornstarch in a little hot water, as if I was making Chinese food. Given all that fuss, it was no surprise I forgot to put dressing on the spinach salad.

"Oh, the children will be glad to have you cooking again," said my wife. She did wonder why the corn kernels in the potatoes were strangely crunchy. They were supposed to be, I explained, it was a contrast thing. My older daughter loved the contrast between the crunchy corn and smashed potatoes, but hated the sauce. "I bet you put wine in this," she said, as if that were a sign of a terrible cook. My younger daughter suggested that if I was going to make such wretched food in the future, I should also cook rice so that normal human beings would have something to eat.

My wife beamed and opined that she hadn't eaten so much in months. I knew the feeling. It's the joy of having someone else do the cooking.

John Heckathorn is the editor of Honolulu Magazine. He is one of four columnists who take turns writing "This Sunday."


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