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I’ll never cook again.
I’ve had it.
It’s been a long, fascinating run — most of it wonderful. A satisfying adventure. A meditation of high order.
But, it’s over.
I’m going to pack up the pots and pans and store them in the garage; I’m ready to give away the special items in the fridge and pantry.
I don’t care; I’m not going to need them.
This man’s shadow will not fall on a range top again. I will never preheat another oven. No longer will I skulk through stores, caressing heavy-duty, commercial sauciers. I am going to donate my extensive collection of books on food and cooking to the library. Someone, surely, will make good use of the recipes, the lessons on technique, the wisdom and insights of Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin.
Don’t need ’em anymore.
The joy is gone. My special connection to finding and preparing foods has been slashed, severed, spoiled.
By my wife.
For years now, I’ve put up with an increasing number of Kathy’s complaints and restraints, been confronted with an ever-growing list of verboten ingredients and dishes. With the arrival of each new issue of one of her, “They are poisoning us with food and we are all going to die” magazines, with every new e-mail from a goofy-looking, fat M.D. concerning a recently discovered carcinogen, her sense of alarm has amplified, her reactive demands multiplying like mice behind a garage wall.
With delivery of her special publications each month, the pressure on me, the cook, has grown. Where I once stalked the aisles of a grocery store like a mighty hunter, guided only by whimsy and the availability of ingredients, I’ve found myself increasingly subdued by anxiety, ever on the alert to avoid the latest deadly vegetable, the toxic assault weapon disguised as meat or dairy product.
The list of prohibited ingredients has grown to include cheeses, vinegars, wines, red meats, fungi, butter, sugar, flour and on and on and on.
The joy was dying.
Then … last Wednesday.
That’s when the proverbial back broke under the weight of constant complaint.
I reached my breaking point and surrendered. Kathy delivered the coup de grace.
I’m in the kitchen, working on dinner. I’ve spent a good half hour at the market, selecting ingredients, asking one of my special grocery-store pals what she’s making for dinner, composing my own recipe as I go. I’m having a swell time. I’ve bought two boneless chicken breasts, a carton of organic chicken stock, a can of crushed, fire-roasted tomatoes, a can of canellini beans, a head of garlic, a white onion, a box of instant polenta and a pack of those little yellow and red sweet peppers.
They’re so darned cute.
I’ve trimmed the chicken breasts, thinly sliced the onions, crushed and minced ten cloves of garlic, minced a wad of parsley, finely diced some celery, and sliced eight of the peppers. I intend to sweat the onion and celery in olive oil with a touch of kosher salt and some freshly ground black pepper. I’m ready to add the garlic and parsley at the last moment and remove the mix from the pan. Then, I’ll turn the heat up high and char the slices of pepper. I’ll remove the peppers, sear the seasoned chicken breasts then remove them. I’m thinking I’ll deglaze the pan with some stock, loosening all the goodies, then back in will go the veggies, the chicken, a bit more stock, some thyme and oregano, a half cup or so of the tomatoes, the rinsed beans and a teaspoon of my prized Espanola red. I’ll braise the mix for 90 minutes or so, remove the chicken and hack it into hefty chunks. I’ll adjust the seasonings in the sauce, add a couple tablespoons of chicken demi-glace to punch things up a bit, reduce the sauce, and throw the hunks of chicken back in the sauce to coat.
I plan to keep the chicken warm while I make the polenta (using chicken stock) then add a mix of butter and grated, hard cheese. I’ll hit the chicken mix with a slosh of extra virgin olive oil to gloss it up, and it’ll go on a mound of polenta and the whole mess will be liberally sprinkled with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. A nice salad, some crusty bread.
The perfect little meal.
Or, so I think.
The assault hits me like a ball peen hammer to the occipital ridge. I’m stunned, reeling. I gotta admit: I’m not prepared, my defenses are down.
Kathy, however, is at DEFCON 5.
“What are you doing? I can’t believe it.”
She grabs the package of peppers. “Look,” she shouts, jabbing at the label with her finger. “Look! Good lord, man, didn’t you see this? Have you forgotten how to read?”
I read the label: “Sweet peppers.” I read it aloud, so she’ll know I’m with the program.
“Oh, you poor, silly thing. Look!” She continues to jab at the package.
“Look here. ‘Product of Mexico.’ Do you know what that means? Do you?” Her voice is shrill, her face is red. It’s like she’s discovered anthrax in our food. I look to the door, expecting a Mylex-clad gaggle of science geeks from the CDC to burst into the house and quarantine us.
“Well,” I venture (timidly, I might add), “it says ‘Product of Mexico’.”
“Exactly. ‘Product of Mexico.’ You bought this. Are you out of your mind?”
Ordinarily, I would answer in the affirmative, but I’m a bit worried at this point in the conversation. It could be a trick question.
“Well, I’m not sure. I … I … don’t think so.”
“You bought produce grown in Mexico.”
“Yes? I mean, did I? I guess … well… maybe … but …”
“Karl, where have you been? Do you know what century this is? Have you heard about that thing we call ‘science?’ What on earth is wrong with you? Produce from Mexico?”
“Well, I … ah … um …”
“Why not just eat a pound of plutonium, Karl? Fresh and hot, right out of the reactor? These peppers are covered with pesticides. Mexican farmers know no limits down there, Karl; modern nutritional science means nothing to them, and NAFTA has confirmed their attitude with undue profits. They flood their produce with pesticides. There are multitudes of kids down there with vestigial tails — did you know that? Do you know about the staggering increase in the birth of two-headed babies in countries that overuse pesticides on their produce? And, worst of all (here, her countenance darkens, her eyes crinkle into ominous slits, the tone of her voice registers maximum concern) … they drench these peppers with DDT.”
“Uhhhh … and?”
“What? Didn’t you hear me? I said they drench these peppers with DDT. You eat these things, you get a massive dose of DDT. You cook with them and a certified lethal pesticide leaches out of the peppers and permeates everything else in the pan. You ingest the deadly brew and you are a goner, pal. A goner.”
I hear my voice. It sounds like I’m in a tin can, far, far away. “I julienned them,” I warbled, “and I was just about to char them over high heat. Can you imagine the burst of flavor when …”
“Karl, are you listening? Do you ever listen? DDT, Karl. DDT! Nerve damage, cancer, heaven knows what other gruesome maladies might follow if you consume these things. Eat these peppers and you are swallowing more problems than you and your feeble immune system can handle.”
“But, sweetie …”
“But, sweetie, nothing. You go ahead and wolf down this poison, if you will, but leave it out of my food. Go ahead, eat the peppers. Eat as many as you like, wise guy; then pay the price. Don’t be surprised if one day soon you morph into a huge, Kafkaesque beetle-like creature and, because of the enormous damage to your buggy nervous system, you’re on your back in the living room in front of a flickering TV, helpless, drooling, twitching and flailing away with your eight spindly legs in the air. Mark my words, Beetle Boy, you are in a world of hurt if you eat these peppers.”
Suffice it to say, the exchange takes the wind out of my culinary sails.
Polishes me off, in fact. Robs me of my will to cook.
But, I am not going down without a fight.
I flip the stove’s burners to Off. I turn and make my announcement.
“You do it, then. I’ve had it. You shop; you cook. I’ll never cook again.”
“Oh, you’re such an extremist: It’s like living with a five year-old. Don’t be ridiculous, Beetle Boy.”
I turn on my heel, I pout, and I stalk off to the guest bathroom and lock the door. I have no idea why I’m in the bathroom — but it feels right. And it’s warm.
That’ll show, her, I think. She is going to be sorry.
The next afternoon, I go to the market, and I buy deli turkey and a plastic container filled with slightly brown broccoli salad. I throw the eats on the kitchen counter come dinnertime. I make a sandwich with some stale bread and, wrapped in the virtue of my cause, I stalk off to the bathroom and lock the door.
“Not gonna work,” she yells.
The next day: a can of Spaghetti-O’s (cold) and an unripe banana.
I take fresh reading material to the bathroom. I am prepared to wait this one out.
Day three: Goldfish crackers and tepid water. For dessert: Cap’n Crunch (dry).
I notice the caulk around the shower enclosure needs replacement.
Day four, I finally triumph, firing a salvo of unripe Gala apple slices, dry brown sugar and stale rice cakes at my beloved.
“All right,” she says, chasing a rice cake with a swallow of water, “this has gone way too far. You need to cut it out, and cook.”
“Not going to happen, my pet. I don’t want to cook again. Ever. The magic is gone”
“Magic, schmagick. You know I can’t cook. Now, get over it and get back to work in the kitchen.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Listen, buster, I’ll follow you into that bathroom if I have to; we need to talk this out. There are plenty of things I don’t want to do, either. I can’t cook — you know that — but, I’ll tell you what: I’ll trade you something I don’t want to do for this thing you don’t want to do. For example, I don’t like washing your underwear and socks. I’ll do it, though, if you cook.”
“Nope, I don’t mind doing the wash.”
“How about I clean the guest bathroom?”
“Well, it’s become my favorite room in the house and, since I’ve been spending more time in there, I’ve already tidied up. I’ll keep cleaning the guest bathroom.”
“What if I finish unpacking all those boxes we moved to the basement six months ago — the ones you swore you’d get to within a week?”
“I’ve got my eye on those boxes. No problemo.”
“Oh, come on … surely there’s something I can do …”
She stops. But, alas, it’s too late. She knows she’s made a terrible mistake.
Indeed, there’s something she can do.
So, maybe I’ll rethink this cooking thing.
If all goes to plan, I won’t be hard to spot: I’ll be the one with the huge smile on his face, humming “Strangers in the Night” as he sidles down the aisles at the grocery store.
I’ll be so happy that, if you want, you can call me “Beetle Boy.”