You’ve heard it before, especially if you’re female. If you want your marriage to work, you must:
Be a duchess in the drawing room, a chef in the kitchen and a slut in the bedroom.
(This was back in the Pleistocene era when marriage was considered the end-all and be-all of woman’s sole existence)
Of course, my mother never told me that, probably because I never married until years after she died. And while she did teach me really useful things such as how to shop for perfume at the Guerlain store in Paris, how to look a zillion bucks on a Salvation Army budget, and why semi-redheads like us should never wear pink, she never quite figured out the “chef in the kitchen” part. She managed being a slut in all three locations brilliantly. In another era, she would have been a world-class courtesan, right up there with Ninon de Lenclos. Food, so her thinking went, was what one had chefs and restaurants for. Cooking was what housewives did, whereas world-class sluts flexed their husband’s plastic at upscale Palm Beach department stores.
So around the time I was 16, when the credit-card-padded husband had fallen by the wayside, and she was forced to actually work for a living, she went through a protracted phase of forcing her two daughters to subsist on a vile version of a Danish culinary classic known as “Cod in mustard sauce”. This was before the days of pizza joints on every street corner, before the days when McD’s were everywhere, and decades before I ever owned a microwave.
I had a five-year-old sister to take care of, while our mother was out either working or fascinating the upscale masculine end of the Copenhagen dating scene. Clearly, the kid would be damaged for life if Big Sis didn’t intervene, cod or no cod. Besides, I had another idol that never hung on my wall at the time, who was such a loaded subject, he was never mentioned while our mother was around for fear of inducing apoplexy.
Does anyone remember a time before cooking shows anc culinary stores and foodie blogs? Does anyone, now that I’m at it, have dim memories of what kitchens were even like in new houses, way back in those Dark Ages called the Seventies?
I can tell you what they were like in the US, because that’s where I was at the time. They were usually architectural afterthoughts thrown into a walk-in closet off the living room. Well, who cared, anyway? Women were back in the workforce, microwaves, Shake’n’Bake, Riceroni, Hamburger Helper and even Betty Crocker were available to the masses and no one had time for anything so mundane and utterly unintellectual such as – cooking. Yech. The very idea. Avocado-green dishwashers were so much more practical.
That was around the time my mom ran into a first-generation American of impeccable Sicilian/Maltese ancestry, who liked to stir things up and provoke. As an architect, he was decades before his time. He made kitchens to live in a good thirty years before anyone ever bothered with interior designs for kitchens. “I always make big kitchens in my houses” he told one overawed seven-year-old stepdaughter, “because in MY family, the MEN cook!” And cook – he did. He designed houses by day, painted at night, fished, sailed and swam on weekends – and he cooked. The Seventies Renaissance Man. He also fathered my sister, who later received life threats by industrially processed cod, and for that, too, I am eternally grateful.
But with a future of endlessly mindless boiled-cod dinners to look forward to, there was nothing for a dateless, babysitting, bookish teenager to do but learn to cook, just so she could say that it wasn’t HER fault if little sis grew up with a fish fetish. Or worse, developed gills.
So I vowed to become a real slut in the kitchen. The kind a guy would beg to be with, especially if he loved French cooking and intended to die of a massive coronary.
Along the way from there to here, there were plenty of disasters. The duck á l’orange that died a horrible, charred death, because my other brand of sluttiness got in the way. The beautiful, flawless apricot soufflé that came out so perfect, it would have made the cover for Gourmet magazine, only to sigh audibly on exiting the oven and flatlining on the dinner table. The vindaloo that lived up to its name, and the baba ghanoush that kept all vampires and mosquitos away for months. The upscale, sophisticated Christmas dinner cooked in a broom closet kitchen that Escoffier would have approved. Unfortunately, that particular Christmas, the minute it hit the dinner table was the minute I was hit by the flu. It took a friend of mine five days to eat his way through it, by which time I was recovered and by then, there was nothing left.
There were discoveries, too. Avoid anyone who thinks that McDonald’s is an acceptable alternative to home-brewed curries of the Madras variety. Beware chili near sensitive tissue. Bread baking, as anyone who’s seen the 1981 adaptation of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” knows, can lead to, errr, other things. Many other things besides bread can rise in a kitchen. And the way to a guy’s heart really does go partway through his stomach, especially if you make him homemade ravioli. From scratch. With only a little help from two famous books, both with “Joy” in their titles, you’ll likely never get him to leave. Or go on a diet.
But even kitchen slutdom can be pushed too far. Two words, people. Molecular gastronomy. Now, I’m not usually opposed to anything that screws with your head, or your taste buds for that matter. I consider myself fairly sophisticated. I know what goes with Clos de Vougeot, and what goes with Heinz ketchup. (Boeuf Bourguignon for the former, burgers for the latter). But spending an afternoon with liquid nitrogen or freeze-drying apple mousse is not my idea of a good time slaving over a hot stove. If I ever do manage to eat at El Bulli before I die, I might change my mind. I might even write about it, if my brain doesn’t explode first.
I have other ideas. World domination.
One stomach at a time.
And for you, darling, I’ll even lick the spoon!
It worked for Nigella.
It works for me, too!