I used to be proud of my culinary abilities. I would pick a good recipe — like our generation’s treasured Silver Palate Cookbook’s Chicken Marbella — set a lovely table, and was usually complimented for my efforts. Well, not by my children. This was back in the day when they’d greet my creative dishes with “What’s this?” and then ask why I couldn’t serve Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
Had I fed them only pasta, pizza and potato chips, they would have been content. So imagine my shock that the two boys who wouldn’t eat fish unless it had been turned into frozen sticks have grown up to be food fascists.
I knew we’d passed the gastronomic tipping point the day my son Rory applied for a summer waiter job at Manhattan Ocean Grill, famous for serving 23 kinds of oysters. His interview included a written test that I surely would have flunked: identify the correct temperature for preparing squid, recommend a wine to accompany crawfish remoulade, list the ingredients in bouillabaisse.
He aced the test, and from there, things only intensified. When he got his own apartment, one of his first purchases was a torch to sizzle the sugar topping of his crème brûlée.
“I was inspired to cook so that I could eat what I wanted!” he told me, apparently forgetting that he was once such an infuriatingly picky eater that our nickname for him was “the air fern.” But no more grilled cheese or ramen noodles for this son of mine. He was whipping up homemade sushi, white truffle risottos, 27-ingredient dishes from the haute French Laundry cookbook and turducken, a poultry concoction where you stuff a de-boned chicken into a de-boned duck into a de-boned turkey.
We saw the first glimmer of his older brother Jed’s interest in cooking even earlier, in sixth grade. For a school project he videotaped himself making French fries. By college, he moved on to fixing buffalo wings for a Super Bowl party, and after that, kept going, albeit in a more “down-home direction.” He’s mastered deep-fried turkey, sausage (pork, beef and lamb) and homemade ketchup. Jed has canned and pickled pretty much everything that grows, and currently my freezer is housing a pig that he and his friends chipped in to raise and, later, will butcher themselves.
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Jed is also fond of entering cooking competitions. I was a proud mom indeed when he won a prize for his apple pie ice cream cake, and when his poached eggs in garlic broth nabbed “most creative” in a local Brooklyn cook-off called “Ballfest.” The only thing I’ve ever made and entered in a contest is a moony love poem I wrote for Mademoiselle.
While I always liked to bake cookies with my sons (my idea of an arts and crafts project), neither of them learned to cook at my knee. Their secret weapon was the Food Network, which they, and many of their peers, began watching during college with as much gusto as NFL games. I regret that years ago I failed to start manufacturing trading cards with the lifetime braising averages of Emeril Lagassee, Mark Bittman, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio and Alton Brown.
Today’s young men identify with these action heroes in a way I’m that I’m guessing young women simply cannot. The female hotshots — Paula Deen, Sandra Lee, Rachael Ray — don’t seem to inspire similar adulation. Knowing how hectic women’s lives are, they tend to create recipes featuring shortcuts, even packaged goods. To young male foodies who worship the concept of slow food and don’t realize how nuts their lives will become once they have kids, these dishes are the devil. Also, for young women, where’s the surprise in cooking? It’s part of the cultural core curriculum; for men, it’s an elective.
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When my kids come to dinner now, I tremble. Good enough won’t cut it. Last night Jed and his wife joined us for a meal. I knew I had to impress, so I found a Peruvian Steak Salad from our newest cookbook, Barcelona. I begged my husband to julienne the vegetables with the mandoline our sons gave us as an anniversary present. (I refuse to use the thing: It looks like a guillotine and scares the bejesus out of me.) We toiled side by side for hours, peeling tomatoes, preparing a marinade, grilling the meat and, finally, plating the entrée.
In the end, the meal looked and tasted delicious, but I have a confession. The cold curried soup was made with frozen peas, the corn salad recipe came from Real Simple, and the blueberry pie had a Pillsbury refrigerated crust. Please don’t tell my sons.
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