My father, a history professor, went on sabbatical in 1988 and, with my mother at work, embarked on what Mom dubbed “some grand effort to cook.” Dad was not a natural in the kitchen, but he worked hard, and three of his dishes earned lasting places in my sense memory: an elaborate Indian curry; a sausage-heavy lasagne, best eaten cold the next morning; and chicken breasts stuffed with herbed goat cheese. Even now, I drool thinking of them.
These days, Dad rarely cooks, but his efforts two decades ago put him ahead of the curve: Today, with nearly 70 percent of mothers working, more men than ever are cooking—and not grudgingly, but willingly, enthusiastically, even obsessively. That's the gist of Man With a Pan (Algonquin Books, $15.95), an anthology of, as the subtitle puts it, "Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families." Edited by John Donohue, a cartoonist and editor at The New Yorker, the book features renowned writers such as Mark Bittman and Stephen King, celebrities (chef Mario Batali, screenwriter Matt Greenberg), and interviews with regular fathers who happen to cook.
The newness of this phenomenon is what will captivate most readers. As Washington Post reporter Shankar Vedantam writes in his contribution, "Stories about men who cook are novel to us in ways that stories about women who cook are not." True—but that doesn't convey the inherent humor of the situation. Men, after all, can be relied upon to overreach and, hilariously, to fail. Author Manny Howard, for instance, tries to pit-roast a pig and produces "a wrinkly abomination," while journalist Jack Hitt, unmanned by his inability to fry celery leaves, cries out, "What the—?" Perhaps out of a sense of compassion for such snafus, many of the recipes eschew formality. Michael Ruhlman's roast chicken instructions include "Have sex with your partner," confirming that, as evolved as these guys are, they're still guys.
To guys like me, however, Man With a Pan feels not so much groundbreaking as familiar. I grew up eating well, took home ec in junior high, and entered college a year before the Food Network launched, in 1993. Learning to cook—for myself and, now, for my wife and daughter—was foreordained. That only heightens the pleasure of reading outliers like Ghanaian-born novelist Mohammed Naseehu Ali, whose father turned to cooking after one of his three wives tried to cast spells on his meals. Or novelist Jim Harrison, whose hunter's bravado ("I love ruffed grouse") is offset by his tender memories of eating 15-cent herring sandwiches in Times Square.
Throughout the book, what comes across strongest is the authors' love for the joy of providing for their families in a newly satisfying way. Mario Batali explains it perfectly: "The best reason to cook, besides its being delicious and good for you, is that it will automatically make you look good. You'll look like a hero every day." It's a wonder, in fact, that we let women in the kitchen at all.