Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Fine" Dining

When you make a meal for your spouse, you expect him to savor it with gratitude and exclamations of delight.

Once I finish a dish and have arranged the parts on the plate in a pleasing display, I bring it steaming from the kitchen and place it gently on the cushion in F’s lap (yes, we eat on the couch). I expect him to begin eating immediately while his dinner is still hot and at its best. I join him on the couch and await his praise. He eats quickly. I wait, chewing very slowly to make my dinner last at least a quarter of the time it took to prepare.

Finally, I prompt him with practiced nonchalance,

“Is it ok?”

“It’s fine.” He says.

F is spoiled by home-cooked meals now. When we began dating, he dined every week on ramen noodles and frozen chicken patties. He grew up on meat and potatoes and had never had Chinese food or Mexican food or rice—or a bagel—until college. Until he met me, he had never tasted lamb, lobster, duck, pork tenderloin, tofu, salmon, quinoa, turnips, tiramisu, parsnips, cilantro, pesto, cumin, cucumbers, or a wealth of other culinary delights. Nor had I cooked them. My cooking had been limited to one or two chicken dishes and a failed French fry experiment. I’m still learning—which is why my recipes still sometimes fail miserably.

On our walk home the other night, O and I commiserated about the fact that men do not understand why we get upset when our cooking fails. “It’s just food,” F says when my sauce doesn’t thicken, while I hover over the pan, tears thinning already watery and smoking tomatoes. And they don’t understand why we get upset when, in response to the tentative question, “How’s your dinner?” they reply, “It’s fine.”

“Fine” is not the word we’re after. If we spend an hour chopping onions and peeling carrots, skinning fish and stirring sauce, we want our work to be considered “Fabulous,” or “Better than my steak at Morton’s” or “an exquisite blend of flavors and textures.” Not “fine.”

One recent rainy Sunday, I tried to make F a stack of divine pancakes. I always use the same recipe from my favorite cookbook, The Best of Cooking Light 1999. Apparently 1999 was a good year for Cooking Light, because absolutely every single recipe I’ve ever made from this cookbook has been perfect, and the recipe for Buttermilk Oatmeal Pancakes is no exception. But I get bored with perfection, so I cheated on Cooking Light with Gourmet, who recently highlighted this recipe:

Bridge Creek Heavenly Hots
(fifty to sixty dollar-size pancakes)

From The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

These are the lightest sour cream silver-dollar-size hotcakes I’ve ever had—they seem to hover over the plate. They are heavenly and certainly should be served hot.

4 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup cake flour
2 cups sour cream
3 tablespoons sugar

1. Put the eggs in a mixing bowl and stir until well blended. Add the salt, baking soda, flour, sour cream, and sugar, and mix well. All of this can be done in a blender, if you prefer.

2. Heat a griddle or frying pan until it is good and hot, film with grease, and drop small spoonfuls of batter onto the griddle—just enough to spread to an approximately 2 1/2-inch round. When a few bubbles appear on top of the pancakes, turn them over and cook briefly.

In an effort to make these slightly healthier, and because I have a mistaken confidence in my ability to adapt recipes, I used fat-free sour cream and egg whites. I’m convinced this must have been the problem with my hotcakes, which were certainly not heavenly. Nor did they hover over the plate.

Instead, the batter leaked across the pan and burned immediately. I turned down the heat, added some flour to the mix, and tried again. The pancakes refused to bubble and the bottom scorched. I added a little more flour. By this time, my mix was lumpy and my pan was coated with burned batter.

I swore and dumped the rest of the mix into the garbage, startling F, who should be used to this by now.

“What’s wrong?” he cried, thinking I had burned myself, so uncharacteristic was my profanity.

“I burned your hotcakes!” I wailed in despair.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “It’s just food.” This was the wrong thing to say.

“It’s NOT just food!” I sobbed. “It’s your breakfast. I was trying to make you a nice breakfast from The Breakfast Book. It’s supposed to be simple and delicious. You were supposed to have a nice breakfast!”

“I’ll still have a nice breakfast,” he said. “Just make the other pancakes.” I was immediately filled with loathing for my beloved The Best of Cooking Light 1999.

“I can’t now.” I said, fully aware of how petulant I sounded, “I used up all the eggs.”

“Well let’s have oatmeal.” He suggested.

“Fine. That’s all I can really make right, anyway.” I huffed, and turned back to the stove.

Granted, I make a mean bowl of oatmeal, so my agony over the hotcakes soon abated. But the complete failure of my adapted recipe still rankles. I’m gathering the courage to try those hotcakes again—this time with full-fat sour cream and whole eggs.

And I’ll have F to comfort me if they burn again. Poor F still just doesn’t understand why I get so upset. It may sound silly, but cooking is more than just making food. It’s creating something. And after a long day in my cubicle, marketing things that other people create, I savor my hour in the kitchen when I get to make something for myself—and for F.

You can’t frame a pancake and hang it on the wall. You can’t put a loaf of bread on stage and expect an audience to applaud. And you can’t display a fish fillet on a pedestal for all of eternity. Food is fleeting. It only looks pretty for so long. You eat it, and it’s gone. And if you don’t eat it, it rots.

A meal is created just the once for a specific person to enjoy, whether that person is a customer in a restaurant, a son or daughter, or a husband. Cooking is an expression of creativity and of love. It’s more than food, and it should be more than “fine.”


  1. I have stumbled onto your blog and am delighted to have done so. Cooking for someone is a sign of grace. It is an act of love, at least to my thinking. And it seems you elevate it to a passion. I look forward to reading you past entries and all future ones.


  2. that's it. from now on we frame the dead pancakes.

    (incidentally, i went home after this conversation and promptly made my first failed pancake batch. the pancakes appear to be having a rough month.)

  3. Thank you for your wonderful comment, Philip! It sounds like you share the same passion for cooking :-)

    And Oh, where do you hang pancakes? I vote for the bedroom.

  4. or a hallway. the hallway of failed pancakes.

  5. You should submit to "Fail" blog. F, Jesus, let's use a better word here: "fantastic" and "fine" start with the same letter.