I became a man, one might argue, the night I was completely unmanned by a cup of celery leaves. On a frigid night, Lisa, the woman who had just agreed to be my wife, and I were trying out our first house in New Haven, Conn. She'd recently been admitted to medical school and had hit the books on a cold afternoon for a six-hour study jag. I had built a fire and snapped open the paper to stumble upon one of those overwrought New York Times food columns: "Curried Red Snapper Chowder." Every one of those words suddenly read delicious.
The writer extolled the virtues of this midwinter dish with the romantic-etymology move: "Chaudière refers to the heavy pots Breton fishermen traditionally used to simmer their soup." Doesn't that sound all big wool sweater-y and crackling fire-y and maybe even tasty? I thought so, too.
Chowder, the writer elaborated, was "a state of heart and mind more than a specific culinary technique." There was an existential howl in every bowl, something only Herman Melville and a few lobstermen might understand: "It's a brace against the whistling winds and quiet nights of the soul. …" Maybe I should wear a scarf while I cook?
The writer really knew how to sell it. Chowder was also "a balm to the free-floating desire for cuddle and comfort." This was not just a savory dinner; it was a full-blooded narrative, a French movie of a meal that would begin in a kitchen made aromatic by artisanal broths and spiced carrots and end upstairs in a pile of quilts.
Lisa stepped down momentarily to find me clambering into the house with bags of supplies—fresh snapper bought at the best seafood market and colorful veggies from the local grocer. She glanced down at the newspaper recipe.
"Hmmm," she said cautiously, "this violates my old home-ec teacher's rule: Never cook anything with more than one column of ingredients." Please, I indicated, speaking in the language of my right eyebrow.
I stood at the counter of that kitchen, a long, roomy work space that ran the length of one wall and opened entirely onto the dining room. It was essentially my stage, and I had set out my props. There were lots of pots and pans and bowls and blenders. I had the ingredients set up in a conga line, my spices preselected. I had bought a plain apron (no dopey slogans, please) of a dark testosterone shade. I was a man in the kitchen, looking for love, confident of a meal.
In the medieval period of the current culinary renascence—that is, pre–Food Network—you often heard people say, "I love to cook." The phrase was merely part of the mating prattle of those long-ago and dark ages. It was a signifier of a grand future ahead, but also of a lived life—a life already so packed with experience that other similar convictions could easily be flicked off: "I hate disco" or "I love Casablanca" or "I never watch television, except The Larry Sanders Show." These were things that one said but didn't necessarily have to believe or ever act upon.
But suddenly, there I was one night, no longer in the pretend world of scrambled eggs and toast. I was in the very muck of a recipe, dealing with the world of hurt and confusion that can come from only three or four words such as "Puree until liquefied. Strain."
How is it that straining a quart of my pureed goop only produces four red drops in my five-gallon chaudière? Can that be right?
Then there was this other simple instruction. I read it over and over again:
Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet. Fry the celery leaves until crisp.
Crisp? It's moments like these when you realize that what you are reading is not really English but rather half a lifetime of kitchen experience compressed into a pearl of culinary haiku. You try it anyway—because you have always considered yourself someone who "loves to cook," i.e, how hard can it be? As you lay the leaves in the oil, they instantly wilt, curl, and tighten into inch-long chlorophyll threads like the kind you might pop out of a buttonhole in a green cotton shirt. You look back at the words in the newspaper and then stare into your frying pan swimming with thread. What the—?
You refuse to be defeated, and jump in the car. A few minutes later, you return with two new bunches of celery boasting audacious nosegays of fresh green leaves. Maybe the trick is that you have to lay them carefully into the oil, nice and flat. That makes sense. Of course that's what it is. You're a little annoyed that the recipe didn't just say so. You lay them in nice and flat, and voilà!
Damn. And you think, How does that single line of instruction even make sense? "Fry celery leaves in oil until crisp." That scans about as sensically as "Soak until medium rare." But somehow your soul is on the line here, your manhood in the kitchen. Maybe the oil should be hotter?
Back in the car. Grin feebly at the same register woman. Four bunches. Cups upon cups of leaves. Into a really hot frying pan—for the love of Christ!—again, swimming with new threads. You read the instruction one more time, then stare into the greening pool of oil. A breakthrough idea: Did Breton fishermen eat crisp celery leaves? I hardly think so. It's a big waste of time. What was the recipe writer thinking? Moving on. Crisp celery leaves are for silly people.
The very next line reads: "Score the carrots lengthwise with a channel knife." A channel knife? Is that just writerly pretense for a regular old knife or is this some kind of special tool that's actually needed? This chowder of mine occurred before the Internet, so an encounter with the unknown couldn't be quickly solved. Often I deal with my own ignorance by trying to outrun it. So I read ahead: "Add the remaining celery root. …" But your celery was obviously sliced off right at the root. A vague sense that maybe "celery root" is wildly different from "celery" passes through your head.
But really, does it matter? Who's even heard of such a thing? Celery root. These chowder people, these chowderheads—they're such dainty chefs. In an effort to speed things up, you accidentally swipe a bowl—full of 45 minutes of something painstakingly shredded and soaked—onto the ground in a ceramic explosion. A level of deep frustration sets in.
Now it's 9:00 p.m. and you look around your kitchen. Every pot is dirty and half-full of something started and abandoned—or it's shattered and in the trash. Every bit of counter space is somehow damp, evidence of a whole other tragedy that we'll just call "homemade carrot broth" and never speak of again.
The recessed window above the sink is now home to a near forest of denuded celery stalks. What recipe, you wonder, calls for 10 bunches of celery? Bowls and spoons are everywhere, and every surface seems to have become a magnet for carrot and potato peels. You yourself are somehow inexplicably soaked, as if you had just stepped off a whaling ship. Your future bride suddenly pokes her head in the door to coyly ask, "Sugar, can I help with dinner?"
And you find yourself not quite yourself, uttering the following, really, really loudly: "Oh, yeah, well, f--- you! You're the—I hate everybody. You caused this catastrophe. And if you hadn't—if only I—you. This s----y kitchen. How come you don't have a g------n channel knife? Do you realize—chowder is stupid."
Or sentiments to that effect. I have shortened it by 4,000 words by editing out the repetitive obscenities. Funny thing is, the chowder tasted fine when we both sat down at the table to eat it. Of course, dining at 1:00 a.m. with a full day of hunger behind you would make old gum taste like pâté.
From Man With a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families, edited by John Donohue © 2011 by John Donohue. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.