Friday, February 16, 2007

Alpha-Beta Cooking

“Men have gotten better at cooking, and that’s all positive. But men can’t share. If you can find a man who’s OK with a woman being in charge in the kitchen, tell any woman to marry him immediately.”

So says Alan Richman, the well-known food writer, in an article for the New York Times on alpha and beta cooks. The alpha cook is usually the woman, or used to be back in the days when he was the breadwinner and she the bread maker. These days, as men are cooking more and more, they now feel themselves in charge in the kitchen, and there’s a struggle. Many women (including Richman’s own wife, from whom he is now separated, although she says the kitchen struggles had nothing to do with it, and it was an amicable parting) are now taking a backseat to their male partners, who are more and more often responsible for whipping up dinner, either on Tuesday night, or Thanksgiving night.

In our house, we have the problem of dual alpha cooks. We’re each inclined to watch the other and think “You’re doing that wrong.” God help us if I plan the menu, and let him execute it. He’ll put dinner on the table and I’ll say, “Well, this is very nice. Thank you. Of course, I was planning to roast the green beans with shallots, instead of sautéing them with bacon, but its’ still nice…and I was going to make a béarnaise sauce for the filet mignon, instead of a mustard sauce…but it’s OK…and I was going to run these mashed potatoes through the ricer…but it’s fine.”

Ungrateful, you say? It’s part of being an alpha cook. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, it’s just that I had a meal planned and when, for one reason or another, he winds up being the one to cook it, he doesn’t always do it the way I would have. Even if I tell him how I was planning to do it.

That’s where the “This is nice but…” comments come into play. I say “Here’s what we’re having and I’m thinking this, this, and this.” He says “OK” and then proceeds to do what he wants, regardless of my instruction.

Don’t think the reverse never happens either. I’ll be making cookies, and he’ll come out and say “I was going to make Toll House bars.” I’ll say “Well, you’re getting oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.” I can see the thought as though it was in a bubble over his head, “But I wanted Toll House bars.” The bubble over my head is smaller: “Tough.”

We’ve known from the beginning that we were both alpha cooks, and that things were not going to be sunshine and roses as far as our cooking together went. I knew it as soon as I tasted his white sauce (I have no idea when he figured it out; maybe when I opened my mouth and criticized his white sauce). He didn’t salt it. Do you know what white sauce with no salt tastes like? It tastes like flour and butter with some kind of liquid in it. It tastes like hell, that’s what it tastes like.

This put me in a position of superiority in my mind (arrogant, you say? Maybe, but I can make good white sauce). You can’t make sauces, I thought. I can. In this way, if no other, my cooking skills are superior to yours. Why did I feel the neurotic need to assure myself that my cooking skills were at least as good as, if not superior to, his? Because he’s very critical, that’s why. If something burns, sticks, or otherwise doesn’t turn out, he’ll say “I thought that might happen. I noticed you weren't stirring it frequently enough.” Well, thanks.

His feeling of superiority comes from his belief that his methods are more professional than mine. “I clean as I go,” he insists, “I learned how working in restaurants.” His tone, I might add, is smug. I too learned to cook in a commercial kitchen, and I know how to clean as I go. I admit I don’t always, but then in a commercial kitchen, you have 40 gallon sinks in which to put dirty pots and pans. We don’t yet have these at home. Also, the kitchens we’ve been working in for the past 13 years have all been atrociously designed, which makes cleaning as you go a challenge (our next kitchen will be designed by us, so if the design is poor, at least we have no one to blame but ourselves). Still, he feels that his process is superior to mine, therefore he must be a better cook.

Then too, we constantly fight over how much salt goes in our food. He barely salts. I salt to a degree that he sometimes finds overwhelming. We argue about this. Salt, I say, needs to be added while you’re cooking, not afterwards. In some cases, salting after the fact is useless. He maintains that everything can have salt added to it at the table and be fine. So when I cook I salt my way, and when I ask how it is, he responds, “A little salty, but it’s good.” When he cooks he salts his way and I add extra salt at the table. He notices.

I’ve read articles in cooking magazines that give menus that couples can make together. Most of these offer both organizational structures: one person is in charge, while the other is a prep or sous chef, or each person takes a dish or two and is solely responsible for preparing those components. Really we work better with the latter model. If one of us is in charge, s/he is just too bossy and the other person winds up either pissed off or with hurt feelings (or sometimes both).

Part of my problem is that I feel like I really “own” the kitchen. I make the menus, I make the grocery lists, when we move into a new kitchen I’m the one who dictates the organization of the space. Therefore I must be in charge, right? Not as he sees it. I think he feels like I’m the kitchen manager, and he’s the executive chef. I’m responsible for making sure he has everything he needs to work his magic. I do the drudge work of deciding that we’ll have chicken, buying the chicken, making sure we have ingredients for turning the chicken into something delicious (including having all utensils and cooking implements in convenient locations), and then he steps in with his expertise and, voila! Dinner.

Despite all this, we actually do pretty well together in the kitchen, provided we have our own workstations and don’t have to cross paths too often. We’re building a new house, and the kitchen is quite large, and I will see to it that we have things like measuring cups, measuring spoons, and knives on both sides of the kitchen. The truth is that I like that he can (and will) cook. I have a friend whose significant other wouldn’t make himself a peanut butter sandwich if he was starving, but feels free to criticize anything she makes. My husband is OK with me being in charge in the kitchen, just so long as he doesn’t have to be in there at the same time. Or if he is in there, he can sit there with a drink and kibbutz my process and technique. It’s only fair—I do the same to him. I always remind him to add salt. He always ignores me.

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