Jim Early, an attorney of my generation here in Winston-Salem, is quite a good cook and, in addition, a cookbook author. In the preface to one of his books he explained how it all started. Apparently as a boy he had an independent streak, and promised himself that, once he was grown, he would never be dependent on anyone for anything.
To accomplish that, he decided he had to learn to cook and feed himself. So he watched the women in his family in the kitchen, asked lots of questions and developed culinary skills that have served him well all his life.
I think about Jim when I look around this city and I see huge apartment complexes sprouting from the ground. There will be a lot of single folks in those units, including young, professional men — many of them just starting careers and thinking they now have total control of their lives and destinies. But are they fooling themselves if they can’t cook? How independent can one actually be if at every meal time you are obliged to turn to someone else for simple sustenance? Not very, I would say.
Men cooking in restaurant kitchens and barbecue pits have long been the norm. In fact, we are now applauding the emergence of women chefs and restaurant owners and the increasingly important and visible roles they are playing in the culinary world. Men coking at home, however, other than firing up the grill on weekends, have been a rarity. But when I was a younger man, in my own personal world, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
Beloved Campbell University Dean Alex Burkot, the father of one of my childhood buddies, did all the cooking at his house. I hung out there and often had my feet under his table. He would stop at Mr. Dixon’s store on his way home and pick up a few essentials and head straight for the kitchen when he hit the house. It was his domain and nobody messed with him. And if I lingered long enough around suppertime — as I was apt to do — I often would get asked to join the family meal.
I particularly remember his pork chops. Always served with chunky apple sauce!
Although my stepfather never donned an apron, he had his own culinary expertise. At hog-killing time, this tough, outdoorsy fellow was the sausage-, souse- and liver pudding-maker; the kitchen was his personal atelier. An oilcloth saved from year to year just for the purpose was spread on the kitchen table, and at the end of the day pans of souse meat and liver pudding lined the counter tops as and countless yards of plump pork sausages hung in the smokehouse to air-dry. Unfortunately his recipes were all in his head, and he took them to his grave.
Then, as now, the “complete” man must be able to cook and be comfortable in a kitchen. I hasten to add this applies not just to single men. Partnerships, whatever form they may take, are more viable when each is equally comfortable planning and executing the necessary, fundamental task of preparing food.