The pleasure of fine dining has pretty much worn off for me, I must admit. I realized this the other day when I sat in a French-type restaurant and gazed at the menu and felt a craving for a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of chili. Not a gourmet chili made from beans imported from Chile but the kind that comes in a can, thank you very much. The kind you used to get at Woolworth's lunch counter.
GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICH
Toast two slices of bread.
Place slices of cheese between toasted slices.
Nuke in microwave for 10 seconds.
Eat with chili while reading the paper.
I look at the hundreds of cookbooks in our pantry - Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, James Beard, The Moosewood Collective, Craig Claiborne - relics of a former life, back in the '80s when men who were bored with dirt-track racing and elk hunting discovered that you could lord it over other men in the kitchen, and cooking became a macho event.
I had a Harley-Davidson food chopper and cheese grater and carried a two-stroke rotary-turbine garlic press in a holster on my belt. I spent hours in the kitchen, whacking together remoulades and seviches and road-seared armadillo cheeks on a bed of lichen with an effusion of asphalt and twirling it over my head - Perfecto! - and women looked at me in wonder: Their husbands could barely boil water, and there I was, Master of the Feast, pouring a fabulous sauvignon blanc, nattering about the right way to blanch snow peas. A man who knew how to blanch!
But that was back in the '80s, when people went in more for self-expression. We all smoked cigarettes then and everybody was making black-and-white movies about train tracks or writing imagist songs or tying up a bundle of old newspapers and titling it "American Prose Rectangle No. 1" and showing it in a gallery. So it was natural for men to take up cooking.
Back in those days I shopped at a spice store that carried 24 different kinds of oregano and I assembled an awesome collection of German knives. I got into arguments with other men over the comparative virginity of our respective olive oils. I sneered at a man's salad once because his shaved parmigiano wasn't the right parmigiano and I happened to have some of that parmigiano on me and I showed him how to shave it thin and translucent as parmigiano should be shaved, and he shoved me away and we rolled around on the kitchen floor, punching and kicking and gouging each other. Now we're best friends. Once I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He told me that my dressing needed more vinegar. He was wrong about that. Dead wrong.
And then one day it was all over. I threw a dinner party for 12 and made gazpacho and risotto and tacos and osso buco and a gateau of Jell-O with marshmallows and served it with a Barolo, and when the guests left, delirious with pleasure, I put my whisk away and never looked back. It simply wasn't fun anymore. A man comes to a point in life when he decides that he doesn't have to make the best risotto in town. It's not important.
People still ask me what is the secret of my risotto and I tell them, "I got over that. That part of my life is behind me now."
The simple truth is that I like Spanish rice. Macaroni and cheese is good, the manna that God gave to the Christian people in the wilderness, which is where we are still living. And those dried soups you buy in large bowl-like containers. You fill with water and nuke it and you've got soup. It's good.
And so for Thanksgiving, I am serving a pressed turkey loaf with instant mashed potatoes and the yams that come in a cooking pouch and, of course, canned cranberry, which is better than anything you can make yourself. And mince pie from the bakery, with Reddi-wip.
As the Psalmist said, it is God who hath made us and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Come unto his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise. For the Lord is gracious; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth from generation to generation.
In other words, get over it. Lighten up. It isn't about food.
- Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country, including KANU (FM 91.5) in Lawrence.