The Fledgling Gourmet

The Fledgling Gourmet

“Cheeseburger macaroni or lasagna?” I asked my partner, Gary, as I stood in front of our kitchen cupboards in sweats and a pilled robe the color of NyQuil. • Gary peered past my head and toward the shelves, which were barren except for a few boxes of cereal and a couple of cans of alphabet soup and dented cream corn. • “Well?” I urged.

This was the middle of winter a few years back when we still lived in the city, before we had moved north near the Lake Michigan shores of Saugatuck. It was dark and cold, and the only thing I wanted to do was pull a blanket over my head and hibernate until April. Maybe then, at least, I could barbecue. Right now, however, I didn’t want to cook, much less grocery shop.

In fact, it seemed a miracle I was still bathing.

“Well? Pick one,” I said again, shaking boxes of Hamburger Helper at Gary.

“It’s not really a choice,” Gary said. “It’s like choosing between hanging and a guillotine.”

“One is cheesy, and one is saucy,” I said. “What could be clearer?”

Gary sighed and pointed at Cheeseburger Macaroni, and a few minutes later, we were sitting in front of the TV gumming our dinner. Ironically, we were watching a cooking show on the Food Network, where a woman was taking everyday ingredients from her cupboard and refrigerator, and turning them into gourmet dishes.

“She’s amazing,” Gary said, looking over at me.

He didn’t say, “Why can’t you do that?” He didn’t need to; I clearly understood his tone.

“She’s a witch,” I said. “Nobody, except someone very evil, can take saltines, tomato paste and beets, and transform them into a gourmet meal.”

“Beets are nature’s candy,” Gary replied. “Did you know that?”

“I thought Twizzlers were,” I said, finishing my plate. “And I thought you loved Hamburger Helper.”

“I did . . . when I was 22. The point is, I think we should learn how to cook better,” Gary said in his calm voice, the one he likes to use when he has to give the dog a pill, or give me some bad news. “We shouldn’t live like this. We’re not the Joads. I mean, where’s our culinary creativity?”

Gary’s calm voice—and refusal to eat the dented cream corn—must have worked, because a week or so later, I found myself standing in our neighborhood Viking store taking a gourmet cooking class entitled something along the lines of, “Girls’ Night Out in Paris.”

I looked around our classroom and smiled.

“Ladies . . .” the cooking instructor started. “Oh, sorry . . .”

She looked directly at me and Gary. We were the only men in class.

“You tricked me,” I whispered, putting on my apron. “I don’t even like French food.”

“You like French fries,” Gary said. “And you loved Amélie. Give it a shot.”

And, then, slowly, just like Amélie, something magical happened to me: I fell in love.

With cooking.

I learned how to caramelize onions. I learned how to make au jus. I learned how to whisk, and use a ramekin for something other than a tiny cereal bowl. I made fresh berry champagne cocktails, and goat cheese tarts, and chocolate soufflés.

At the end of our cooking demo, I turned to Gary and said, “From now on, we will eat like kings.”

“Did the French have kings?” Gary asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s a metaphor, not a history lesson.”

And then I got home and realized I wouldn’t be cooking on Viking professional appliances, or using their finest cookware and cutlery. I realized a pretty woman with a slick bob and French manicure wouldn’t appear in my tiny kitchen every night to walk me through every complicated step.

Still, I had acquired the skills, passion and confidence to cook. I even had the recipes. I could be Julia Child. Or, at least, Julia’s cooking-challenged child.

That weekend, I headed to the grocery, chest out, where I spent a few hours perusing the produce, checking cheeses, selecting spices, and bothering the butcher. It was then I discovered it would cost me a minimum of a hundred dollars to make a single gourmet meal; and, unless Gary and I wanted rack of lamb with our coffee for breakfast every morning, I’d still need to buy some essential staples.

As I was wandering down an aisle, I happened to catch a glimpse of Hamburger Helper, the little oven mitt waving to me like a long lost friend. I tried to ignore it at first, like one might an embarrassing relative who shows up unannounced at your fancy dinner party.

But I couldn’t.

So I glanced up and down the aisle, made sure the coast was clear, and tossed in a couple of boxes of Cheeseburger Macaroni, right next to my fresh herbs.

I may have been a fledgling gourmet.

But I was still a realist.