Last sunday eye, while crammed into Greek eatery Kefi’s sardine-can basement, I tossed down my dirty fork. “No más,” I sighed, like a bloodied, battered boxer. I pushed aside my crunchy-unctuous sweetbreads and rich sheep’s-milk ravioli leavings. “No more fancy food,” I said, rubbing my globular belly as if it were a wounded beast. “I’m suffering from dining fatigue.”
For this affliction I’ll receive little sympathy, like a millionaire forced to sell his Rolls. But listen to my lament: Lord, I’ve overdosed on dining out. The last month has meant Taco Santana’s messy Mexican cemitas and Madam Geneva’s cool Vietnamese beef salad. I’ve treated my kitchen like a leper. And as much as it pains me, gingery bok choy dumplings at Chinatown’s new C and L or nostril-clearing green curries at Elmhurst, Queen’s Chao Thai should be occasional treats—not everyday eats. Constantly dining out dominos my bad behavior. No cooking? No grocery shopping. Hence, while working from home, I subsist on my girlfriend’s wasabi crackers, granola bars and peanut butter.
“Didn’t I buy this last week?” she asks, shaking her nearly empty Nature’s Valley box. “Have you been eating these?” “Must be mice,” I reply, shutting my wrapper-filled desk drawer. “I’ll buy some traps tonight.”
I see the path I’m heading down, and its name is Angela. My perky fashionista friend so detested cooking that she transformed her Astoria apartment’s oven into sweater storage. Her kitchen cabinets were stuffed with T-shirts and jeans. And her underwear, well, I’d rather not reveal.
“I buy more clothes than groceries,” she reasoned, chomping a takeout bean-andcheese taco. Not I. Know why? Let’s time-travel to 1991. My younger brother and sister (6 and 9, respectively) are entrenched in elementary school. I’m 12 and in junior high, a sad era of few friends and many strange hairs.
Back then, my mother worked as a nurse. That left no dinnertime chef—save for the pre–bar mitzvah son. “Josh, what are you doing after school?” my mom asked one morning. I was perusing baseball box scores, lost in the Cincinnati Reds’ stats and box scores. I shrugged.
Same thing I did every day: watch Supermarket Sweep, then play Super Mario Brothers until my thumbs blistered.
“Do you want to cook dinner?” “Sure,” I squeaked. The Princess could wait to be rescued.
“How about…stir-fried chicken with garlic?” she said, thumbing through her cookbook. “Can you handle that?” I nodded yes, though I meant hell no. Sharp knives? A smoking wok filled with scalding peanut oil? Was my mother dying to meet my school’s social worker, the ruefully named Mr. Seaman? Years later, she’d tell me I’d been cooking since I was a toddler, helping her sift and measure flour since before I could add and subtract. Lessons learned, lessons forgotten.
But that first night, I only recall repeating the words that have become my culinary mantra: Don’t get blood in the food. “You did such a good job tonight,” my mom said, scooping up some well-seared, aromatic meat.
“Do you want to cook dinner again?” I bobble-headed back and forth, while my heart pitter-pattered with a happiness adults need booze to replicate. And so dinner became both my daily chore and joy. No matter how vicious the bullies (that Berenstain Bear taunt is burned into my brain), I could look forward to stovetop solace. Slicing carrots was soothing. Crushing garlic was cathartic. And chopping onions gave me an excuse for tears. Then as now, my tastes ran from hearty American to Asian, fragrant dill-vegetable soups to spicy pickled cucumbers.
The cupboard was my playground, where I ran no risk of an arm-twisting Indian rug burn. As I barreled through my teens, discovering the pleasures and pains of women and my parents’ liquor cabinet (note: never mix chardonnay and Ecto Cooler-flavored Hi-C), my cooking continued unabated. In college, where I was schooled in binge drinking and journalism (two pursuits that are hardly mutually exclusive), I developed a knack for hand-rolling sushi and sizzling spicy pad Thai. In New York, this Swiss Army Knife skill set—drinking, words, cooking—helped me locate the quickest route to my ladyfriend’s heart: “You know why I love you?” my girlfriend asked a few days ago. “My ability to make you— ”
“Happy with cooking. Your cooking. Let’s stay in tonight.” I caught her drift. I pedaled to Sunset Park’s cut-rate produce corridor (8th Ave. betw. West 55th and 59th streets) and acquired eggplants, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic, then down to Park Slope’s M&S Prime Meats for still-warm mozzarella.
My bag bulging with eggplant Parmesan provisions, I hustled back to my apartment, heading straight for my kitchen home.