| | By Gary Handman
Cooking for company is one of my grand passions, and after a good many years at home behind the range, I’ve become pretty adept. In the process of honing those skills, I’ve admittedly also managed to develop an impressive repertoire of annoying kitchen quirks and fetishes.
Despite my long-suffering wife’s exasperated entreaties over the past 35 years to keep it simple, I almost always gravitate toward baroque, spectacularly labor-intensive menus that provide opportunities for me to roam and sniff happily around Berkeley’s bountiful produce stores, boutique boucheries, ethnic groceries, and cooking gear shops. There’s also the fact that, often against my better judgment, I simply like to show off. And therein lies the problem.
I am not the most, let us say, even-keeled or Zen cook on the planet. I plan and strategize well in advance of the big event. I carefully lay out my mise en place. I’m meticulous in my prep work. But when the heat’s finally on in the kitchen and it’s too late to get out, I inevitably come slightly—OK, more than slightly—unglued. This chef’s angst usually expresses itself in loud, untoward fulmination and shockingly explosive outbursts at anyone foolhardy enough to enter the arena; in other words, the full Gordon Ramsay. Poor beleaguered wife! Poor hapless daughter!
Fortunately, over my many years of anxious entertaining, there have been a few things that have kept me from melting down completely whenever I began to fear that the gigot de sept heures may, in fact, require huit heures. When my sister Jan and biochemist brother-in-law Rich lived close to us, I could frequently count on Rich’s placid and good-humored presence in the kitchen to set me right. A talented home cook himself (known as Dr. Food in our family), Rich had somehow found the secret formula for mollifying me with a backrub, words of encouragement, and advice offered in his slow, soothing Texas drawl, and, when all else failed, two fingers of Maker’s Mark.
Unfortunately for succeeding waves of dinner guests chez Handman, Jan and Rich moved to Massachusetts a few years back, where they’re now happily foraging New England for its tastiest edible offerings. Goodbye, Dr. Food! Goodbye, peace of mind!
With Rich out of the dining picture, I have inevitably resorted to other therapeutic gambits to deal with my performance anxieties. At first, I considered tacking up pictures of my culinary heroes for solace and inspiration, but on second thought, having to work under pressure beneath the critical gaze of Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, and Diane Kennedy didn’t seem like such a hot idea. Instead, I have taken to surrounding myself with memorabilia and tchotchkes—vacation dining souvenirs, personal totems and icons, found objects and curiosities that make me pause and smile.
Much to the chagrin of my wife (“simplify”), I’ve progressively piled the counters around my work area with an array of silly gewgaws, kickshaws, and sundry useless gizmos: a plastic Japanese toy monkey given to me by my daughter (pull the string and he frantically flaps his hands, reminiscent of me producing mirepoix); a pre-Euro French market marker advertising the price of ecrevisses; and an early 20th-century soda bottle from a long-gone local pharmacy discovered in digging up our yard for a new deck.
Intermixed with these random toys and amusements is a growing collection of mementos and artifacts from memorable home meals past: a little glass snowman we attached to the napkin rings at Christmas dinner one year; a small copper heart used as a place card for a Valentine get-together; a tiny red plastic cocktail devil that we hung on the sides of our guests’ martini glasses at some now-forgotten soirée.
Of course, none of these trifles and gimcracks has anything whatsoever to do with either my expensive batterie de cuisine or the hard work of turning out a meal. On the other hand, I never cease to find this stuff oddly comforting, a reminder of past culinary triumphs and good times around the table. And that little monkey with flapping hands? He always seems to be signaling me with the admonition, “Hey, Mr. Epicure, relax, it’s only dinner.”
Gary Handman is the recently retired director of U.C. Berkeley’s Media Resources Center, a position that he held and loved for close to 30 years. In retirement, he aspires to work as a sous chef in a three-star Michelin restaurant. He lives in Berkeley. (See p. 12 of the Digital Edition or Print Edition for “Old Proverbial Berkeley Guy,” a cartoon by Handman.)
Gizmo comfort: Mementos of past meals keep this ambitious home chef grounded. Photo by Gary Handman.