Man with a Pan

  • Edited by John Donohue
  • Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • 330 pp.

Cooking exploits of some famous and not-so-famous men.

Reviewed by Darrell Delamaide

This book about dads who cook for their families is clearly designed and timed to become a present for Father’s Day, so let me say right away that if the intended recipient is an accomplished cook and comfortable in the kitchen, you would be better off getting him one of the really great new cookbooks on the market.

But if the dad in question is a novice in the kitchen or worried about his manhood, he might well profit from these anecdotes about the cooking exploits of some famous and not-so-famous men. Novelists like Stephen King and Jim Harrison tell their tales, but so do Josh Lomask, a firefighter in Brooklyn, and Henry Schenck, a professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois.

There are nearly three dozen such stories in this book compiled by John Donohue, who is identified as an editor and sometime cartoonist for The New Yorker. Many of the stories are penned by the men themselves, while others are based on interviews.

For a book produced by someone who works for our most literate magazine, the writing is often surprisingly amateurish. And despite a clear effort to include diverse meals and experiences, there is an inevitably repetitious quality to the stories. At times it seems like watching your neighbor’s home movies or a slideshow of your colleague’s latest vacation ― all very interesting to the person but somewhat trite to an outsider.

But it may be that these homey qualities will make the book appealing to the amateur cook. After all, even Stephen King, with millions from his bestsellers, makes do with a Cuisinart bread machine and a George Foreman grill.

Some of the big-name writers seem to be gently pulling the reader’s leg. Novelist Jim Harrison shares his recipe for elk carbonnade, though he allows that antelope or buffalo will do if your local grocer is out of elk. Celebrity chef Mario Batali explains how he likes to kick back at home and cook simple things like duck testicles or monkfish liver.

A suspicious number of the contributors come from the same New York media scene as the editor, and one wonders if Donohue hasn’t indulged in a little roundup of friends’ recipes, much like the Charlotte North Carolina Women’s Club producing  a cookbook of local specialties. Several participants are creative writers who sometimes seem to be trying too hard to show how creative they can be, as when Tulane University instructor Thomas Beller spends several pages trying to make the reader believe his time as a visiting professor at a small university in Roanoke, Virginia, really was very interesting.

There is some genuinely good writing. One standout is screenwriter Matt Greenberg’s spoof on “The Shining,” called “The Ribbing,” cast as a screenplay with typical barbecue instructions woven into the plot. And Manuel Gonzalez, one of those creative writers, tells an engaging tale of his job running a pie-baking company.

Each contributor includes one or more of his favorite recipes, ranging from a Low-Country Boil from Christopher Little, a high school football coach in Atlanta, to dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower’s Bacon-Wrapped Duck Breast Stuffed with Apples and Chestnuts, with Celery-Root Puree and Calvados Duck Sauce. Some of them add an “On the Shelf” note listing their favorite cookbooks. Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking seems to be the one that pops up the most, including on the shelf of best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman. Jesse Sheidlower lists one of my personal favorites, The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot.

An extra added attraction is a score of cartoons from The New Yorker, with their typical charm and sophisticated humor, including a good half dozen from Donohue himself.

So Man with a Pan is a mixed bag, which offers some entertaining moments, some tempting recipes and an overwhelming sense that men can indeed, if anybody still doubts it, survive and thrive in the kitchen. Published as an original paperback and retailing at $15.95, the book is indeed a simple and affordable gift for father’s day (or for dads whose children don’t read book reviews, a quick and easy purchase).

For that accomplished cook, though, and a somewhat bigger budget, a real cookbook might be more in order. There are any number of well-written, informative cookbooks, with numerous kitchen-tested recipes and ― de rigueur in an age when cookbooks have to compete with Epicurious ― beautiful color photography.

Some of my favorites that have appeared recently are For Cod and Country: Simple, Delicious, Sustainable Cooking by Washington chef Barton Seaver, with his focus on seafood, and The Glorious Pasta of Italy by Washington Post food writer Domenica Marchetti. A little older, but a treasure house of tips and ingredients as well as great, easy recipes is Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Beyond by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox. But there are numerous others, depending on the recipient’s tastes and interests, and the right gift will be a boon to the whole family.

Darrell Delamaide, who took courses at the Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools when he lived in Paris, is a man with a pan and a couple of hundred cookbooks.

comments powered by Disqus