PITY queens. Kings, too, for that matter. They don't ever find themselves apron-wrapped and elbow-deep in cookie dough. They never whack vegetables with a knife; prick a pie with their initials; fry an egg.
As every kitchen dabbler knows, to cook brings many more satisfactions with it than the tasting afterwards.
When fledgling Washington actor Paul Cunningham plays chef, "it takes all day"; and "it's a performance," when he finally serves it. He likes the feedback, "the applause." He likes to hear one guest say to another: "The kid can cook!"
Yet, for some cooks this isn't the whole, nor even the half of it.
From the precise measurement of the raw ingredients to the arrangement of all the pieces that make the finished dish eye-pleasing--though a typically harried hostess might never believe it--for some, a weekend of cooking is more refreshing than a raft trip; more renewing than a spa; more effective a means of escape than any drug.
Witness the playwright, a fledgling, too, recently at the Arena Stage's readings of plays in progress. During the break in the grueling critique of her work, the playwright said: "I don't know. Sometimes I think I should just stay home and cook my children chicken soup."
Or consider the woman, an energy consultant, under pressure at work around Christmas. Nightly she came home, made dinner for her husband and 1 1/2-year-old, then baked cookies. She made so many night after night, in fact, that she started ferrying them to neighbors. "They accused me of trying to be a Super Mom," the woman lamented recently, "but I was only trying to relax!"
The neighbors of another woman who was new to the city and recently divorced, found themselves constantly at her table, because she had "made too much." Huge kettles of minestrone, vegetarian casseroles, skewered lamb, Sunday omelets. When she moved to the West Coast to remarry, she brought her neighbors a freezer full of food--not raw provisions, but cooked: spinach crepes between layers of waxed paper, spaghetti sauces with mushrooms, with olives, without. In short, all those things she'd been cooking all those lonely months to forget.
"I cook homey things when I'm feeling lonely," says Denise Rollins, a program officer for the African-American Institute. But she doesn't want to just cook it and freeze it. "It's very important for somebody to eat it, for me to share it."
She remembers the most recent time she was struck with the lonely feeling. At winter's height, she returned from a three-month trip to Senegal. "And for the last six--what family! All those kids running around, waking me up in the morning! Then, when I returned to D.C. to my apartment, alone, it was a shock. And I decided I should have some people over."
So she invited three "good, good friends," and had smothered chicken, biscuits and rice.
Rollins also made Sri Lankan eggplant salad that evening. Reminded that she hails from Detroit, where the unusual concoction of cooked eggplant, onion and fresh coconut would hardly be considered standard "homey" fare, she laughs and tries to think of why she made that dish. "Ummm . . . touching! You squish it with your hands to mix it up!"
Indeed, the concrete, tangible aspects of cooking may be part of its appeal in times when we are struggling with things such as emotions, which we can't grab hold of.
Attorney Linda Jamieson, one recent blue day, opened the refrigerator door and eyed once again the rhubarb she had bought with good intentions "quite a while ago." She made a rhubarb pie that evening, using a recipe from "the old Joy of Cooking." Says Jamieson: "I do that when I want to make order in my inner life. To order the externals calms me internally."
The predictability of tried-and-true recipes is comforting. You can't always make predictions in relationships, for example; but with a favorite recipe you can. Yet, as easy-as-pie will not do for Paul Schaeffer, Jamieson's husband, when he's out of sorts. "When I get that way, I don't want to create order," says the 31-year-old treasurer of People for the American Way. "I want to create chaos. I want to make something that takes all day, has a lot of steps, that uses every pot and pan in the house . . . That's eggplant parmesan."
Cooking in this manner may be an expression of control. You are putting something together that has a beginning, a middle and an end, something new, something you created. That's power.
But is it reality? A cynic said: "Sure you want to be elbow-deep in the stuff. Stirring, grabbing, grinding. You can have the illusion of doing something--then you can get rid of the evidence before anyone tells you otherwise."
Still, for some, cooking seems to be the ultimate escape.
Barbara Wilcox, a special education consultant, says: "The fantasy begins at lunchtime. I run then, and start to imagine what I might cook for dinner. When I'm back at my desk, to escape I'll find myself planning menus for dinner parties." At home, reading cookbooks is "part of the escape," too.
Is Julia Child aware she has written escape literature?
One of Wilcox's favorite recipes is spaghetti with clam-and-red-pepper sauce. Add to that the aforementioned eggplant parmesan, minestrone and other spaghetti sauces mentioned by these cooks of all ancestries, and a question begs: what is it about cooking Italian in times of stress?
From its sensual ingredients (the smooth, purple eggplant is the best example, but don't forget the fruity olive oil and the tomato) to its rugged storability (long-simmered sauces do keep well in hoarders' freezers)--Italian cuisine does run the gamut of a cook's therapeutic needs. Translation?
A woman in Takoma Park may have an insight. Recently she returned to her Ohio home upon the death of her Italian grandmother. After the burial, they went to the home of another relative, who emerged from her kitchen, having made 500 to 600 raviolis in the two days since the death. That was the funeral dinner.
"The minute she heard about the death, this woman went down to the kitchen and started covering every flat surface with homemade raviolis," says the granddaughter. "That was her reaction to my grandmother's death. That was how she coped.
"But," she adds, "it could be just an Italian thing. Food, cooking. That's how Italians cope with life in general." DENISE ROLLINS' SMOTHERED CHICKEN (4 servings) 4 garlic cloves, pressed 3 teaspoons fresh minced parsley 2 tablespoons imported mustard 2 chicken breasts, halved, and 4 drumsticks Black pepper to taste 5 to 6 onions, quartered 1/2 cup white wine 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 tablespoons flour
Mash garlic, herbs and mustard into a paste. Paint it onto the chicken. Sprinkle with pepper. Put chicken and onions into a bowl. Mix wine, soy sauce, and olive oil together and add to the bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, turn the chicken occasionally to distribute the marinade.
When ready to cook, heat the vegetable oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the onions and cook until limp (about 5 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pat flour on the chicken. Brown in the skillet until crisp. Remove and set aside.
In the pan, there should be about 2 tablespoons of fat along with the drippings. To this, add the flour and stir over medium heat into a smooth paste until it is fawn-colored (about 2 minutes).
Combine marinade with enough water to total 2 cups. Add to the pan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower heat and cook until slightly thickened (about 3 minutes).
Add chicken and onions. Simmer over low heat 45 minutes, or until done. SRI LANKAN EGGPLANT SALAD (4 servings) 1 medium eggplant (about 3/4 pound) 6 to 8 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/2 to 3/4 cup fresh or fresh-frozen shredded coconut (unsweetened) 1/2 small onion, finely sliced into half-moons (not rings) Juice of 1 lemon Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and dry the eggplant. Do not peel. Halve it, then cut each half into 1/4-inch slices. Put 2 tablespoons of the oil into a heavy frying pan. Heat pan and add a few eggplant slices at a time, cooking them for 4 to 5 minutes until brown and limp, but not crisp. Continue adding oil by the 1/2-teaspoonful and eggplant slices a few at a time until all have been cooked. Drain thoroughly on paper towels. Several changes of paper toweling may be required. Put the eggplant into a bowl wih the coconut and onion, and squeeze the lemon juice over it. Squeeze mixture with your hands until half of it is mashed, then stir well. Chill. Salt and pepper individual servings to taste. PAUL SCHAEFFER'S GRANDMA D'AMBROSE'S EGGPLANT PARMESAN (6 to 8 servings) The sauce: 2 finely chopped medium onions 4 to 6 cloves garlic 1 medium green pepper, finely chopped 4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil 2 quarts canned whole tomatoes (either imported Italian or home-canned) 6-ounce can tomato paste 1/2 to 1 cup red wine 2 bay leaves 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper (or to taste) 2 to 3 tablespoons dried oregano 2 to 3 tablespoons dried basil Salt ( 1/2 to 1 teaspoon or to taste) The eggplant: 1 large eggplant or 2 medium (approximately 2 pounds) 1 egg 1 cup milk 2 cups seasoned bread crumbs 1 to 1 1/2 cups peanut oil 1 pound mozzarella, sliced as thinly as possible
To make the sauce, saute' the onions, garlic and green pepper in the oil until wilted. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally and taking care not to burn. About halfway through the cooking, put sauce through a foodmill if desired (not a blender, as this makes it too soupy).
Peel and slice the eggplant thinly (about 1/4 to 3/8-inch). Arrange on paper towels, lightly salt and let sit to sweat out bitter juices for 1 hour. Dry.
Beat together milk and egg. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Oil should be very hot, but not smoking. Dip an eggplant slice into the egg mixture, let excess run off, then dip into the seasoned bread crumbs. Saute' eggplant slices a few at a time until brown (approximately 1 minute per side). Take care not to burn. As saute'ed slices are done, place between layers of paper towels to drain.
To assemble: Arrange one layer of eggplant on bottom of a 10-by-14-inch baking pan. Add mozzarella slices. Alternate layers of eggplant and mozzarella twice more. Generously cover with--but do not submerge in--sauce. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with remaining sauce, pasta, saute'ed meatballs and Italian sausage.