Ron Bloch, Washington attorney, family cook and father of two, is reminiscing -- and not about baseball games or home movies, either. This flashback concerns roast brisket, with garlic matzo balls:
"I took my usual heavy matzo ball recipe like golf balls, according to his daughter Linda , minced up a ton of garlic and some chopped parsley. And I usually got the biggest brisket I could." Even so, it only lasted -- maximum -- for two dinners.
Now the kids are grown and the brisket and matzo balls have been replaced with lighter fare, says Bloch, but one thing hasn't changed. He still cooks for his wife.
Bloch may have been before his time, but today he joins the growing cadre of fathers who cook, dads who are moms. Assuming the traditional woman's responsibility for the family kitchen, these men are feeling the satisfaction in feeding a hungry household and the despair of dealing with dirty pots.
Cooking "is one of the areas that men feel most comfortable in, where there are the fewest barriers. They can think of themselves as a chef -- an acceptable manly role," says Dan Logan, executive director of Free Men, a nonprofit group formed to increase public awareness of new options for men.
Fathers who cook are gaining a new perspective. Before assuming partial responsibility for feeding his two daughters after his divorce, Arlington County social worker Bruce Lugn says he only "intellectually" admired mothers for the time they expended in the kitchen. Only through firsthand experience, though, said Lugn, did he truly realize "it's a lot of work." If "you get waited on a lot, you look at the world differently," he said.
Fathers who cook are getting feedback from their children. "I feel very important to them," says Colbert King, senior vice president in the international division at Riggs National Bank, who took over the job as the family cook when his wife started a job outside the home.
Fathers who cook are setting new role models. "At some point, he'll know it's perfectly all right for a man to do things in the kitchen," says free-lance writer and part-time family cook Jeff Cohn, of his 10-year-old son. As living proof, Bloch's son Robert is the cook in his household. And, David Allison, father of two, says, "My kids don't necessarily look to mommy for something to eat."
Fathers who cook are switching roles even outside the kitchen. When he goes to cocktail parties, says King, he ends up exchanging recipes with the women. His wife talks business with the men.
The reasons fathers become the family chef are as varied as their favorite cigar. In Bloch's case, it was simply because his wife hates to cook. He won't even let her go to the supermarket for him. The kitchen became his room, his therapy.
For other men, the jump to family cook or part-time cook is a solution to a busy household of two working parents. Cohn, the free-lance writer, works at home and so frequently gets dinner started for his two children and wife before she returns from her job at the Environmental Protection Agency. Allison, the historian at Navy Laboratories, comes home early three days a week to cook dinner while his wife teaches an art class.
Another segment contributing to the phenomenon is the single parent household, this one with the father at the helm. Although there are literally millions more women who are single parents (and the head of a household with children under 18), the percentage of men assuming the role went up 33 percent from 1980 to 1984, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; for women the jump within that period was 11 percent. Like their female counterparts, these men -- divorced, separated or widowed -- are faced with juggling full-time jobs with shopping, cooking and cleaning.
"It was excruciating at the beginning," says Patrick Gilbo, public inquiry coordinator of the American Red Cross' national headquarters, who was recently put in charge of feeding his two teen-age children and their three part-time live-in friends. He just didn't have the skills, Gilbo said, and he would spend the entire evening with shopping, cooking and garbage detail only to find out that the household was never ready to eat when he was.
One of the more difficult adjustments that newly single men have to make in the kitchen, says Dena Jansen, executive vice president of chapter 60 of Parents Without Partners, is planning ahead. In fact, to help men along with the transition, the local chapter once sponsored a cooking class that covered shopping habits and emergency cooking. Unfortunately for the organization, the man who taught the class has since become a caterer and has gotten remarried.
To help coordinate his time, Gilbo bought a crockpot, preparing stews the night before. Then he found out about stir frying. Then he learned that it was impossible for everyone to sit down at the table together, so he abandoned meals en masse altogether.
Sometimes he'll make a dish that someone will finish later on in the evening, but basically "everyone is on his own," according to Gilbo's 19-year-old daughter Heather. It's a complete "360-degree turn" from when the family used to eat "supper at six and the four basic food groups," she says, but this arrangement "really works out."
Jim Fay, a music professor at Northern Virginia Community College, who has been cooking for his 14 1/2-year-old daughter for about a year-and-a-half, handled his new role with a set schedule. He splits the week -- his daughter cooks dinner about half the time and he takes over on the remaining nights. Fay says his culinary abilities have thus far gone from Stage 1 (pizza, spaghetti and hot dogs) to Stage 2 (pizza, spaghetti and no hot dogs).
Paul Foldes, a local commercial real estate broker and developer who takes care of his 7-year-old son Michael on alternate weeks, manages the eating schedule by involving his son in the procedure as well. The two go shopping together, and sometimes jointly prepare Foldes' mother's layered noodles or potatoes. Foldes says he doesn't pretend to be a superb cook, and often relies on the local Chinese restaurant for dinner for the two of them.
In fact the way that many men -- whatever their family situation -- deal with dinner preparation is to stick with simple fare. Roast chicken, chili, pizza, spaghetti and stir fries are popular quick dishes that are repeated on many tables. Eating in restaurants, often fast food, is a frequent practice, too.
And fathers who have their kids just for the weekends, says Jansen of Parents Without Partners, "still panic." For them, says Jansen, barbecues are often the answer.
For other men, cooking is a devoted interest. When he has the time, Allison, who used to be a chef at a Denver resort, makes homemade yogurt and bread. His dinners always include fresh foods, often from his back yard garden, and he makes his own curry powder for the frequent curry dishes he prepares.
Larry Levy, a local CPA who takes classes at L'Academie de Cuisine, tries his newly learned dishes out on his children. King makes his own rolls and french bread. And Bloch, who no longer has his two children to feed, is nurturing friends and colleagues -- making buffets for 50, sit-down dinners for six or brunch for 14.
But the real question is, what will these cooking fathers eat today, on Father's Day? For Gilbo, the kids say they'll "probably clean up the kitchen, maybe make him oriental vegetables." For Foldes, who is spending the day with his son at his beach house, it'll probably be crabs caught on the Bay. As for Bloch, says his son, "he'd prefer to cook dinner himself."
Here are some recipes from fathers who cook, plus a special tribute for fathers -- like my own -- who don't: RON BLOCH'S ROAST BRISKET WITH GARLIC MATZO BALLS (8 servings)
5-pound beef brisket
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms, halved or quartered
5 stalks celery, halved 4 large onions, quartered
3 large carrots, peeled and halved
3 or 4 large cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 teaspoons fresh
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon or 1 teaspoon fresh
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 1 teaspoon fresh
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
FOR THE MATZO BALLS:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt or less to taste
2 or more large cloves garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
1/4 cup rendered chicken fat or vegetable oil
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 cup water or chicken stock
Place brisket in a large roasting pan and surround with mushrooms, celery, onions and carrots. Sprinkle seasonings on top of meat. Pour wine over meat, cover and cook at 350 degrees for 2 hours or until meat is just tender (the meat will be reheated the next day). Remove meat from the pan. Scrape off all visible fat from meat, making sure to do this when the meat is hot. Refrigerate overnight.
Strain the gravy, reserving the liquid in one container and the vegetables and spices in another. Refrigerate both containers overnight.
The next day, defat the gravy. Slice the meat and return it to the roasting pan with the defatted gravy, the vegetables and spices.
Begin matzo balls about 45 minutes before you reheat the brisket. To make matzo balls, combine matzo meal, salt, garlic and parsley. Mix fat and eggs together. Combine matzo meal mixture with eggs and fat. When well blended, add water or chicken stock and mix. Cover bowl and place in refrigerator for 20 minutes.
Remove matzo mixture from refrigerator and form into about 15 golf-sized balls. Fill a large pot about 2/3 full of water. Bring water to a brisk boil. Reduce heat and drop balls into slightly bubbling water. Cover and cook about 25 minutes.
Transfer the cooked matzo balls to the roasting pan with the brisket. Reheat in a 300-degree oven for 30 minutes. DAVID ALLISON'S ZUCCHINI CREAM SOUP (4 servings)
5 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
8 mushrooms, sliced
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 1/2 cups milk or more
2 tablespoons flour
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
White pepper to taste
Salt to taste
In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons butter. Saute' the chopped onions, parsley, mushrooms and zucchini until tender. Pure'e the vegetables with 1/2 cup milk in a blender or food processor and set aside.
Over low heat, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in the skillet. Add the flour and stir until combined with butter. Add the remaining 1 cup of milk and blend with a whisk to remove lumps. Cook until roux thickens. Stir in the vegetable pure'e, adding additional milk, if necessary, to reach desired consistency. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, white pepper and salt and serve. PAUL FOLDES' LAYERED NOODLE PIE (4 servings)
1 pound medium egg noodles
1/2 cup ground walnuts
1 1/2 cups sugar
16 ounces apricot preserves
Boil noodles and drain. Cover the bottom of a 2 1/2-quart casserole dish with one quarter of the noodles. Combine walnuts and sugar and sprinkle a generous layer of the mixture over the noodles. Top with another layer of noodles, then a layer of the preserves, then noodles, then the walnuts and sugar, then noodles and end with a layer of the preserves. Cook at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Serve at room temperature or warm, cut into pie-shaped wedges. BOB SUGARMAN'S UTCHKI PUTCHKI (4 servings)
2 tablespoons butter or more if necessary
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons green pepper, minced
2 small potatoes, cooked and cut into 1/4-inch slices
6 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup chopped green olives, pimentos included
1/4 cup diced cheese (such as cheddar or swiss)
Any other leftovers that go with eggs such as ham, salami or tomatoes (optional)
Smoked kippers and bagels for serving
Melt butter in a large skillet. Add onion, green pepper and potatoes and saute' until potatoes are lightly browned, adding more butter if necessary. Combine eggs with olives, cheese and any other leftovers and pour into skillet with potato mixture. Cook, scrambling until set. Serve with smoked kippers and bagels.