What's cooking, Dad?

These guys can stand the heat, so they’re in the kitchen

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By Marialisa Calta

Author's Note: A few years ago, when I was researching a book on family meals, I confess I found very few men who cooked. Yes, there were men in the kitchen — usually on cleanup duty, or sometimes flipping pancakes for a weekend breakfast. I also found dads in the supermarket, doing the weekly shopping. But the number of men I met who planned and executed regular weeknight meals was — and I admit that my survey was highly subjective, unscientific, and statistically unsound — a big fat zero. Thus, when Catholic Digest asked me to celebrate Father’s Day with a “Men Who Cook” column, I was skeptical. I called several Catholic schools; the secretaries (all women) laughed at me. “Wouldn’t it be nice?” one asked rhetorically. I called Catholic Scouts (aren’t there merit badges in cooking?) and the Knights of Columbus headquarters. Again, laughter. I contacted parenting organizations and cooking schools. Nada.

In the end, through word-of-mouth, Internet postings, and cold-calling, I found three guys, and I thank them profusely for their time. But in my heart of hearts, I know there are many more of you out there. Perhaps you are just too busy shopping and chopping to pause for applause. And maybe those of you who aren’t cooking will be inspired to try. After all, you’re guys! You can stand the heat!

If you’re used to hearing “Mom, what’s for dinner?” know that, in some households, the operative phrase is, “What’s cooking, Dad?” That’s what the three Cameron kids — 5-year-old Grace, 11-year-old Alex, and 13-year-old Emily — might ask when they come home from St. Anthony of Padua School in Fresno, California.

Their dad, Maurice Cameron, 42, is the primary cook in the household. It’s not that their mom, Cindy, doesn’t cook, it’s just that Maurice has gradually assumed much of the responsibility. For one thing, he likes it. For another, he’s good at it.

Maurice started cooking, he says, in 1998, when he and Cindy were selling a house. “I realized that we had lived in that house for eight years, and had hardly ever had anyone over for dinner,” he said. “And before we sold it, I wanted to make up for that.” That entire summer he cooked — mostly at the backyard grill — for loads of family and friends. The habit stuck: On a recent Sunday, he had cooked up two racks of lamb, prime rib, a small mountain of chicken breasts, paella, and salad for 13. “We had left overs for Monday night,” he said. “On Tuesday, I had to cook again.”

It wasn’t until she was pregnant with their youngest, says Cindy, that her husband really started cooking weeknight meals. “There I was, planted on the couch and excited about having a baby, but not exactly excited about actually being pregnant, if you know what I mean,” Cindy says, “and he just started gradually doing more and more.”

Learning to cook was “trial and error,” says Maurice. He began planning dinners, doing the grocery shopping for the nights he cooked, and even took over a spice shelf of his own. “I used a little label machine to make a label that says ‘Dad’s Shelf Only.’”

To Maurice, cooking is a way to have good, wholesome food and enjoy the family. “If you go to a restaurant — especially on a weekend — you usually have to wait, which is hard with kids,” he says. “The food choices are not always the healthiest. Let’s not even talk about the cost. It can be a negative experience.” He often invites his mother, sisters, and their families for weekend feasts.

When he’s not cooking big dinners, Maurice relies on some standbys: chicken kebobs in a Greekstyle marinade (“I make those at least once a week”), salmon, and — when he can get away with it — lamb. (“My kids will eat lamb, as long as I don’t tell them what it is.”)

He finds there is more to cooking than just producing dinner. “When I barbecue, I definitely feel like there is more bonding time. I let my son help me on the grill,” he says. “My smallest daughter also likes to be out on the patio when I’m barbecuing, so it gives us some fun dad/daughter time.” He says his older daughter is leaning toward vegetarianism, “so she doesn’t hang around the grill too much.”

And it’s the dinner itself that provides time to talk about important issues, including their faith. “We talk about our faith at the dinner table,” he says. “The family dinner ... provides an opportunity for us to spend time together as a family.”

Cindy, a stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher, also cooks, engineering most of the big holiday meals and doing most of the baking.

“You know, he seems to really enjoy it, so I’m not going to get in the way,” she says. “I do the cleanup. It’s only fair.”

When Peter Wright’s newborn daughter Sarah is baptized at Ignatius Loyola Parish Church in Toronto this month, he will make the food for the 20 guests he and his wife are inviting over for a party. But cooking for 20 is a snap for Peter, who is, in a sense, a “professional” cooking dad — the author of Cook Like a Mother, Clean Like a Pro — and a man who routinely cooks for dozens of people at workshops and seminars.

Divorced when his older children — two boys, now ages 16 and 18 — were young, Peter decided that when they stayed at his house “they should walk in and find it smelling comforting, like a home-cooked meal.” He taught himself basic food safety procedures and simple recipes, eventually expanding his repertoire. His boys have complimented him on the results. Peter likes foods that give “the highest yield, with the least amount of
advance thought,” he says. Roast chicken with vegetables is one. Pasta and stir-fries are easy and healthy meals that beginners can create with great results.

As founder of the Guerilla Gourmet Corp., a company that specializes in theme-driven cooking demonstration and sampling programs, Peter has taught cooking classes to — among other groups — new parents, teenage fathers, sportsmen, and older folks who need to learn to cook for themselves.

He says that some men don’t try to cook because their wives criticize them for doing it “wrong” (i.e., not the way she does it). This, he predicts, will change as more women are raised in families in which the division of domestic duties is more even.

“A 20-year-old woman is the new 45-year-old man, meaning, they’re both likely to be domestically clueless,” he says. Careers, not domestic duties, have been the driving force for a generation of women.

His wife, Lorraine, he says, is a case in point. “Her mother is a terrific cook, and as such, did all the cooking; Lorraine helped, but was not the lead,” he says. “I think she was attracted to me because I promised to do the majority of the cooking,” he said, explaining that he was “half-joking.” She, in turn, does most of the cleaning.

Nine-year-old Josh Carbo knows that when he comes home for supper from the third grade in St. Michael’s School in Montpelier, Vermont, he’s just as likely to find his dad in the kitchen as his mom.

“We both work, and we just pitch in to do what has to be done,” says Neil, 41, a self-employed carpenter. “It’s as simple as that.”

The family — Neil, his wife, Tammy, and Josh — recently moved back to their native Vermont from the Southwest, and Neil finds he misses the Mexican influences on the food they enjoyed while there. So dinner might mean roasting chilies and making flour tortillas. “Josh really loves those tortillas,” he says. Neil is known for his cherry pie — in demand on the holidays — and takes his cooking seriously. “We put together fairly substantial meals every night,” he says. Favorites include pasta with shrimp and vegetables, buffalo burgers, stir-fries, and a dish the couple created from several recipes, “Chicken Artichoke Sauté” (click here for the recipe). He consults Mexican cookbooks, old standards, and Cooking Light magazine. “We try to eat healthy,” he says.

When Josh is not at school, at karate class with his mom, or playing baseball, he can sometimes be found in the kitchen with his dad, searching for the 3/4-cup measure or chopping ingredients. “There’s a lot of teaching involved,” says Neil. “It can be fun.”

Neil also does most of the shopping, and has upped his culinary contribution to household chores ever since a shoulder injury Tammy sustained a couple of years ago started flaring up. “Look, I just do what I can,” says Neil. “She does more than her fair share.” Tammy, who works full time as a kitchen designer, is appreciative.

“He’s a fabulous cook, a far better cook than I am,” she says. “And he loves to cook, whereas I don’t really care for it that much.

“I’m a lucky woman,” she adds. CD

Marialisa Calta