OM260 - They Joy of Cooking

This week, Ken and John talk about:

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Ken’s approach to cooking, being bad at multitasking (OM260)

When Ken was single he did cook his own meals, but he wasn’t that great a cook. He would cook spaghetti, fried rice, grilled chicken, and few other things, but he also ate a lot of frozen pizza, mac & cheese and drive-through Taco Bell. If they would have girls over to the apartment to watch a baseball game he had a few things he could make. He does feel pretty confident about following a recipe, but now he is married to a pretty accomplished chef who likes to cook.

Ken gets easily overwhelmed while cooking and he is not very efficient. He is terrible at multitasking in general and there seems to be some evidence that men are worse at multitasking because they are more easily emotionally frayed by the knowledge that they are going to have to keep doing one thing and do a second thing. We are not civilization builders, but we are just out there trying to spear a buffalo single-mindedly. We are supposed to be doing one job and evolution made sure that somebody could keep the village together.

You can see that with little girls and little boys on the playground: Little girls are sitting in conference with one another, dealing with the many thousands of things that are happening in the school, while the little boys are just banging their heads against a pole to see who can break their nose first. Ken doesn’t want to say that this is all evolutionary and biological because as a culture it has really benefited men for centuries to offload all that stuff to women. We can argue nature vs nurture.

Ken gets very easily stressed out while cooking, but he watches Mindy juggle her 20 dish parties and he wonders how she even does this! Cooking is just following instructions on one level, but as you ramp it up it becomes a military operation and Ken is not good at that. Things have to come out at the same time or at different times, depending on what you need, you have to have a sense in your head whether you are behind or ahead on certain things, and which tasks and space you have to be prioritizing.

Ken’s wife’s German-themed Christmas party (OM260)

Just because Ken's wife likes to cook doesn’t mean she wants to make dinner every day for three people, two of which are Ken’s ungrateful teens. They often have dinner parties in buffet style and then she presents a proliferation of food like she was some depression-era grandma who has food scarcity issues from being a child. She likes to make stuff and rather wants to make too much than too little. Ken’s grandma used to say that if at the end of the family dinner you can tell that people have been eating, then you didn’t have enough food. She essentially wanted the Hilbert Hotel of leftovers. If they have a big Christmas party or a summer barbecue with a lot of people coming over Mindy might put out 20 different kinds of food.

Last year John was invited to a German themed Christmas Christmas party at Ken's house that had wonderful German food that involved a lot of thinking in addition to cooking. She wanted to do an early December Christmas party before things got crazy and that turned out to be St. Heinrich’s day and she did Central European dishes like Sauerbraten and German baked goods. Everybody also got a little thing in their shoes because that is what they do in Germany. John got some Kohl and some dead mouse in his shoes.

John working as a short-order cook in the 1990s (OM260)

In the early 1990s John worked as a short order cook. It was not a job that he sought, but he was working in a Rock club and the cook at the time was a gal his age who was living a very Punk-Rock life. She was in a band called Mach Turtle, but it wasn’t spelled like the Mock Turtle shirt, and they were extremely hard Punk. She and the guitar player were in a relationship and they were on drugs that became more and more of a problem until she eventually was no longer able to cook at the bar.

At that a time a Rock club didn’t just put an ad in the newspaper for a cook, but they went around the club, asking everybody if they wanted to be the cook. John was just standing around in a job as a security guy or a bus boy, and when they asked him he agreed to be the cook and the gal spent one day teaching him how to cook. On his first day as the official cook the sound man ordered the first meal from him which was a grilled cheese sandwich and John didn’t understand the difference between the griddle and the grill. Half of the cooking surface was for hamburgers and half of it was for pancakes and things like that.

John ended up making a grilled cheese sandwich on the hamburger grill and it came out grey and very greasy because it had absorbed all the hamburger grease. John plated it and served it and the owner of the bar came in storming: ”You have no idea how to cook! You said you were a cook!” - ”I never said I was a cook! I just inherited this job!” Eventually John grew into this job where you sometimes get 20 orders all at once.

It is like a military operation: You are not learning skilled cooking skills, you are not Julie Anning (?) things, but you are just doing the part that freaks Ken out: You are doing eggs over here, chop salad over here, you got fries and burgers, microwaves are cooking and things are on the burner. It was really hard, but eventually John grew to love the work because there is never a dull moment when it is a busy kitchen.

It wasn’t good food and John was a terrible cook, but everybody was super-drunk on Jägermeister and didn’t care. John got to the point where he decided he wouldn’t make 15 different kinds of eggs at the end of the night and that eventually turned into him just making a giant bucket of scrambled eggs and a bucket of hash brown potatoes and you could get a plate of it for $0.50. Forget that at 1am he was going to make you over-easy eggs because you are going to pass out over them anyway. It was pretty great!

John’s eating habits (OM260)

In the normal course of his life John eats 5 out of 7 meals in restaurants. When he was growing up his mom made home-cooked meals for him and his sister. Ken’s mom did that too although she was working, but she still thought she had to make three meals a day. John’s mom was working 10 hours a day and when she came home she made a traditional mid-century dinner of Salisbury Steak, green beans, and apple sauce, not in the TV dinner trait, but it was basically the same food.

Over time she developed a resentment about the fact that John and his sister did not really appreciate how much work it was when they turned up their nose at the Jello Salad. Then John’s sister decided she didn’t eat meat and John decided he didn’t eat vegetables and one day she threw her napkin down on the table and said: ”I am not cooking anymore! You kids fend for yourselves!” and from that point on around the time when John was a sophomore in High School they had to make their own dinner, so John started to eat TV-dinners and stuff, but his mom didn’t care and she said she was never going to make him another meal. Gradually John started to expand his repertoire a little bit.

The time when fast food as a treat (OM260)

Ken never ate out when he was a kid and it was a big treat just to get fast food when they were in the States in the summer and to have McNuggets at a play-place. People today can’t conceive of a time when fast food was considered a luxury and something cool: ”We are going to Taco Bell tonight! Get your good clothes on!” Ken’s kids have a real snob-appeal problem and they dislike fast food on classist grounds. There are anti-corporate reasons to support small businesses instead of going to KFC, but by contemporary standards it is also poor-people food.

Ken’s son is backing off of it a little and is really into the new Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A is bad politically, but they are right next to his High School and although Ken keeps telling him he is a bad ally the spicy chicken sandwich is so good! John finds that Wendy’s has a great chicken sandwich. Ken likes McDonalds chicken nuggets. He is pretty basic and he doesn’t mind gross chemical fast food, even though he also likes good food.

There was a chain called Rax. Ken saw it for the first time last week in a gag in some TV show about restaurants that are gone and then there was somebody who complained on the Internet that they were wrong and there is still one Rax. Over the years fast food companies started advertising that they have fresh ingredients and that they actually are not just pink slime and salt. McDonalds had the McDLT, but Rax was supposed to be a cut above. They had burgers and sandwiches, but they also had a nice salad bar at a time when salad bars were a new innovation.

You had to go to a nice place like Sizzler if you wanted a salad bar. John’s daughter and her mother love Sizzler, but John can’t believe it and has developed a class-problem with Sizzler. Americans are not getting more affluent, but we have decided to prioritize food and we are not going to go to Sizzler. If Ken needs cheap eats he will go to a Pho place and there are other good options, plus he will pay a little more if it means not going to Sizzler. But when he was a kid, those were the fancy places.

A lot of fast food restaurants were products of the McDonalds era of the burger shack that made simple food like hamburgers, hot dogs and milk shakes that were available instantaneously and you didn’t have to do any work. It was an efficiency thing and America loved that at the time: "Look how fast we can churn out our standardized products!"

John was the first generation to see any kind of ethnic food beyond pizza and in some cases there were not even tacos. Taco Bell was a real innovation! If you weren’t living in a place with a large Mexican-American population you could have missed Mexican food entirely. Teriyaki restaurants were an 1980s invention.

When Ken was a kid there were 10 foods and all they ate was the same 10 foods, even at the grocery store there were only 10 different vegetables. In the 1960s John's mom and dad ate a form of steak, pork chop, or roast chicken for every meal. There was no other food! This is the source of the cliché of how you are hungry again in an hour after you ate at a Chinese restaurant because it was the first time people didn't eat a big slab of steak or pork, but you would eat a plate of vegetables which had not occurred to Americans before. How could that possibly fill you up or even be nutritious? How is that a meal?

Ken being on a conservative game show (OM260)

Right now Ken is on a game show called Masterminds on the Game Show Network and they really leaned into who is watching those shows, which is often older households, specifically older women in the Midwest and South, the part of the country that the coast thinks of as fly-over America. Those are the people who are still watching soaps and politically it is quite red.

The cannon of trivia on this show was really designed for them with hardly any pop culture, so it didn’t matter whether you have seen a Marvel movie or know who Cardi B is, but you need to know a lot of lifestyle questions like what is in a Fricassee, what is a Ramekin, and what are these different embroidery stitches and stuff related to your checking account, credit rating or mortgage payment.

It is domestic science that is clearly designed so that women don’t watch this show and think: Cardi B? The Civil War? The idea that knowledge would be gendered is something we should have moved beyond, but clearly they have demographic data showing them that people want to get asked about the knowledge in their lives and there is still a gender gap in 2020.

Ken taking home economics class (OM260)

Ken did take a home economics class in school and he got a C+, which was his worst ever grade. He loved the cooking part, but he never took to the sowing machines. His popovers were good and he liked all the kitchen stuff. They made easy stuff like pudding, but not from a mix, or some easy-baked goods. In theory they should be teaching you cooking principles, but this is something you see cook books doing today: Some will privilege a set of recipes, others will privilege a holistic view of what food is.

Home Economics was a way of changing the name of domestic science into one that tried to eradicate the stigma of having a gender bias. By the time John was in High School boys were expected to take Home Economics, but it is just like any other name for a community or identity: Once it gets associated with the thing it becomes sullied again and Home Economics became girl’s stuff again. "Mentally retarded" used to be the scientific way of saying whatever the previous word was, we used to say "imbecile" or "moron" as scientific terms, but once the new term gets associated with the stigma, then all bets are off and you have to make a new thing yet again.

Home Economics is now sometimes called family and consumer science and there is less of a stigma about it. It fell out of a fashion for a while as a set of classes. Cooking shows have done more than any educational initiative to get rid of the idea that cooking is women’s work, but it has also created some weird thing where all the world’s greatest chefs are men. Ken’s kids are both interested in cooking and it is not on gender lines.

John’s personal recipes are all based on a seed food (OM260)

All of John’s special recipes are based around using a canned food as a seed food and then improving it by adding other things. He always starts his own chili with a can of chili and then adds beans, hamburger, and other vegetables, which means that even if all else goes wrong he will still have some chili flavor somewhere in there. He will also take Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and make an unrecognizable and much better version of Macaroni and Cheese, but it always starts with a seed box.

Ken getting chocolate cake for his birthday (OM260)

When Ken got married his mom gave him a word-processed book of old family recipes that she had compiled herself. A lot of them come with assurances that they are Ken’s favorite thing, but he doesn’t have any memory of half of them. Some of them have continued, though: Every year he gets the same chocolate cake on his birthday that he always had as a little kid because he has the palate of a 4-year old and his kids now love it, too! Ken’s son is not the Ethan Becker (?) of this chocolate cake.

John getting Welsh Rarebit on Christmas morning (OM260)

Every Christmas morning John expects to be served Welsh Rarebit constructed by his mother out of her imagination. She makes it out of biscuits covered with ham and cheese sauce, which is almost like a Benedict, but with no egg, and it is not Hollandaise, but cheese. John doesn’t get it any other time of the year but Christmas morning. He has never learned to make it himself and it is a thing that bonds him and his mother and it requires that they invite her to Christmas every year. Seasonality and limited availability is key for food, it is the McRib principle or the Shamrock Shake.


Ken’s books sell about 50.000 copies, which makes them largely successful books.

John was in Estonia last year and ate in a restaurant that was modeled on 13th century wild game food and everything on the menu was under the premise of 13th century recipes.

When John bought his first house his mom presented her dog-eared copy of Joy of Cooking full of her grandmother’s recipes to him as a passing of the torch: ”Here is your Joy of Cooking, and this is how you make a home!”

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