During the workweek, John Donohue is an editor at the “Goings On About Town” section of the New Yorker. But most weekends—and on the rare weeknight when he has time—you can find him in his kitchen, cooking for his wife and two young daughters. Fatherhood is still a role more associated with breadwinning than bread-baking, so Donohue began to chart his experiences in an excellent blog called Stay at Stove Dad. His upcoming book, Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers who Cook for Their Families, is a further meditation on food and family, featuring essays from notable writers (as well as some average dads) about their experiences in the kitchen. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon; its official release date is May 17 (in plenty of time for Father’s Day, of course).
Donohue took time to talk blogging, stewing, and parenting with us at our (mostly) non-food blog. He was also kind enough to share, below the interview, five tips for dads who cook and a surefire puttanesca recipe.
Q. Thanks for speaking with us. Tell me a little bit about how Stay at Stove Dad started.
A: I started the blog in or around the summer of 2008. I knew I wanted to do a book about men who cook (more on that shortly) and while I was putting together the proposal and waiting to hear from publishers, etc., etc., I started to blog. I kept it very below the radar at first.
Q: Ah, so DadWagon has been putting the cart before the horse all this time: we should have gotten a book deal FIRST, and then blog to back it up?!
A: Correction: I did not have a book deal first. I was working on the proposal and I thought that, maybe, having a blog would help get the proposal to sell. I had heard rumors to this effect, that blogs beget books, but mostly I just wanted to start writing about cooking and I didn’t want to have to wait on traditional publishing to get the words out.
rumors, btw=irony and joke.
Q: Understood. I’m a little surprised that your blog started along with a book proposal. I’ve seen book-blogs: they are usually horrible, thin little things. But there’s a ton of meat to your Stay at Stove Dad, literally, and it’s obviously a labor of love. Did you just get carried away?
A: Thanks. I’m glad you like what’s on the site. I’ve worked in traditional publishing for a long time, and I found the blog to be a very liberating experience. I liked the freedom to make mistakes and correct them instantly, and to play around with things and to see them get published immediately. I kept it low key for the first year or two so I could enjoy doing it. I guess what I’m doing is working, because I’ve developed an audience, and that brings a whole new level of enjoyment. Of course traditional publishing has the benefit of paying, but the way things are going in the industry, who knows what will happen.
Q: Indeed. Some of us have seen the pointy end of the old publishing business in the past few weeks (as in, layoffs, misery and despair) [Read more about Theodore’s firing from Harpers Magazine]. However! Blogging is good fun. Did you start anonymously? I notice your family members still go by explorer-pseudonyms—Santa Maria for your wife, Nina and Pinta for your daughters.
A: Yes, I saw your co-founder’s travails with Harper’s. I started anonymously because I did want to make sure I distanced myself from my employer, and I didn’t want the blog to be riding on that publication’s reputation. Blogging to me is a bit like being at a cocktail party—short immediate conversations/entries, and whenever I’m at a party and people find out where I work, they want to talk about the magazine. I understand that it. I’m as interested in it as they are. More so, because I work here, but I didn’t want the blog to get caught up in that dynamic. I ruined my Facebook experience because I foolishly threw my whole work address book into it and now anyone searching for my work address is sending me so many work related things that I can’t use it for myself. I need to go in and clean it up, but I don’t have the time.
I also wanted to respect my children’s online identities. we don’t really know what the internet will mean for their generation, and I felt it would be unfair to lay such a claim to their id before they had a chance to do so themselves. I know I differ from many in this regard, but it’s what I wanted for them. Also, I got to put a joke in their names, so that was fun.
Q: Santa Maria is particularly inspired. It’s somehow fitting that you wanted to keep such bright lines between work and the blog. Because one thing that really stands out in your blog is how much you are trying to have a rich home life outside of work. And even in this day and age, it can be hard for fathers to do that.
A: Ha, a rich home life! I guess I do, but it feels so harried that it’s hard to recognize as such. That’s the power of narrative. Also another reason to have pseudonyms. Whose story is this anyway, and isn’t it just a story?
Q: Somewhere else, Santa Maria is blogging furiously about how watery her husband’s soups are because he works too late to start them right.
A: That’s one of the drawbacks of working in publishing, where the hours skew so late. I’m often home only in time to read to the kids and put them to bed, not to eat with them, and rarely to cook for them, on a weeknight.
I work a lot in advance. I make sure there are things I’ve made that they like to eat. I make soups and stews on the weekends, for example. And you should see my freezer. There’s nary an inch of free space in it.
Q: Did your father cook for you?
A: My father did not cook. He didn’t even grill, the traditional domain of the men. I’m the second youngest out of five and I think he used to grill earlier on in my parents’ marriage, but I recall my mother saying that she got tired of waiting for him to get the meal on the table and she eventually took even that task over from him. All he could make was coffee, probably because he couldn’t live without it. I grew up in a very traditional household. My father worked, and my mother ran the house. She never taught me to cook, but I learned a lot from her about healthy food. She never fried anything, and always served fresh vegetables with every meal. I owe my healthy palate to her.
Q: So you’re an autodidact? Are you trying to give your kids more exposure to cooking than you had?
A: Yes, self-taught all the way. I worked in a retail fish market as a teenager and I learned a lot from a few of the other employees, some of whom were down-on-their-luck grads of the CIA and who had lost their restaurants. The oven didn’t work, though, so I learned how to sauté and use a stovetop to its maximum advantage. As for my kids, I didn’t set out to expose them, but it’s happening by default. As a father, I’m sure you know how kids idolize their parents. They seem to want to do anything that I want to do, at least at this age, so they follow me into the kitchen. It used to be harder to cook with them (as my wife said, “cooking with kids is like showering with monkeys”) but they’re getting a bit older now and my five-year old just started using a steak knife to chop green beans. We live in a Brooklyn apartment with a phone-booth-sized galley kitchen. I’ve never child-proofed the place. I just tell them to stay away from the oven when it’s hot and I’ve taught them that the sound of something sizzling on the stovetop means that it is wicked hot. I do turn pot handles in though. I miss my kids when I’m busy in the kitchen, so I’m glad they want to join me there.
Q: What are their palates like? I ask because we’ve been thinking a lot lately about what kids will and won’t eat and why. Is involving them in the kitchen part of getting them to eat more than, say, tater tots?
A: Their palates are their own domains. My thought on what kids eat and why has to do with things other than taste, and maybe we can talk about that too. They love sweet things, of course, but they also have a salty tooth (is there such a thing?). My eldest eats mussels and clams (both cooked) and somehow has a fairly broad palate though she’s adept at saying no to new things. She won’t eat any fruit, though, not even a jam or preserve. My youngest eats all kinds of fruits.
Q: Other than taste? As in, parental behavior? TV advertising? The scourge of “Kids’ Menus”? Pray tell.
A: Oh, I only have my own experience to go on, and what comes to mind for me is this. For all the choices that kid are offered in their little lives, they really have very little autonomy. Basically, they’re told when to go to bed, when to get up, when to go to school, and who to play with (“playdate” is a word made up by grown ups), so, my thought is that at the table, they’re presented with a rare opportunity, the chance to say “no” and to establish their identities. The dynamic is about power. At the table, the child has power to control what goes in his or her mouth, and also, power to get a great reaction out of mom or dad. All eyes end up on the kid who fusses and refuses to eat X or Y. I can’t even get my daughter, the one who eats mussels and other weird things, to even try strawberry jam or orange marmalade. If she tasted it, she would like it. Those things are like candy, which she sensibly adores, but because they are “fruit” she refuses them.
Q: That does make sense. In the age of rectal thermometers, I can see how asserting control over what they put in their mouths would be appealing. So tell me about the book. It’s not autobiographical: you’re editing it, not writing about your families experience per se.
A: No, Man with a Pan is not autobiographical. It is an anthology of essays and recipes by other dads who cook. More men cook now than ever before in our history, and no one has given them a voice. I wanted the book to reflect the broad experience of what it means to be a man who cooks. I started the book partially for selfish reasons. One of the things that’s hard about being the home cook, one of the things that drove legions of women mad, and made mothers resort to canned goods, is coming up with something new to cook night after night after night after night. I thought, hey, how are other guys managing, maybe I can talk to them and learn a few things from the way they cook. I happened to be friends with a lot of dads who also happened to be accomplished writers, so I knew I could get a book out of my own quest to find new recipes, new ways to manage. And the book, I hope, will do that for other men.
The book features recipes and essays by the likes of Mario Batali, Mark Bittman, Mark Kurlansky, Jim Harrison, and Stephen King, but it also includes interviews that I conducted with working dads around the country. I talked with a bond trader in LA, a carpenter in Brooklyn, a Broadway trombonist in NJ, an economist in Manhattan, and a leading cancer researcher in Boston. I wanted to hear their own experiences and get them to share their recipes.
Q: The tools to cope: that’s a powerful offer. Before we finish, can you share a few tips and a favorite recipe—either from the blog or the book—for our readers?
A: Yes, happy to provide. Thanks to you.
Five tips for Dads who Cook, and a Recipe
1) Keep a shopping list handy in the kitchen. One of the fathers I interviewed for Man with a Pan is a former bartender in New Orleans. He borrowed a trick from his old job, and put a clipboard in his kitchen; every few nights he takes inventory and checks off what he needs. He used to run out of orange juice, but not any more.
2) Keep a stocked larder with the following goods, most of which are imperishable and the rest of which tend to last a long time: dried pasta, capers, anchovies, canned peeled plum tomatoes, black olives, and garlic. This way you can make a puttanesca sauce at a moment’s notice. Start the water for the pasta before you make the sauce, and you’ll have dinner on the table by the time the pasta is cooked.
3) Clean as you cook. A messy kitchen is one that’s impossible to think and work in. You are not trying to impress anyone with your cooking, you are just trying to get dinner on the table. And you don’t want to make extra work for your spouse; if she is doing the dishes and you create a mountain of them, it tends to negate the good will you might have created by cooking in the first place.
4) Use your freezer. There are many things you can make in advance in large quantities when you have free time that can be frozen in serving size containers and defrosted on a weeknight. If you start the cooking when you walk in the door, dinner will be ready practically by the time you get your shoes off.
5) Don’t sweat it if your children won’t eat something. Offer them a choice of one or two things (don’t fall into the trap of becoming a short-order cook) and if they don’t want either, let them go hungry. They won’t starve.
Recipe: Puttanesca Sauce
This is one of the oldest recipes in the world, if its association with the world’s oldest profession is to be believed. Reputedly developed by prostitutes, it has the advantage of being quick and, if you stock your larder correctly, almost always easy to make with what’s on hand at home.
1 28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, crushed (or hit with an immersion blender, which is something every home cook should have, and is very fast)
4 or more cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
3 anchovy fillets
1 chili pepper (or a shake of crushed red pepper); optional
1 tablespoon capers
12 or so black olives, pitted and sliced
Herbs such as basil or oregano, to taste; also optional
Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan.
Add the garlic and anchovies and chili pepper. Saute until garlic is soft and the anchovies have dissolved, then add tomatoes and reduce. (Control the spiciness of the sauce by how long you leave the pepper in it—the longer it stays, the hotter it will be).
When the sauce thickens (in about fifteen minutes), add capers and olives and any herbs.
Serve over the pasta of your choice.