Cook what you like, everyone cries: Interview with John Donohue
For a few years, New Yorker editor John Donohue has documented cooking for his family at Stay at Stove Dad, really the only "dad blog" I read, and the only one about successfully tricking your kids into eating kale.
Donohue now has a new book out, Man with a Pan, which features novelists like Stephen King, Sean Wilsey and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman musing about cooking for their families, and sharing recipes. Not a bad idea for a last-minute Fathers Day gift, no matter the skillet level of the dad in question. We called Donohue, father of two, at home to talk blogging, cooking, and dishes that make kids cry.
So I’m a longtime Stay at Stove Dad reader. How did you get started with the blog?
Well, I like to cook for my family, and I had an idea for a book. But publishing moves so slowly, that while I was working on the book—getting it to my agent, getting it out to publishing houses, which was an 18-month-period—I wanted to start writing about cooking for my family immediately, so I started a blog.
Do you think the blog helped you get the book published?
The funny thing is, it’s not a traditional blog-to-book story. The book and the blog existed separately and independently. I enjoy the freedom the blog gives me, to play around with language. You know, I work at the New Yorker, so there’s a premium on being accurate, for example. My blog is accurate, and well-written, I hope, but it’s my own playground to talk about food in a way that I don’t at my day job. The blog has kind of a life of its own. I’d actually like to see more guest posts, and get more of a community of dads on the blog. A curious thing happened in October of last year: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop wrote about it, and I got 10,000 views that day.
That’s the power of the Paltrow.
The first time I read the blog, you wrote about hiding onions in black beans, which has come in handy.
Great, yeah. Do you cook?
I do, but we’re vegan so I don’t read the blog for the recipes, so much as for the stories about parenting and cooking. It’s funny how parenting is maybe the most common experience on earth, and yet being a parent feels like you’re in a secret society.
It is a universal experience, but it is so intense it’s hard to put it into words. Especially the joys of it are so ineffable. You often hear about the hard parts of it, the expense or the exhaustion, people are content to talk about that. It’s so broad an experience, cooking is one way I approach it.
[Here, Donohue takes a moment to get my e-mail address, so he can send me a recipe for dhal, which is easy to veganize].
One of the things that I like about both the blog and the book is that there’s none of the sort of “Mr. Mom high jinks jokes.”
Well, I’m somewhat earnest about the subject. I approached writers who embraced the subject and were very generous with their time and talent. They tend to be very enthusiastic about what they’re doing. There’s a lot of frustration and mistakes built in there. People inside the experiences are self-aware and self-deprecatory, and that’s funny, but you don’t get the Mr. Mom jokes from people who are actually doing it.
The more important thing is that with the both the blog and the book, it’s all about working dads who cook. But these are dads who work, there’s the bond trader, all the authors, the carpenter, the economist. That’s the key thing. It’s not easy, it’s a little bit of a logistical struggle sometimes. But with a little effort it can be managed.
What we’ve had happen over the last generation is that as both members of a couple work, nobody’s really manning the kitchen. And I would like to see people back to cooking, have the opportunity to cook and connect with their food and connect with their family in this way that’s not immediately apparent.
One of my favorite essays in the book is Mark Bittman’s. Like him, I started cooking as a way to be productive for the family.
Right, that’s a very good point. It’s very clear how women’s roles have changed over the last generation, as they work more. But for men, that effects a change in us that we don’t necessarily see. Cooking is one way to adapt to that and contribute to the family and feel like you’re doing something. Talk about putting food on the table. You’re literally putting food on the table, being man of the house in a new way.
Did your dad ever cook?
No, my dad didn’t cook. I grew up in a very traditional household, with four siblings, and mother was stay-at-home mom and ran the house. My father worked; I saw him for dinner and breakfast, and the only cooking he could do was running the Mr. Coffee machine. I actually saw my sister last night and she was marveling about how, my mom was making food for seven people night after night after night after night. That’s really an accomplishment.
That sounds so daunting.
Totally. How do you do that? And that’s one of the challenges of being home cook, you get into ruts, you get your repertoire down, you get these two or three dishes and you cook them because they’re easy, and then you realize you’re eating the same thing over and over again. That was part of my motivation for doing the book. How are other guys doing this? Can I get some of their recipes? That’s one of my favorite parts of the book is the list of cookbooks that the writers like. So you can read about their experiences, and then you can see what books they like. It’s a real gateway to a greater experience.
Another of my favorite essays in the book is Sean Wilsey’s, where he has this mantra "Always Be Cleaning," and he sort of brags about how he can cook and clean at the same time, and never has a messy kitchen. But then when he sits down to write the essay, he realizes he doesn’t do that at all now that he has kids.
It sounds idiotic to say it, but things really do change when you become a parent. But it’s never apparent until a moment like that. You say, “Oh yeah, I can cook and clean at the same time,” and then you look at it and you have 30 things to wash.
I think the one bit of advice I read on your blog that really helped me with my cooking is to put a pot of water on the stove as soon as you get home.
Right, that’s always a good idea.
What is your number-one tip for a working dad just starting to cook?
Make what you like to eat. Make something you’re interested in eating. There’s some really good primers out there, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is great. And don’t be afraid. You can start with something as basic as a roast chicken. Use really good ingredients, and don’t worry about pleasing anyone other than yourself. And when you have good ingredients and a simple process, you really can’t go wrong. It’s surprising how little skill and effort is involved in making something that can really please a whole bunch of people. If you don’t know how to cook, you don’t realize that, you think cooking is some frightening process. Like guacamole, all you do is chop some tomatoes, chop some onion, chop some cilantro and mash an avocado. And if you’re a white-collar office worker, it’s very gratifying to come home and make something with your hands. And it’s instant gratification.
It’s interesting you say "make something you like," because I think what intimidates people is the idea that the kid’s not going to like it.
Yeah, that gets more complicated. But you have to start some place. That certainly affects what I make. When I try to make a new dish and it makes everybody cry, even though it tastes great, but no one wants to eat it , that can be pretty discouraging. And I wonder why I make the effort. But, I like to cook and I like to eat, and I think it’s my job as a parent to expose my children to interesting flavors and food, and cooking at home is a great way to do that.