When I was a kid, I always wondered what the “someone” was doing in that kitchen with Dinah. (Aside, that is, from singing “fee, fi, fiddly-i-o”). When I was really young, I imagined that Dinah was my grandparents’ dog, Dinah, who bit my hand and necessitated a series of rabies shots. When I was older, I assumed it was Dinah’s boyfriend, who I somehow confused with the guy who was “working on the railroad, all the livelong day” and clearly had no business strumming on his old banjo for Dinah in her kitchen as she tried to peel potatoes.
In my present state of evolution, I have an entirely different take on Dinah’s situation: Dinah is trying to cook, she has a relatively modest kitchen, in which “someone” has parked himself with a banjo and professed his desire to help her with dinner preparations. “Someone” is her brother in law, her next door neighbor, or her visiting college friend. He has, he tells her “done a lot of cooking.” He has a great suggestion about a better way to clean the mushrooms, or an idea about cheese that will melt better than the one she chose. He wants to tell her a long, rambling story about office politics or play her the new Keith Urban CD. She wants him to get the hell out of her kitchen so that she can cook in peace, dream a little, listen to her own music, or invent something without any voice other than that of her own inner chef. She wants him, and his damned banjo in the living room with everyone else, eating chips and guacamole.
As you may have gathered, I am a solitary cook by preference (although there are exceptions). I am self-taught, and did not grow up in one of those big families where all of the women-folk slice and dice and shell peas together. My grandmothers both cooked solo in their own kitchens, and while my mother (and father) were willing to teach me in the kitchen, they didn’t cook together or with children most of the time. I never lived in a co-op or worked in a restaurant kitchen where sharing and cooperating are required.
I like my stuff where it is, and I like to be in charge. If I cut up my onions and garlic and put them in little bowls ready to take the dive into hot olive oil, I want them left there. When I’m happy, I like to listen to the music of my choice cranked up to “stun,” and to dance, unobserved, as I improvise. When I’m sad, I prefer to work in silence, using the methodical chopping and stirring as a form of therapy. In the end, I like a certain veil of mysticism between my work in the kitchen and the fait accompli of a well-sauced pork chop in the dining room.
I didn’t know I was a solitary cook until alien interlopers interfered with my culinary mojo. I recall cooking in the highly dysfunctional kitchen of a long-ago ex, with his visiting mother. We made potato salad “together,” a process which started with me boiling potatoes, because I like potato salad with potatoes, scallions, red pepper, mayonnaise and mustard. The next step involved Ma Ex fishing every potato out of the water, cutting it smaller and putting it back into the water. She then added eggs to the boiling water so that they could be included in the salad. She was a fierce little person, and I cowered in submissive terror, eventually completely paralyzed to the point where I allowed her to add not only the eggs, but pickle relish and Miracle Whip.
My friend Healthy Jeff is also banned from my kitchen because, although he is as dear to me as a brother, he is a person who “eats to live” and does not “live to eat,” resulting in an unfortunate predilection for odd 5-grain mushes and mixes of organic juices and whey powder. He likes his pasta whole wheat, his sautees prepared with Pam, and no unnecessary seasonings. Cooking in his presence I feel like Paula Deen laughing vivaciously while building hardened arteries into every serving. When he is in my kitchen, I find myself trying to cook in a way that he will respect and admire (as if I regularly cooked with soy butter and textured vegetable protein), despite the fact that I personally have no desire to eat utilitarian meals that provide essential nutrients but deliver no pleasure in the cooking or the eating.
I also, alas, am unable to cook with my mother. We are very close, but it has become apparent over the years that neither of our kitchens is big enough for the two of us. I make a suggestion and she replies that she “has been cooking since before I was born.” She makes a suggestion and I indicate with some acerbity that I have “read, like 20 recipes for this already, and I am sure this is how I want to make it.” While she is very gracious about allowing me to prepare meals in her kitchen, she does not join me, and we have learned that even a casual remark from the doorway (“you aren’t going to chop those?”) can lead to emotional mayhem.
I do have a friend I can cook with, and this I cherish. Because he is a sensitive person (and accepts my truly astonishing levels of neuroses and need to control everything), when he is in my kitchen it is understood that I am the chef and he is the sous chef. The very fact that he clearly “gets” this lets me relax enough to allow him to take the lead when he is inspired. When he is inspired, its good, and we all eat well. He is orderly, he respects certain culinary orthodoxies that are dear to my heart, and he is vocal in his appreciation of my splendid chef’s knife, well-stocked pantry and functional storage system. He would never put Miracle Whip in the potato salad, judge me if I burnt the garlic, or look askance at a tablespoon of butter.
Maybe Dinah was really down with having someone hanging around in the kitchen with his banjo. Maybe she was lonely and needed company, maybe the banjo guy was the love of her life and she didn’t want him out of her sight, or maybe she was just in a good mood, dancing a little from sink to stove to refrigerator with a glass of wine in her hand and a smile on her lips. Maybe Dinah was a better person than I am, which isn’t actually all that difficult.
But maybe, just maybe, he was driving her nuts.