Man with a Pan: Fatherhood and Cooking Q&A with John Donohue

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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; it’s 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 the (mostly) non-food blog DadWagon. He was also kind enough to share, below the interview, five tips for dads who cook and a surefire puttanesca recipe.

Q: One thing that really stands out in Stay at Stove Dad is how much you are trying to have a rich home life outside of work. 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 [ed. note: Donohue refers to his wife only as Santa Maria on the blog; his daughters go by the noms de guerre Pinta and Nina]. Whose story is this anyway, and isn’t it just a story? (More on Should You Put Your Kids’ Pictures on the Internet?)

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. (More on Roger Ebert Talks with DadWagon about One-Pot Cooking)

Q: So you’re an auto-didact? 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.

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