It got to the point where I couldn’t walk into a bar anymore. You know the kind, the true bastions of testosterone, the ones so thick with blue smoke that the neon beer signs look like UFOs hovering in a patch of midnight fog. It wasn’t moral or religious reasons, lack of money, or even an alcohol problem that prompted me to slink out, emasculated, never to return. It was because I was a phony.
While other guys swapped J.Lo fantasies or nearly came to blows defending their classic El Caminos, all I could think about was a commercial-style Viking stove in white enamel. I stared into the mirror, tawny with nicotine, and dreamed about how perfectly risen my white-chocolate cloud cake would be, thanks to my baffled-heat convection oven.
The slow disenfranchisement of my manhood, as one friend likes to call it, began eight years ago when I took my first cooking class. I walked into the kitchen, and there lined up against the wall were three hulking 48-inch Vikings, gleaming like a row of squat, sweaty sumo wrestlers. I was smitten. Their unqualified size and power thrilled me. Was this what my father felt when he walked with mouth agape through the lawn-mower department at Sears? Surely it was, because my cooking teacher, a saucy wisp of a thing with a yappy Chihuahua voice, had to nudge me out of my reverie, much as I had to poke my father awake to drag him reluctantly to the toy aisle.
Chihuahua Lady and I got off to an unfortunate start because I summarily refused to make the requisite lobster à l’Américaine (I won’t eat anything that can look me the eye. I always think it’s memorizing my face so that it can hunt me down in the afterlife). Miffed, she proceeded to heave a pot of water almost as big as she was on top of stove and then cranked the burner to high. In no time the water was roiling, and she flung in a couple of stricken-looking lobsters. Trying to drown out the imagined screams of these defenseless creatures, I turned my attention to my work: making a sauce for chicken potpie. “Wimp work” was the technical term she used. But while I whisked the roux, I was astounded that the same stove that could murder so violently could simmer so gently. I vowed right then and there, amid the barking of Chihuahua Lady to “Get a move on, big boy,” to buy all 48-inches of one of these steel babies.
My enthusiasm lasted until I got home. The most my postage-stamp-size kitchen could handle was a Mini Me version of the colossi from class. Not to be out maneuvered by Manhattan real estate, I opted instead for the still-manly 30-inch model for my weekend house in Connecticut. That bad boy was big enough to come with bragging rights and delicate enough to turn out flawless tuiles.
Of course, buying this monster would require some creative accounting, because, thanks to a suicidal economy, the money I had set aside for a rainy day had long ago evaporated. Cashing in my paltry IRA was clearly out of the question, so I looked around for something to sell. My eye landed on my 1987 Mercedes, which, I had christened Sadie. My heart sank. That old car had taken me everywhere. And even though the air-conditioning didn’t work, the sunroof was broken, and the passenger seat shuddered when adjusted, I adored her. I stood in the kitchen looking at the catalog, chockablock with shiny Vikings, and then at Sadie. Vikings, Sadie. Vikings, Sadie. After some haggling, I got just enough from the Mercedes dealership to buy the stove.
On V-day I sat at the bottom of my driveway, which is practically a vertical slope worthy of hiking boots, with the phone in one hand and a hazard flag—taken from Sadie’s trunk before I abandoned her—in the other. This would be one time that the delivery truck wouldn’t pass by. Because the telephone wires swag low overhead, the delivery guys, two men as bulky as the stove, had no choice but to leave the truck in the street and push the range up the driveway on a dolly. After much cursing on the foreman’s part, punctuated by colorful hand gestures that compelled him to keep letting go of the stove, I grabbed a hold. In a show of raw physical prowess that would have cowed Mike Tyson, I helped push, lest the last material asset I own should go tumbling into the street amid a flurry of my own cursing.
Once alone with my coveted Viking, which I immediately nicknamed Thor, I whipped out a batch of cookie dough I had made earlier that morning. I fired up the oven and scooped out nine identical balls of the stuff. I slid them into the inferno and waited precisely 10 minutes. When I opened the door, I realized I had a steep learning curve ahead of me. Like my friend Pam’s Jaguar, which I almost plowed through the master bedroom of our rental house on Martha’s Vineyard, evidently my new stove was far more powerful and terrifying than I had imagined; my cookies had been, for lack of a better descriptive, incinerated.
I was undeterred. It was simply a matter of learning the range’s distinctive personality, I told myself. (Of course, the idea of reading the instructions never occurred to me until my friend Alan waved the booklet in my face.) It took ruining a cobbler, two chickens, a lemon tart, and a dozen cookies until I was able to harness Thor’s might. But after that, I could to roast any fowl my butcher threw my way, saute the crunchiest sweetbreads, and turn out an almond financier with a crumb so fine even Julia Child would be jealous.
Last night, I crept downstairs to look at Thor, not unlike how those men in car commercials tiptoe out to the garage and curl up to sleep inside their new BMWs. I ran my fingers along the sleek, sexy door handle. I revved up each burner to its full 15,000 BTUs. I even cleaned the stovetop with Windex. I thought of the guys at the Marble Dale Pub and their raucous one-upmanship. I imagined marching back in there with my towering white-chocolate cloud cake—the killer version with pistachio buttercream frosting. I place it down amid the overflowing Miller Lite ashtrays and empty beer glasses, and watch. Conversation about Heidi Klum sputters to a halt, and the brutes begin to circle. Without waiting for forks, one digs in, then another, and another, caveman-like. As they give themselves over to the pleasures of French butter and imported white chocolate, the machismo vanishes. When the plate is empty, they rush me, offering the keys to their Dodge Ram pickups and to their girlfriends’ apartments in exchange for one more impossible perfect bite of cake. I toss back my head and laugh. I turn and saunter out the door, leaving them despondent. I win. I am victorious. I am finally a Viking god.
Illustration © 2003 Eric Hanson. All rights reserved.