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Cooks and Crooks

Cooks and Crooks
By Jacob Baynham

Michael McDaniel got his bachelor’s in philosophy and history at Xavier in 1965, but he earned his gastronomy degree off campus—in the basement kitchen of a house he shared with 14 international roommates.

“My mom was a stay-at-home mom,” he says. “I hadn’t so much as fixed a can of soup until that point.”

But hunger and frugality—important influences on all students—steered McDaniel to the stove, where he sought inspiration from his German, Polish, Lithuanian, South Korean, Chinese and Indian roommates. On Fridays they each put in a dollar and bought half a barrel of Burger beer (priority No. 1) for $12.10. With the remaining three dollars, they purchased enough ingredients to make a big pot of something to feed them through the weekend.

Drawing from the diverse culinary traditions of the house, McDaniel was soon cooking Sicilian spaghetti sauces and Eastern European onion dumplings. “I learned to cook all sorts of cosmopolitan stuff. I even started sneaking looks at Ladies Home Journal for recipes,” he says.

And his passion for cooking has been simmering ever since. Now a criminal defense lawyer with his own practice in Southern Indiana, his life is busier than when he was a student. But he still finds time to cook. “It’s a tremendously relaxing thing to go into a kitchen, get your ingredients out, make a martini and sip it while you put a meal together,” he says. “And there’s a reward at the end, if you do it well.”

Lately, McDaniel has made a Hungarian goulash that earned the praise of his 91-year-old mother, boeuf bourguignon and chicken Kiev stuffed with Swiss cheese, parsley and spinach. If you start simply, it doesn’t take much time or know-how to eat well, he says. “Don’t start with Julia Child’s French cookery. Start with what you already like and feel your way along.”

McDaniel enjoys digging up old family recipes, although they often come with ambiguous measurements. His Dutch grandmother’s chicken and dumplings recipe calls for a “walnut-sized” scoop of lard.

But the more McDaniel cooks, the more he learns. “Hell, I still read Ladies Home Journal to see what they’re doing,” he says. “Every time I go to the dentist I come back with a new recipe.”

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