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Celebrating Men Who Cook (Whole Pig, Homemade 'Garbage Plates' and Venison Stew)

Guys — at least the ones in my family — love to cook and cook big.

All the men in my family cook. And since there are plenty of them — Dad plus six brothers — no one ever has to worry about going hungry.

They also outnumber the women in the family — three girls and Mom — which means we've had plenty of opportunity over the years to observe exactly what it means to be both male and Ryan, especially when it comes to food.

First, it means cooking isn't just cooking. It must involve some part of a sliding scale of "Ryan-ness" that I now realize is not necessarily shared across all families. I'm assuming I'm not related to most of you — unless this column is being read in Rochester or Saranac, then, hey cuz! — so here's a quick primer:

  • KIY: Kill it Yourself. If there isn't some carcass hanging from a tree during deer season, I'm likely to look twice at the house number, convinced I've missed the turn into some brother's driveway. You must master the production of deer jerky early in life, as well as the ability to loudly argue why your vension stew is better than your brother's sad, pathetic attempt at something trying to be venison stew.
  • BIY: Butcher it Yourself. I'm personally happy to stick with my trusty J.A. Henckels 10-inch chef's knife and the Cook's Illustrated-approved onion-chopping strategy. It makes me feel accomplished and ready when the Food Network calls. But that's child's play to the "Dad" cooks in my family. A complete array of home butchering tools is an essential part of anyone's food-presentation repertoire. Plus 10 points if you've installed an elaborate restaurant-grade stainless steel work space in your basement.
  • Hobby-turned-obsession. If most people can teach themselves how to butcher game and tan hides, then you must design, cut and hand-sew deer skin gloves. Why? Why not! Or you could establish your own deer processing business. There is no better way to use years worth of college credits centered mainly on accounting. And if your previous career was as an Airborne Ranger like my brother Chris, now a lieutenant colonel serving in Iraq (and a First Gulf War veteran), training your reserve recruits back in Rochester must feature some life-saving skill involving goat intestines. And, of course, any small foray into maple syrup production must soon be followed by a hand-built 12 x 16 sugar shack.
  • Recipes are for amateurs. Which brings me to Dad. Like so many fathers, Gerald Ryan is the kind of home chef who, no matter how many hours he might have worked the night before or the fact he should have retired years ago, will never miss an opportunity to make a complete hot breakfast for all his children and grandchildren. On the far-too-rare occasions we all gather at the family home, we are certain to awake to some combination of homemade pork sausage, eggs, bacon, fresh-baked muffins and pancakes. (Our 9-year-old will never forget Grandpa's rooster pancake mold.) And his soups — the true test of any home cook — are legendary. No recipes, of course, just whatever is on hand. I'm still working on this ability to turn whatever dwindling contents are in my fridge or pantry into something delicious.
  • Open adoptions. You don't become a Ryan simply by blood. Marriage works just as well. Ditto for anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of a family gathering or who once knew any one of us growing up. If a complete stranger walks into my parents' house, I barely look up. It happens too often. "Hey, how's it going?" and a glance back to my book is the likely welcome you'll get if you decide to show up one day and meander through the kitchen, helping yourself to the contents of the refrigerator. My husband, a native of the Bronx, is happily pressed into service with my brother Joe's sweet corn operation.

But like all families, we must sit down for dinner at some point. What are you likely to find?

Whole pig roasts, a new annual tradition. Faithful and precise recreations of "garbage plates"* for anyone not in driving distance of Rochester and in desperate need of a Nick's fix. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if my brother is teaching Iraqis how to make a halal garbage plates as we speak. 

For the uninitiated: *Garbage plates: (GAR-bahg PLAY-tz) An incredibly off-putting (in theory) but quite delicious (in reality) Rochester, N.Y.-speciality made famous by Nick Tahou's Hots. There are different versions, but this gives you the idea: greasy cheese-topped beef patty, homefries, macaroni salad, mustard, onions, a chili-style meat sauce. Extra hot sauce: Never optional. 

So what if the 7-year-old hasn't yet developed a taste for squirrel stew? Or if it wasn't a good idea to serve the homemade wine to the under-12 set with that big Italian dinner? It was never the point. The act of doing for your family — that was.

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