Illustration: iStockphoto.com; photographs: Adam Roberts
I'm on the phone with my dad, and I'm lying.
"I'm about to put together a bathroom fixture," I say while flipping through Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess.
"Good!" my dad says. "That'll be good for you."
The bathroom fixture sits in a bag from Target near the door. The fixture is a two-shelf wall mount that we need because our bathroom sink is scattered with hair brushes, contact-lens solution, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and other bathroom miscellany.
"It's messy because there's no storage," is the justification my roommate, Diana, and I often make. But the solution is simple: Buy a bathroom fixture, put it together, mount it on the wall, and clean off the sink. And this is what I intend to do, but Nigella is calling to me, whispering two words over and over again: "Fairy cakes. Fairy cakes."
How can I tell my dad that instead of putting together a bathroom fixture, I'm going to make fairy cakes? It'd be one thing to say, "I'm going to bake instead." But fairy cakes? No, lying is the best option.
"OK," I say. "I'm going to get started on that bathroom fixture now."
I hang up and quickly open my pantry. What do I need? Butter, milk, sugar, flour, vanilla. I get all these together, and then I see the plastic Target bag still sitting by the door.
"It'll be good for you," my dad's voice echoes in my head.
So I leave the baking goods on the table and head to the Target bag. I pull out the bathroom fixture box, open it up, pull out all the componentsmetal pipes and tubes, little packets of screws (large and small), and two glass shelves. I get out my Phillips head screwdriver and get started.
I follow the diagram's instructions: Lay this piece this way, lay this piece that way. I find the appropriate screws (the screws are in tiny bags labeled A, B, C, D). I screw together the large J-shaped pieces, add the plastic tips that'll protect the glass shelves, and then attach the mounting plaques. All in all, it takes 30 minutesthe perfect amount of time for my butter to soften.
With the butter softened, I rise from my bathroom fixture and proceed with my fairy cakes. The batter couldn't be easier: into a food processor, you place all the ingredients and zap, you're done. I line the muffin tin with paper cupcake holders and fill each one-quarter of the way with an ice cream scoop. There's hardly any batter in each cup, but that's what makes them fairy cakes.
I place them in the oven and get ready to mount my bathroom fixture.
You're supposed to hold it against the wall and make small dots with a pencil. But I'm feeling brave, so I just hold it against the wall and start screwing. I don't have an electric screwdriver, so I'm twisting the screws into the wall with sheer force. Soon the smell of cupcakes permeates the apartment, and I leave the wall fixture hanging by three screws as I retrieve the fairy cakes from the oven.
I take them out with an oven mitt and let them cool, returning to the bathroom to finish the fixture.
After all eight screws go in, I stand back and study my work. Ah! I think. I did it. This was good for me: I built a bathroom fixture.
Then, while the fairy cakes cool, I make royal icing. Two egg whites into an electric mixer, beaten till foamy, then combined with one pound of sifted powdered sugar. I'm soon ready to ice, but first I take out half the icing and add food coloring to the other half: My fairy cakes will be pink and white.
I ice the fairy cakes and study the finished plate. Ah, I think. I did it. Delicious fairy cakes in no time at all.
As I eat a fairy cake, I begin to reflect on my day's activity. On one hand, I've done something perceived as masculine: I have built a bathroom fixture. I mounted it to the wall with my bare hands, and I did so by following instructions on a sheet of paper.
On the other hand, I did something perceived as feminine (if not downright girly): I made fairy cakes. I whipped them together with minimal effort, and I did so by following instructions on a sheet of paper.
Each activity had something to recommend it. Building a bathroom fixture requires more physical exertion than making fairy cakes. You're also required to intuit, from visual instructions, how to put the thing together. There are no words, only pictures, and this exercises a different part of the brain than the verbal step-by-step you get in a cookbook.
When you're done with the bathroom fixture, you've created something permanent. That bathroom fixture will hang on the wall forever (or, at least, for as long as I live in this apartment). Every time I pee, now, I feel a sense of pride studying my bathroom fixture. Fairy cakes don't make you prideful when you pee.
What fairy cakes do make you is joyful. When you bite into a perfectly round, perfectly sweet circle of fairy cake, you experience a sublime sense of satisfaction that can rarely be attained with hardware.
The social aspect of making fairy cakes is also more notable. When people come over after you've built a bathroom fixture, they may admire it for a moment, but then they move on and ask what movies you have on DVD. But when you make fairy cakes, people come over and celebrate your existence as you offer them one of the few remaining morsels. They eat, and their faces lift in wonder and excitement. I like (insert your name here), they think. He really knows how to make his friends happy.
In conclusion, then, we need to let go of this binary world of masculine-feminine when it comes to cooking and home repair. The world would be a better place if more men cooked, if more women built bathroom fixtures. By nurturing both parts of our identities, we become more dynamic, more complex, more fully realized as human beings.
My dad's notion that building a bathroom fixture would be good for me is an admirable one because I need to exercise that part of my brain more. When I have a son, one day, I'll rear him in a similar way. When he goes through his handyman phase and shows off his birdhouses and tree houses, I'll look at him and say, "Son, I'm awfully proud of you."
His eyes will well with tears. "Thanks, Dad," he'll say.
"But if you want to make me really proud," I'll add, "you'll make me some fairy cakes."
He'll stare back at me with concern as I shove him into the kitchen. "Don't forget to sift the powdered sugar," I'll say. "And don't overcook the cake or Daddy won't love you anymore."
As he zips off to make me fairy cakes, I'll pat myself on the back.
I'm a really good dad.
About the author: Adam Roberts is The Amateur Gourmet. His book, The Amateur Gourmet, will be published by Bantam/Dell in summer 2007.