My dog loves food. Well, true, every dog does. But not every dog knows how to make the food, unless you count the occasional squirrel or grouse one manages to catch but rarely grills to perfections or garnishes with parsley.
Of course, dogs are not always quite as discriminating about what they eat as we humans are. The same dog who adores a nice plate of pan fried wild salmon is also apt to be just about as crazy over a bag of fish rotting in the noonday sun which most dogs will joyously roll in before they bury their noses in it and try a bite. My dog used to do that, too, at least he did until he discovered the joy of cooking.
Certainly, living life on all fours, his lack of coordinated hands or opposable thumbs and the fact that his head ends a few feet below the freezer door handle or the counter where the food processor and microwave are located does interfere with my dog Ben’s culinary pursuits. But he more than makes up for his shortcomings with his keen attention to detail, his nose for the finest ingredients, and his willingness to try a new recipe, regardless of what strange combination of tastes it may involve.
If you still think I’m joking about my dog the chef, I am not. Regardless of where Ben is or what he is doing when I venture out into the kitchen to prepare a meal, make a batch of homemade ice cream or whip up some other treat, he comes racing in at the first squeak of a kitchen floorboard or the unmistakable sound of the refrigerator door being opened.
Before I can even duck my head into the cupboard or refrigerator, I notice another head – one with long floppy ears and a nose for news – appear below me, crowding me out to explore the meat tray, the vegetable bin, or the canned food selection. If I’m lucky or fast, I wrest control of the situation away before he spies the package of hot dogs or pepperoni and makes off with it (a good cook always samples his ingredients before prepping, you know). Yet, if I can’t locate the butter or I’ve misplaced the cheese, all I have to do is ask Ben and then follow his snout.
Ben’s love of cooking started with his first birthday. While I had no doubt my little guy would love a Carvel ice cream cake – since he had stolen and consumed one on my birthday a few months before – I decided I would get some of his human food favorites and let him choose what to include in a customized “puppy” loaf. As bacon was added here, a bit more cheese there, Ben discovered his passion for cooking.
For example, ask Ben how many eggs I need for a quiche and, with the egg carton open before him, he will paw the floor three times. His nose immediately goes for the correct type of milk carton when I tell him we are about to make custard-style ice cream and this precious pooch knows his Muenster from his Monterey Jack, his Vermont sharp cheddar from his Wisconsin extra sharp.
If I tell him what we’re making and it’s something he’s helped with before, Ben trotting back over toward the fridge lets me know I’ve forgotten something I need. Surprisingly, he’s just about always right.
Since his first puppy loaf, Ben has developed a whole “language” around the art of cooking so he can communicate his recommendations and concerns. When he spins around in circles while I’m making pizza, this is Ben’s way of saying, “You can’t put that in the oven with so little cheese. Please, please, please, more cheese! Get it right, lady!” A paw raised and brought down shyly over his big brown eyes says, “OK, those three chops will do nicely for me – as an appetizer, that is – but what are you folks going to eat?”
A stern, disappointed stare as I add herbs to the chicken, when translated, means, “Why can’t you ever remember I hate rosemary? Use cilantro instead please” while a frantic shake of his ears informs me that I’ve used far too much Tabasco or pepper.
Yet, let me add that one thing every dog owner needs to realize is that dogs really aren’t designed to handle a steady intake of the same kinds of highly processed, overly fat or sugar-laden foods we consume (our bodies usually don’t like it all that much either). But because Ben feels punished somehow if all he ever gets to eat his dog chow, I make an exception a couple of meals a week to let him share a meal we’re eating, albeit with certain modifications for his bodily differences.
For example, Sunday mornings the menu is always Vermont Black Dog Breakfast and Ben decides whether we do pancakes, waffles, or French toast. If, as I heat the griddle, Ben races back to the refrigerator and tries to push his nose into the handle, he’s letting me know he wants lean bacon with the meal. While he gets just a trace of syrup (and glares if I omit it altogether), he refuses to allow me to use polyunsaturated margarine rather than butter. My pup also insists he knows the difference between fake and real maple syrup and definitely can discern between Grade A Vermont amber and a poorer imitation from New Hampshire or Canada. This main course is followed by tooth cleaning biscuits particularly good for removing sugar and starch from his mouth. And the beauty of Ben is that if I forget the “doggy” floss, he leads me to it (“Look, Ma, no cavities!”).
The only variation in this Sunday tradition occurs when his girlfriend, Gimli, from next door arrives after Ben and I start cooking. When she comes beforehand, I know to make a little extra but when she arrives just before it’s being served, Ben nobly saves a bit of his breakfast for her. Then, once she’s scarfed down the last of his prized meal, she bites him, slaps her tail coquettishly in his face, and then runs back home to her house to see what her family is having, leaving Ben to watch after her, wondering if true love is worth so much pathos, not to mention the sacrifice of a waffle and two strips of bacon.
Indeed, every Sunday morning, Ben and Gimli remind me that it is, after all, a dog’s life, and if the humans can’t stand the heat, they need to get out of their dog’s kitchen. Humans, however, are welcome to wash the dishes afterward. Ben hates getting dishpan paws even though he is very happy to cook.