Fear of flying, fear of open spaces, fear of snakes, mice and large dogs. These days what people really fear is fixing dinner.
There's so little time, so many meals. Sure it's great to have the family around the table, however briefly. But they can't eat the same thing every night. And who, after a hard day at the office, or a difficult day on the home front, can summon up the creativity to make a memorable meal?
We'd all like to be the Moliere of mealtime, but most of us settle for being the tear-jerker with the Tuna Helper.
"Dinner time and getting stuff on the table is a problem in people's lives," said Andrew Schloss, Philadelphia chef, food writer and cookbook author. A recent survey of attitudes toward cooking showed "that period from 5 o'clock at night until 6 o'clock, when you have to figure out what you're going to serve your family for dinner, was perceived as one of the most stressful points of the day. And it was a time when you should let down and enjoy yourself, and people were just the opposite."
But it doesn't have to be that way. In "Fifty Ways to Fix Most Everything," (Simon & Schuster, $25) Mr. Schloss and his co-author, journalist Ken Bookman, suggest as the book's subtitle says, "2,500 Creative Solutions to the Daily Dilemma of What to Cook."
Each of the book's 50 chapters includes 50 variations on a single food theme: "Fifty Marinades," "Fifty Pots of Chili," "Fifty Things Kids will Eat" (tested on Mr. Schloss' three children and on a volunteer class of third-graders), "Fifty Recipes for Rice and Other Grains."
There are also chapters that deal with techniques or special foods, or certain kitchen trouble areas: "Fifty Useful Microwave Recipes," "Fifty Main Courses on a Real Tight Budget," "Fifty Ways to Beat the Heat," "Fifty Ways to Clean Out the Refrigerator," "Fifty Ways to Conquer Zucchini," and "Fifty Ways to Charm with Chocolate."
All of the recipes are in simple, single-paragraph form. "Fifty Recipes for Any Fish," for instance, offers orange fennel fillets, fish steamed with baby shrimp in tarragon vinaigrette, smoky grilled fish, marinated fish kebabs, fish chili and clam and fish stew with basil.
The chapter on chicken breasts suggests chicken lemon Veronique, sesame chicken breast, sauteed chicken breast with apple glaze, chicken salad with tarragon and grapes, chilled, grilled marinated chicken breast, broiled honey mustard chicken and stir fried chicken with cashews, to list just a few of the 50 ways.
"We saw that there was something about having 50 recipes in one place that met the way people cook, which was, I've got a chicken breast in my hand, what do I do with it tonight?" Mr. Schloss said. "And here were 50 recipes, hopefully 10 of which you'd have the ingredients right in your house to cook with. They were all fast and easy and graspable."
Like a lot of great inspirations, this one had humble beginnings. It began, in fact, with a pun.
A friend of Mr. Bookman's suggested a pun that would make a great headline: It was "Fifty Ways to Love Your Liver' " -- a play on the title of the Paul Simon song, "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover." Mr. Schloss said, "Ken is a fan of puns and wanted to use the headline, only there was a hitch -- and that was that you needed 50 liver recipes underneath the headline to make it work."
There were a couple more problems: Who would want 50 liver recipes, and how would 50 recipes for anything fit into a newspaper article?
"I can come up with 50 recipes for anything," Mr. Schloss said when Mr. Bookman called him. It took him about 10 minutes to come up with 30 recipes; and Mr. Bookman had decided that each one had to be simple enough to fit into a paragraph. Other 50-ways stories followed -- for pasta, for pizza, for chicken breast -- and a book was born.
Mr. Schloss was trained as a chef and for a while owned a restaurant in Philadelphia. Mr. Bookman, who was not a cook, took a year off from his job as food editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer to test all of the recipes.
"I think in the past, there were many parameters put on the way people cooked," Ms. Schloss said on a recent visit to Baltimore. "A lot of it had to do with what ethnicity you were and what foods you considered appropriate." But today, he said, the biggest limit people perceive is time.
The Potato Board, an industry group that surveyed attitudes toward cooking dinner, found that on average women spend about 55 minutes preparing dinner, when they'd really like to spend only 35 minutes.
And they don't look on the responsibility cheerfully. When the board asked women in "focus group" discussions to illustrate how they felt about fixing dinner, they got a "very emotional" response, a spokeswoman said.
Women drew time bombs about to go off, and tornadoes pinning them down, drew themselves cowering in corners surrounded by family members and pets, drew huge scribbles of "total chaos."