One of life’s great pleasures is knowing stuff. This, I feel certain, is why people study sports. They sacrifice nights and weekends they might otherwise have spent at foreign films and craft shows; they eschew PBS in favor of ESPN; they listen to sports talk radio despite yearning for a little classic jazz. Eventually they specialize: one majors in baseball, another gets a master’s in golf; a third might do doctoral work on Julius Erving.
Some people cannot rouse themselves to such levels of self-motivated learning, and so they have children. One can hardly fail to become an authority on one’s own children; even the young, assistant parent can expound at length on sleep issues and the stuff that issues from Little Pookie’s intestinal tract.
But the problem with being an authority on your children is that no one cares. No one really needs or wants to know that strawberries give your baby a rash that can be treated only with a particular brand of hydrocortisone cream. They’re just smiling because they’re so damned glad their brains are filled with box scores instead.
What if you actually want your friends to listen to you? What if you want your advanced knowledge to be met with appreciation rather than tolerance? I recommend becoming an expert not on little Agatha or on the Brazilian soccer team, but on a practical matter that is a component of daily life: Car Repair. Etiquette. Computers. Wine.
In time, friends and family will learn to think of you first when confronting a question in the area of, say, lawn care, home maintenance, or sewing. And, no, the Internet does not spell the end of personal expertise, because, fortunately, most people are lazy. I myself have enough energy either to get the gravy stain out of my tablecloth or to figure out how to get the gravy stain out of my tablecloth, but certainly not both. So I reach for the phone to call my mother-in-law, Marcia Greenberg, M.L.S.R. (Master of Laundering and Stain Removal). But wait—should I call her even though it’s late and she’s got company? To answer that question, I need my mother, Judy Cohen, D.D.S.I. (Doctor of Delicate Social Interaction).
As for me, I chose food. I have a bit of accidental expertise in other matters—like the sports fan who takes in a few minutes of the Weather Channel before finding the remote. Occasionally I get to explain the difference between which and that; twice a year I get to excise passive verbs from people’s cover letters. But 9 out of 10 times when that red phone rings, it’s a cooking question.
How do you cut a cheesecake neatly? Can you freeze meat again after you’ve thawed it once? What kind of finger foods can be either hors d’oeuvres or dinner depending on how hungry your guests are? What was that recipe for green beans again? Is there a way to make challah so that I can serve it fresh for Friday dinner if I get home at four in the afternoon? Do you know an easy-to-make vanilla frosting? What would you make for vegans for brunch? What was that green bean recipe again?
I picture an old-fashioned red plastic dial phone that sits alone on a polished wooden desk. In reality I answer a black cordless phone that rings at least three times before I find it under the newspaper and a damp dishtowel on the kitchen table. It’s my mother/father/older sister/little sister/sister-in-law/brother-in-law/mother-in-law/best friend with a cooking question. Friends are coming for dinner—what kind of side dish would go best with that chicken thing but doesn’t require a trip to the grocery? I wedge the phone between my chin and shoulder and consider the question while scraping bits of bread dough off the kitchen counter. I always consider the question.
People are relying on me, after all.
 I realize the “red phone” image messes up my academic analogy, but doesn’t every professor secretly wish his or her field were of urgent, real-world concern? What Emerson scholar doesn’t envy the Economics colleague being interviewed on NPR about the global recession?
I call you for writing etiquette, damn it, as I almost did last night. A friend was writing an obituary about her mother, with the sentence: “She was 81 years old.” Dashes? No dashes? I wanted to call you, but it was 10:30. I had to do my own research. It was good to wake up to your column, with that bean recipe, offered gratis, twice. Thank you!
Kate, it s too early to call your hot line. One question for you: your wonderful coffee cake, what was the recipe again?