CHICAGO — Roger Ebert could write. Man, could he write.
He also could cook.
Ebert, who died Thursday, loved to cook. Even after cancer took away his jaw and he could no longer eat like the rest of us — chew, swallow, savor — he cooked. For his wife Chaz, for friends, for his assistant, Carol Iwata, who gave him his first rice cooker.
He championed the rice cooker, so much so he decided to write about a book about it. "The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker," was published in September 2010. At the time, I was the food editor at the Sun-Times, which is why I ended up in his Lincoln Park kitchen one sunny, late summer afternoon.
I had shaken his and Chaz's hands years earlier in the newsroom, when I was a reporter. I was a peon, and they couldn't have been kinder. I also remember thinking: IJUSTMETROGEREBERT. He was that much of a legend.
He and Chaz and Carol welcomed me and photographer Rich Hein similarly into their home that day in 2010, as if we'd hung out in the kitchen before.
Ebert made his way slowly down the stairs to the living room, sat in a recliner and plugged in. He talked through a laptop — he typed his thoughts, it spoke them. He and Chaz, a lawyer, argued about how to go about the rest of the interview. Later in the kitchen, he got upset when she took the liberty of adding frozen peas without him realizing. I wanted to laugh. They were just a married couple after all.
Their kitchen was dreamy, spacious yet minimalist, with top-of-the-line appliances. His chef's knife was dangerously sharp. Dull is pointless, a good cook knows.
Chaz helped her husband into an apron, and then put one on herself. Without his laptop, he used a small notebook into which he'd scribble his words. He'd show me the page, or tear it out and hand it to me.
Ebert's book is not quite a cookbook. It's more a collection of musings on the do-it-all appliance that he used to tote with him to the Sundance Film Festival. The loosely written recipes were submitted by loyal readers of Ebert's blog.
We had talked before the interview about cooking a recipe from the book, but it didn't really go that way. With him leading, we just riffed, which was the whole point of rice cooker cookery, the Ebert way.
"There are countless rice cooker cookbooks," he wrote in "The Pot." "We don't want no stinking cookbooks. Think of your Pot as being like a Macintosh: Once you figure out how the thing works, you don't need a manual."
Ebert had two rice cookers going with rice and a grain mixture. To one pot, he added garam masala, peach salsa and a bit of sriracha. He pulled other condiments out of the pantry to show me. He was a condiment guy.
When Chaz added frozen peas too soon, he smacked his palm down on the marble countertop. He scribbled out his frustration in his notepad, shaking his head.
Soon, the food was ready. She and Ebert heaped the grains, dotted with chicken and vegetables, into two large serving platters and brought them to the informal dining room table, which had been set, flowers and all, for us — Ebert, Chaz, Carol, his nurse Millie, Rich and me.
I took a seat near him to ask more questions while we — everyone but him — ate. He had plenty more rice cooker wisdom to impart, but we laughed and talked about the paper, social media and other stuff, too.
Chaz could tell when Ebert was tired. He'd been on his feet with us for a while. You look tired, she said to him. He was tired.
I had a copy of his book in my bag. He walked me to the front, sat down and signed my book. "The Pot knows," his message reads.
"I am a competent cook." That's how his book begins.
Ebert was a competent cook, and a master at so much more.