There are some things that are hard for a woman to admit. My sister, for example, swears that she will always weigh 125 pounds—at least on her driver’s license. My other sister consciously wore the wrong bra size for years, as if sheer will alone could increase what nature had predetermined a size “B.” I have a friend who desperately wanted affirmation that she had the singing voice of a diva, though her husband, even after the use of force, confessed that it wasn’t one of her assets. She refused to believe him. One day while driving in the car, convinced it was an “on” day, she recorded her voice over the telephone and sent it to his voicemail. When she arrived home, he greeted her somberly at the door, had her sit down, and played her the message. Even now, she swears it’s a lack of sophistication on his part, though she is willing to concede that she wasn’t Broadway material that day—and she’s more careful to drive with the car windows closed.
One of my most embarrassing, pride-reducing secrets is this: I can’t cook. Oh, my friends will say that I make a mean salad—but how hard is it, really, to chop up vegetables? I tell myself that there are advantages to being deficient in the kitchen. In the supermarket, I make good time by visiting only the breakfast cereal and frozen food aisles. At dinner parties, I always know that I am expected to bring the wine and bread. People love me for how I make their hearts, not their bellies, feel. But deep down, I feel it’s a flaw in my character.
I could try to blame my staunchly feminist upbringing. Cooking, like swimming, is something that should be learned in childhood. A daughter of divorced parents, I felt it beneath me to participate in cultural stereotypes by filling traditionally “female” shoes. In college, I pierced my nose, cut my hair, and bought take-out. It wasn’t until after college, when I moved across the country to San Francisco, and people who saw the inside of my refrigerator asked if I was a vegetarian, did I realize that I didn’t have an answer. I chose not to have meat in my kitchen, not for political reasons, but simply because I had no idea what to do with the naked body of a chicken.
Which is why the latest relationship I’ve found myself in was really a nail-biting, hair-pulling, ego-flattening experience for awhile. This man can cook, like the sun radiates heat on a warm summer’s day. It all started on our third date. He invited me over to his place for dinner, but I had no idea HE would be its creator. When I invite people over for dinner, it’s usually to check out the latest restaurant in my neighborhood. The people in my life know that coming over to my place for a meal means sitting down at a table within a three-block radius of my apartment.
But I arrived to find him humming in the kitchen and peering over a boiling cauldron of homemade tomato sauce. He threw in a “pinch of this” and a “splash of that,” a conductor orchestrating the most beautiful of sonatas. I found myself watching his shoulder muscles through his t-shirt while he worked, feeling turned on, and then realized with horror that I was objectifying this man in the kitchen—could I blame that on my feminist upbringing as well? He delivered the plates of food without any pomp and circumstance, but with the divine scents of garlic and seasonings wafting through the air. I thought defensively, “Well, this has got to smell better than it tastes,” until I had my first forkful. My senses were at once awakened and filled, my mouth watering with the simultaneous pleasure of desire and satisfaction. I never knew pasta sauce could taste so good. I was breathless but managed to sputter, “This is unbelievable.” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I want to cook for you. It makes me happy.” This is true.
It’s also true that I was still trying, in my own way, to be a modern woman at the time—which meant in this case that I was still dating other people—until our seventh date, when he invited me over to make homemade tortellinis. Together. I tentatively dipped my dough in the flour, as my thoughts got the best of me and I imagined dipping him in the flour, naked. I admit it—I compromised what could have been a great cooking lesson. We got distracted, and I remained ignorant—at least in terms of food—but the meal was delicious. And our relationship was off and running.
When I got sick, he made me soup, another recipe from the Italian heritage on his mother’s side. For our two-month anniversary, one of my presents was chicken marsala. (Turned out I wasn’t a vegetarian after all.) After watching a cooking show, he made me risotto with scallops and mushrooms. At the end of a hard day, I got penne pasta with pesto sauce from scratch. For New Year’s, he designed a black-eyed peas and rice concoction for good luck.
All of this “kitchen table wisdom” left me feeling nervous—fat, full, and happy, yes, but insecure just the same. I had to believe there were things I could contribute to our relationship, strengths that made my star shine. I was good at massage, for example, and a great listener. Maybe I needed to take a course in car maintenance, just to balance things out? I was also terrified that he might expect the favor to be returned, and I cringed to think how his opinion of me might change if he knew my complete lack of culinary confidence. Did cooking make two people compatible? Was it as important, say, as whether they both wanted to have children or both voted Republican? I had tried to take him out to dinner on several occasions, only to notice with disdain that the dishes never held a candle to his recipes. Would he leave me if I didn’t measure up? Or if, in the kitchen, I didn’t know how to measure?
It came to a head late one innocuous Sunday afternoon, when we were lounging in my living room. Out of nowhere he took me by surprise, saying, “I’m feeling hungry. What’ve you got in your kitchen?” I tried to divert his attention in every way I could, but his stomach only growled louder. Finally, frustrated and defeated, I said, “Not much. Go. Look if you have to.” I sat on my couch, arms crossed, my mind already spinning stories about how I had found the potential man of my dreams, and lost him. Fifteen minutes later, without a word, he delivered two full plates of quesadillas, adorned with spinach and the coconut shrimp he’d found in the back of my freezer, and began eating. Before I could stop myself, I shouted, “How the hell did you do that? How can you make something out of nothing?”
He smiled, took a bite of his creamed shrimp, and said, “Em, I love you just the way you are.” Wait—what? I looked at him as he started humming the Billy Joel song. “What are you talking about?” He dropped his fork and looked at me. “Sweetie, I know that cooking is not your forte.” I tried to look nonplussed. “Ooohh, yeah? Well, how did you know?” His voice stayed calm as he revealed, “Because two weeks ago you tried to put a piece of cheesecake in the microwave.”
So, this is how it is. I write while he cooks, and we both get to admire each other. I don’t feel like I have to pretend to be something I’m not, and he gets to revel in knowing that he wears the crown of Executive Chef in our relationship. Or chef’s hat. Or toque blanche? Whatever.
I am looking forward to meeting his mother, so I can thank her.