Photo: Ann Stratton
My new husband is in love with another woman. We've been married for only six months, and already I've driven him away—with my lousy cooking.
The other woman is Giada de Laurentiis, cookbook author and host of the Food Network's Everyday Italian. My darling husband, Nathan, has fallen for her not because she's beautiful, rich, or for the sexy way she says "pan-chet-ta"; it's because he's hungry. "Wow, look at her lasagna rolls," he'll say, drooling.
Now, I'm not completely hopeless in the kitchen; I can make a decent omelet on a Sunday morning. And Nathan is fairly easy to please—five-course gourmet dinners whipped up by a wife in Manolos are not for him. But I grew up understanding that the preparation of a meal is an expression of love. My grandpa sang "You Are My Sunshine" to me while he made me spaghetti with clam sauce (using clams, by the way, that he'd harvested himself from the nearby ocean inlet where he also reeled in huge, ferocious, sweet-fleshed bluefish; he was the Ernest Hemingway of the Bronx). My single mother, after a ten-hour day at the office, stayed up until 2 A.M. baking a ginger cake decorated with flags for my fourth-grade class's UN Day. Thirty-five years later, I can still remember the warm, spicy taste of it—such is the power of food prepared by someone who loved me.
I want to do this for Nathan, so as his 45th birthday approaches, I decide that my gift to him will be a wonderful, homemade dinner. I buy the best ingredients I can find. But those beautiful red tuna steaks don't have a chance once they fall into my unskilled hands. I know I'm supposed to sear tuna steaks, but to me they don't look seared enough, so I keep them on the George Foreman grill a few more minutes. Maybe a few more than I should—the fish, once scarlet with freshness, is now a dull gray throughout. "I'm sorry, I can't eat this," Nathan says apologetically, pushing the overcooked lump around on his plate. I want to cry, but I don't; tears would turn this from a birthday mishap to a birthday massacre.
It's obvious that I need help, and a few days later I find myself recounting the details of my culinary crime to my colleague at O, Celia Barbour, who edits the food stories. She cuts to the chase: "Did you follow a recipe?" Recipe? A moment of clarity breaks the confusion—Grandpa never used recipes. He was an open-hand cook, someone with a natural gift in the kitchen. He memorized his mother's simple recipes and invented his own. My mom is the same way. This family trait skipped me, but rather than accept my limitations, I've obstinately clung to the appearance of how they cooked—despite proving time and again that, for me, this doesn't yield edible results. Celia's advice is simple. "You're not ready to improvise yet," she says. "You're just starting out. Follow a recipe, to the letter. No substitutions, no improvements." "That shouldn't be too hard," I think.