How to make a marriage simmer: Combine a man who knows his way around a stove with great conversation and mouthwatering co-creations (jambalaya, ratatouille, gazpacho).
My second marriage came after a long courtship of cooking together—the more complicated the recipe, the better. Endless chopping led to endless conversation, a dialogue that has continued for almost 20 years now.
But back at the beginning, this courtship struck me as radical. I came from a very traditional family, in which the wife's and husband's roles were clearly defined. My lovely mother, a former home economics teacher, was the best cook in town, with a recipe for every holiday and ritual: Lady Baltimore cake for birthdays, roasted pecans and fudge for Christmas, meat loaf for "church dinner on the ground," chicken and dumplings for heartbreak, ham in the case of death. She ruled exclusively in her warm and wonderful kitchen filled with cigarette smoke, friends, and the smell of percolating coffee and whatever was baking in the oven. Though my father always brought home the bacon, he never cooked it.
No wonder I fully expected to be—and was—the chef in my almost equally traditional first marriage. Determined to be a Good Wife, I whipped up well-balanced meals featuring the four food groups (meat, starch, vegetables, fruit?—I can't even remember what they are now). I always thought of dinner as a little gift, which I was supposed to prepare and present to my husband. (Notice those formal verbs—prepare and present.) He was dutifully appreciative. In fact, the word dutiful characterizes that marriage in general, which ended after a number of dutiful years.
Divorce liberated me not only from those perfunctory meals but also from the tyranny of the kitchen. My boys and I started eating pretty much whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, working around my teaching schedule and their team practices and school. They often chose, I am ashamed to admit, from the Red Food Group so beloved by boys—pizza, spaghetti, Hawaiian Punch, barbecue potato chips, etc. I wasn't really cooking at all, just throwing things together. We were always in the car, always in a rush.
A man was the last thing on my mind.
When I ran into Hal at a faculty party, I was still traumatized by my divorce. But I'm not a fool, either, and besides, I'd been reading his opinions in our local independent newspaper for years, so I felt as if I knew him already. He offered tennis, lunch, dinner.
I took him up on lunch, during which I was so nervous about having a date! after so long! that finally I just asked him flat out how the date was going, in his opinion. Was he having fun yet, or not? Because if he wasn't, I was just too nervous to continue. He assured me that it was going fine, thank you very much, but I was still so jittery that afterward I drove off with my purse on top of the car.
Our next date was for dinner, which we scarcely ate because we talked so much. Eventually, the waiter had to ask us to leave because people with reservations were waiting for our table.
"Next time," Hal said, "let's cook."
Cook? What did he mean? I had never thought of making dinner as a joint activity. But he showed up at my house the following Saturday night with a grocery bag full of food, a long loaf of French bread and curly green lettuce sticking out the top. He poured Chablis into two of my dusty wineglasses, gave me a solid kiss, and handed me some leeks with sand still clinging to them. "I thought I might grill these," he said. He unwrapped a big fish. "Oh, and can you make a salad?" I could. I washed the lettuce and the leeks and got out a knife and a chopping block. He put on a John Prine tape (this was the pre-CD era, remember). I started slicing tomatoes and chopping onions. Music filled my tiny kitchen. Suddenly, it dawned on me: We were having fun.
Over the next months together, we made jambalaya, paella, gazpacho (now there's a lot of chopping), ratatouille, cassoulet...nothing daunted us. Sometimes if we got started late, we didn't eat until nearly midnight. We talked nonstop. Before long I realized that I probably knew him better than I'd ever known anybody. Now I don't believe in "quality time" so much as I believe in a lot of time. Cooking together forced us to slow down, to concentrate on what we were doing. It made us stay in the moment. As a single working mother with those boys, I'd been so busy—but we're all always so busy, aren't we? Making stock became a way of taking stock. Cooking together also meant sharing the whole process, not just the result—an invaluable concept for marriage, too.
Hal proved to have a genius for occasions—and anything could become an occasion. He is an avid picnicker, for instance, and let me tell you, all you need is a blanket, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, some cheese, some cherries, and a riverbank for an unforgettable afternoon. Once we both called in sick to our jobs and had a formal lunch in my backyard (white linen, silver, the works) to celebrate an eclipse of the sun.
As a writer, I can't resist the obvious metaphor: For a great relationship, start with good ingredients and measure carefully. Do you really like each other? Do you have the same values? Do you laugh a lot? Then vary your basic recipe endlessly, adding plenty of spice. It seems to me that the longer the marriage, the more important the spice—and flexibility—becomes. Hal and I take turns cooking, too. And I have to say that sometimes, on a very busy day, that magic sentence "I love you" can be almost equaled by "Don't worry, honey; I'll make dinner."