She did the lion's share of the cooking. Her husband was good for chicken and an occasional defrosted pizza—until the day he came home with a 600-page cookbook, a burning look in his eyes, and a killer new recipe for dividing up labor.
One afternoon a few months ago, my husband walked into the house carrying a cookbook and then stood in the kitchen for a long time, turning the pages, reading it. This was interesting. He looked deeply absorbed. When his cell phone rang, he went out onto the porch for a minute, the cookbook still opened on the counter, and I came over to inspect. He had been interrupted in the midst of "How to Choose a Pork Roast." There was a silhouette of a pig, connected by arrows to detailed line drawings of 13 hefty-looking cuts of raw meat.
In retrospect I see that I was completely dim about what was already under way in our household, but I remember nodding to myself and thinking, "Oh, okay. Meat." The whole book was about meat, serious meat, the kind I'd never been any good at cooking: beef chuck, short ribs, leg of lamb, brisket. Bill wanted more meat in our dinner menus, apparently, and had brought me an instruction manual—600 pages long, I couldn't help noticing, and with the same sort of heft as the sirloin pork roast in the picture. I was studying the corned beef recipe, which called for boiling up your own brine and then submerging the meat in it for 12 days, when Bill came back in and made a complicated spousal throat-clearing noise. "Uh, that's for me," he said. "My cookbook."
I might have been more startled if Bill had said "My mascara," or "My pedicure kit," but I doubt it. Every domestic arrangement that works reasonably well is stretched out over a web of understandings about who does what, and for 24 years—three houses, that is, and two children and two extended families and a long, noisy, generally good-natured parade of teenagers and exchange students and visiting nephews and whole soccer teams clumping in and out—I have been the one who cooks. I don't want to give the wrong impression here: I'm a slovenly housekeeper, blessed with a gratifying inability to see grime at all until the hour before a fussy relative is about to arrive. But I can follow a recipe. I keep a stack of CDs in the corner of the kitchen, because I like singing to Ella Fitzgerald or the Rolling Stones while I'm dropping cut-up things into a hot frying pan. In the days when carbohydrates were fashionable, I used to make risotto with fresh corn and goat cheese; and one of my daughter's friends once told me he craved my chocolate chip cookies so much that if I made some for the school ski bus, he wouldn't smoke any pot for the entire trip. I had a really muscular period a while back that involved twice-risen whole wheat bread and home-canned apricot preserves.
Not that I'm invested in this.
It was clear, is all I'm saying. Delineated. Mom tears recipes from the food pages and puts a green vegetable on the plates every night; Dad does barbecue on the weekends and on the nights when Mom's away takes a pizza out of the freezer or makes boiled noodles with sliced hot dogs on top. Bill did have a way of broiling chicken that I never quite understood, something with kosher salt and high heat so that even the breasts were juicy and crispy at the same time, but I elected not to think about that. It was much more satisfactory to smile gently at him, making a visible effort not to roll my eyes, when he asked where we kept the spatulas. If Bill were reading over my shoulder right now, he'd try to sell you some story about how every time he offered to help I would wave my large kitchen knife at him and tell him everything was under control, but this would be a tremendous, tremendous exaggeration. Often I didn't have a knife. Or if I did, I wouldn't say I waved it. I was busy slicing things with it in exactly the right way, which was essential to whatever I was cooking and difficult to explain clearly to anybody else, unless, of course, that person happened to be doing it wrong.
Why a sensible adult would want to interfere with this simple and fully understandable system of household order I cannot really say, except that it might be like that part in the action thrillers when the cable starts to fray on the mountain gondola with 13 passengers inside and then shot by shot the metal threads snap off in slow-mo and the gondola's tipping and people are shrieking and finally the butcher sets a new meat cookbook out on the counter where a husband can spot it while his wife is next door buying flowers. I think that's what happened. Anyway, here's what Bill made for dinner one week after bringing home his cookbook, having waited until an afternoon when I was gone so that he could conduct a stealth sortie into the kitchen: Oven-Roasted Tri-Tip.
He used the meat thermometer. He served the tri-tip already sliced thin, perfectly rare, in its juices. I poked at it suspiciously, made a polite remark regarding its flavor, and then ate about 18 slices.
Two days later: Oven-Roasted Tri-Tip with Southwestern Spice Rub.
Three days after that: Sautéed Pork Chops with Wilted Greens, Pine Nuts, and Raisins.
By the time he got to Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Dried Cranberry and Apple Stuffing and Cranberry–White Wine Reduction Sauce, Bill had bought a new meat thermometer, digital, with protruding wires and flashing lights that made it look as though he'd lifted the whole apparatus from an intensive care unit. He had driven to the Indo-Pakistani food store one city over, brought home a dozen bags of spices, and rooted around in the cupboards for empty jars to store them in. Six o'clock had become a delicate, perilous time at the kitchen end of our house; a white-wrapped butcher package would show up on the counter, and I would say to myself, "Ah! We should talk about this!" But then we wouldn't. I would stand around the kitchen for a while, looking for some lettuce to wash, and finally Bill would stride in and start pulling out frying pans and turning on three burners at once and flipping through measuring cups. I couldn't figure out how he had found the measuring cups, but he had, and furthermore he appeared to have mastered the trick of opening that cabinet door slowly, so the bud vases and the tea bag boxes don't fall out on your head. And now here he was on Roasted Pork Tenderloin night with his dried cranberries and his apples and his big damn cookbook, and he was holding a measuring cup up to the light, pouring wine precisely to the three-quarters mark, and he glanced over and saw the expression on my face.
We regarded each other for a minute. He scooped a wooden spoon into the stuffing, keeping his eyes on me; he had already sliced the meat, I noted stiffly, and fanned the pieces down the length of my grandmother's china serving platter.
"You should taste this," he said.
It smelled ridiculously good—sage, I guessed, and butter and garlic and onion, and maybe some thyme, and the faint sweetness of the fruit. I did a rapid calculation of the number of holiday tables at which Bill must have watched me push turkey around my plate while taking thirds on stuffing, and somewhere in the back of my head a tiny cloud of reason began to form. I thought about gratitude, about adaptability, about the splendid and infinite reach of marital give-and-take. I thought about compromise. I thought about grace. I thought about pecans, which it seemed to me the stuffing needed, you know, for the crunch, and not cut too big, and perhaps a bit more pepper.
But did I say that? I did not.
What I said was, "If you start baking desserts, I will blow up the kitchen."