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Photo: Ann Stratton
She could make an omelet (sort of) and tuna steaks (also sort of). Problem: how to infuse her cooking with a hunka-hunka-burnin' love?
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.

Not hard. Impossible. My next goal is to make banana bread. It's one of my favorites. Plus, it smells good and tastes so lovely when fresh from the oven. In theory.

I've heard that cooking can be a meditative experience, so I get a meditative cookbook: The Tassajara Bread Book, by Edward Espe Brown, a Buddhist student who became a priest and the head cook at Zen Mountain Center in California. The book hasn't been out of print since it was first published in 1970. The Washington Post calls it "the bible for bread baking." As I read through the recipe, it looks simple enough. "It would be even better," I think, with some cinnamon. "I'll add a dash—surely a little cinnamon won't hurt." But wait; Celia told me to follow the recipe exactly. I close the cap on the bottle but don't put it back on the shelf: obstinacy. I eye the nutmeg, which is also not on the list of ingredients, and question the lemon zest, which is. "Would it matter that much," I wonder, "if I just add a little cinnamon?"

Mulling it over in the way a gambler takes a moment to convince herself that yes, she could win it all back with just one more bet, I flip through the book. In the foreword, Brown writes: "Recipes are only a guide, a skeletal framework, to be fleshed out according to your nature and desire. Your life, your love, will bring these recipes into full creation. This cannot be taught. You already know. So plunge in: cook, love, feel, create." A baking Zen priest after my own heart! I'll bet Brown would be okay with my making a slight change to his recipe. Or he might tell me my mind needs to be trained, because I add the cinnamon, the nutmeg, and some apple butter to the bread.

"This is nice," Nathan says, taking one bite. "What is it?"

"Banana bread," I tell him.

"Hmmm," he says. Not "Mmmm," "Hmmm." He sets down the slice. "Are there any bananas in it?"

I don't know what went wrong," I say to Celia the next day. I relive it all: the seemingly innocent addition of the cinnamon, the escalation to the nutmeg, the mania of the apple butter. In retrospect, it feels like a baking blackout—I had no idea I'd gone so far off the rails until my banana bread had become something else entirely. And not something good. (Day after day, it went untouched by my usually baked-goods-addicted husband.)

I puzzle over the fact that I felt compelled to "improve" on the banana bread recipe before I'd even discovered how it was supposed to taste. And then, slowly, I begin to understand: Maybe the problem was that I wasn't trying to make banana bread at all; I was trying to make a wife.

Married less than a year, Nathan and I are very proud of each other. Sometimes I think we're stunned by each other, or at least I am by him. "Look, there's my husband!" I find myself thinking when I see him across a room. "Isn't she beautiful?" he'll say when introducing me to friends. But on the days when I don't feel like such a prize, I still want to be worthy of his adoration. I want to magically turn into that Really Great Wife who makes brag-worthy dinners and banana bread too good to be shared. But okay, I reason with myself, I've had to learn to love Nathan differently—better—than I've loved anyone before. And if I want to express my love with cooking, I'll have to learn that, too.

Photo: Ann Stratton
The instructions are simple: Follow a recipe. To the letter. To leave no room for any substitutions on my part, I look for the shortest recipe possible. I find it in Vegetarian Pleasures, by Jeanne Lemlin: a pesto with only five ingredients. Lemlin is no enabler; she doesn't encourage cooks to add, subtract, or improvise on her simple list: basil, olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, butter. That's it.

Directions are also few. Jeanne instructs me to put the basil, oil, and garlic in a food processor. I do. She tells me to stir in the cheese and butter by hand. I do. She suggests that, in addition to pouring the pesto over pasta, I try it on toasted French bread. I do.

"This is good," Nathan says. It is.

But I'm not there yet—one decent sauce isn't enough to cancel out the gray tuna, the banana-less bread, and all the other mediocre meals I've apologetically served. I want to make that great dinner, that bowl of love, and in order to learn to seduce my husband's stomach, I must go to the one who tempted him, she of the low-cut blouses and the high fat content: Giada. Yes, I'm cooking with the enemy.

"Anytime you add sausage to a pasta dish, you exponentially increase the number of people who are going to love it," she writes in Everyday Pasta of her artichoke, sausage, and asparagus rigatoni. Of course she uses hot sausage, that vixen.

I chose this recipe because it is both familiar (pasta) and unfamiliar (a non-tomato-based sauce). I'm not used to that, so I'm less likely to lose my head and suddenly toss in anchovies. But while reading the instructions, I feel that pull again: "It needs a little more oil, and maybe one more clove of garlic...."

No. Giada studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. I studied English at Fordham University. I concede.

The smell of sausage and garlic browning in olive oil fills the kitchen; our apartment smells more like a home already. I add sun-dried tomatoes, bite-size pieces of asparagus, and quartered artichoke hearts. After simmering a few minutes in chicken broth and white wine, the whole thing meets a bowl of steaming rigatoni.

But it's the fresh herbs—the parsley and the basil, chopped just seconds before being tossed into the warm mixture—that transform these disparate food items into a meal. The scent alone is joyful. I love it. I love everything. I even love Giada. If this tastes half as good as it smells, the other woman is my new best friend.

All during dinner, Nathan barely speaks to me. He's busy plowing his way through two helpings of rigatoni.

"That was excellent," he says, spearing a few more forkfuls directly from the serving dish. "The only thing that would've made it better is a little more olive oil. And maybe a touch more garlic."

Oh, don't get me started.


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