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. 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. I always thought of dinner as a little gift, which I was supposed to "prepare" and "present" to my husband. 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. 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. 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. 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.

"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. He unwrapped a big fish. I washed the lettuce and the leeks and got out a knife and a chopping block. 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, ratatouille, cassoulet—nothing daunted us. We talked nonstop. Cooking together forced us to slow down, to concentrate on what we were doing. It made us stay in the moment. 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.

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."

Lee Smith's Seafood Pesto Pasta


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