October 14, 2009

Excuse Me While I Gush

There are those of us who love to cook.

We like nothing better than starting with individual ingredients and making something wonderful by adding salt, oil, water, sugar, and bay leaves. For me it’s always been something that connects me to my Mother, who started off my love by making crepes with me every Saturday morning; my Aunt, who I made cookies and chutney with during the holidays. It was the smell of Éclair’s Bakery on West 72nd street on Fridays when we picked up our Challah for Shabbat dinner, or the first time I ate Sushi with my Father. I can still remember his constant "you don't have to like it, but you have to try it."

In culinary school I had a very strong emotional and visceral connection to bread making. Elbow deep in sticky, earthy-smelling raw dough, kneading in a cloud of white flour, I would form the loaf and bake it off. It’s difficult to describe the very basic act of bread making. I had an instant connection to every woman in time that had ever kneaded and baked. Cooking with ghosts, I was suspended in time.

The only serious cooking I did while I was still living with my parents was holiday and party cooking. A 20-pound Turkey, fried Chicken for 4th of July, Lamb for Passover. It wasn't until I left home that I started really cooking. I tried different cuts of meats, new techniques, and different flavors. It was my own private culinary school crash course. There was something else I discovered when I was away from home; I didn't like cooking for myself. I didn't see the need to put much effort into food if it were just for me. Yes, it’s a beautiful piece of seared tuna, but it’s just for me; it somehow felt like a waste.

When friends came over for dinner I went all out. Not that it was lobster and caviar every time, but it was a meal I put love and time into, and they could taste that. I started dating a man in the summer of 2006 - someone who I felt from our very first date was different. There’s no other way to describe it other than: it just felt "right." It still does. We were married in March 2008, just a small gathering of loved ones at the Brooklyn Municipal building. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. In fact, the picture above was our wedding announcement.

The first time I cooked for him was a quiet moment. It was no major event; there were no candles or soft music. He sat at the table with a napkin… I made him a grilled cheese sandwich. Nothing fancy, just some English cheddar and the only bread I had in the apartment, marbled rye. He ate about 4 of them. His yumms and mmmms made me beam.

He had never had a woman cook for him before. I was perfectly happy to remedy that. Now as I said, I never loved cooking for myself, but give me just one other person and I'm in heaven. Give me someone I care for, and I relish every drop of sweat, every cut finger, and every burn. I can't say that the way to his heart was through his stomach (although I'm sure it didn't hurt), but I can say that the every time I cook for him, it makes me smile. Seeing him satisfied, or introduced to something new that I've made, something he now loves, is one of my greatest joys.

Food means so much to us. It means family, holidays, traditions, joy, comfort and a myriad of other memories and emotions. For me, it’s a promise to take care of him, and a promise that he will always have a home to come back to. Some might look cynically upon this. After all, it's not the 1950's anymore. Women are liberated. A home cooked meal for “your man” is no longer a requirement. How backward of you! To those people I would say: I’ve marched on Washington for Women's Rights to choose, am continually politically active, and have read my Gloria Steinem thank you very much.

I'll never be barefoot and pregnant. I'll never put makeup on just because he'll be home in 15 minutes, and I don't have a problem with leaving him alone so I can go out with my friends. However, like a comic gets a high from the audience's laughter, and an athlete prides herself on her finishing time, I get my greatest boosts when he invites people over for a home cooked meal because I make great soup, or when he says "it's really good, Baby." When cooking is my choice and not an expectation, it has nothing to do with the roles of the sexes, and everything to do with love.

Cooking is about connections. Connections to the past, connections to your ingredients, even connections to your body. So it doesn't matter if you’re boiling hot dogs or taking the whole day to make a roast. The underlying message is always the same. Make something for someone; it doesn't matter if it’s burnt or god-awful, it doesn’t matter if the soufflĂ© falls. All that matters is that you made the effort. It’s the effort that speaks to people. The very act of cooking for another says, “You mean enough to me that I’ll risk embarrassment and burns to feed you.”

I'm lucky enough to have found someone who appreciates me. He doesn't take me for granted, and to this day, a home cooked meal is a gift, not an obligation. For his love, for his willingness to try whatever I put in front of him, for his gracious smiles and appreciative head nods, I thank him. And for all that, he gets quiches, roasts, chocolate mousse, and a place to call home.

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