I feel very blessed that my favorite guy likes to cook. I’m even more blessed that he knows more about cooking than I do, so he’s got stuff to teach me. The playing field levels out ever so slightly because I’m a vegetarian cook. As such, I’m inspired to try all sorts of things that Matt might never make at home. It amazes me that we get along well in the kitchen—no food fights, just nibbles of cheese and sips of wine and taste-testing to check the progress of caramelizing onions. He is the first man with whom I have felt comfortable cooking. Matt is pretty amazing, but I wonder if the sensuality of cooking might encourage other couples to inhabit the kitchen at the same time, hands in the food, hearts wide open to romance. To my mind, there is nothing sexier than a man who can cook—nothing except a man who will cook, and who will cook with me. The snag is really that last part: how do two people form a kitchen partnership? How is one couple able to put dinner together without ever wanting to use wooden spoons to knock each other over the head, while another couple stays in separate rooms when someone is cooking? What is it about kitchen chemistry that can make cooking together foreplay or a disaster?
Despite my scientific credentials, I have only some thoughts and observations about romantic kitchen affairs. My own love affair came to life in part because of a shared love for cooking. Through a rather pleasurable process, Matt and I have learned how to cook together happily, and I’d like to think there are some nuggets of wisdom I can glean from our experience. I have also dated men who were not nearly as much fun in the kitchen, and there is definitely something to be learned from the failures. My friends, who inspired me to write this post, have offered their two cents on the topic. They also tell me fun stories of cooking with their sweeties; heaven knows I adore a love story, especially one that involves food. Today, let us explore the delicate process of making sexy, messy, homespun love in the kitchen—the very best kind of love we can make while fully clothed.
* First of all, relax. Cooking together should be fun, not stressful. So take a few deep breaths, remember why you love your special someone, and let go of any gourmet expectations here. Also, a glass of wine may help with this step.
* Embrace imperfection and set a low threshold. Mistakes will be made—try not to fret about it. I’d say that edibility is a reasonably low threshold. If the meal isn’t edible, I think you are entitled to feel disappointed. Case in point: last summer Naperville Dude and I had a picnic, and he’d brought these baked tomatoes, whole tomatoes, with melted cheese on top. They were still warm from the oven when we ate (and it was so hot that day), and I do not exaggerate when I say they were inedible. They were awful. I gagged when I tried to take a bite, and we ended up throwing all of them away. I admit that I was very diasppointed; I remember thinking to myself, Can’t this guy even bring a decent vegetable to a picnic? I had been imagining a salad, maybe a green bean one with shallots and some sort of mustardy dressing…but silly me, I had a whole food fantasy in my head, but I didn’t say a word out loud. I wanted to trust that Naperville Dude could handle a vegetable dish, but I was wrong. We broke up shortly thereafter. We didn’t break up over tomatoes, but perhaps they were a contributing factor.
I digress. My point is that cooking offers so many sensual rewards that it’s worth it to try cooking together. Take it easy on each other and have fun with it.
* Be gentle with each other. In cooking, as in life, sometimes it’s necessary to offer some correcting advice. The trick is all in the delivery. There are times when I would like Matt to do something a little differently, or vice versa—maybe the potato chunks are too large, or the chickpeas haven’t been simmered to tender perfection. In these cases, we’re both open to the other person’s opinion, but that opinion is always offered gently and lovingly. This is really important to me. I cannot tell you how many friends of mine have barked criticism at me as though I were an inept line cook who can’t chop tomatoes. Oh, alright, maybe they weren’t quite that rough with me, but I’m a sensitive creature. I like my criticism sweetened with sugar and dolloped with whipped cream. Think about this: what is more important to you, your partner’s feelings or that the pasta is cooked perfectly al dente?
Be gentle, encouraging, and kind. Use a soft tone. Ask, don’t bark. Nobody likes it when someone else makes them feel bad about their work.
* I realize that not everybody feels at home in the kitchen. If this description fits you, I have just one word: TRY. Your efforts will mean so much to your partner that they will overshadow the results. My other piece of advice would be to cook from a reputable source if you are nervous and uncertain. Try a classic cookbook before you try recipes from other print sources or the internet. A classic cookbook, especially one that’s been updated and reissued, is likely to provide good, solid instructions and good, solid recipes. The contents have been tested and re-tested by lots of cooks, so you can feel more confident about reproducibility. Reproducibility = Edibility.
* Embrace the mess. Cooking is messy—there’s just no way around this simple truth. Personally, I rather enjoy the mess—it makes me feel vibrantly alive to see a kitchen filled with people and food and the messy clutter of people working with food. When I’m cooking, I’d rather be focused on the food—the tastes, the smells, the process—than be obsessed with maintaining a spotless kitchen. I clean up as I go, but only as my cooking times allow, or when a dirty dish must be made clean for the next step in the recipe. I won’t sacrifice my cooking time on the altar of godly cleanliness.
It makes me very happy that Matt and I cook together and we clean up together. I think cleaning up together is an ideal solution to the mess. This problem is tricky, though, because couples don’t always agree on how to do the clean-up. I encourage you to talk to your partner. Try to find a compromise that gets the job done faster for everyone, which leaves you more time for dessert and cuddling on the couch. Dessert + cuddling = Happy ending.
* Simmer your affections. I confess: I have a one-track mind, and it’s often, but not always, thinking sexy thoughts. When I’m cooking, though, I’m thinking about the food. I don’t want to be distracted by other things, including a groping, horny man. Cooking with Matt is very sexy, and one of the reasons is that we tend to watch each other without touching. I get to study the way he moves, the way he handles a knife, the way he mixes with his hands and then licks his fingers. There’s a certain tension that builds when we cook together. It’s delicious. The whole thing gives me shivers of pleasure.
But I am grateful that we don’t do much touching of anything but the food. For one thing, if we’re putting a whole meal together, there might be a lot going on—multiple burners going, sharp knives in motion, food spread out. We’ve got to keep track of what we’re doing! The other thing is that I am horribly klutzy, constantly dropping things and banging into walls. I’d prefer not to cut my finger—yet again!—if Matt decides to get frisky while I’m prepping vegetables. There is plenty of time to get frisky before or after dinner. I’m okay with both.
Of course not everyone feels the same way. The important thing is to honor each person’s desires. For some people, cooking together might be the perfect excuse to get frisky, in which case, might I recommend you take care to turn off the burners before something catches on fire? Maybe frisky cooks should stick to salads?
* Measuring spoons are optional. Matt, like many of my friends, cooks a lot by feel. He’s not big on measuring things. He trusts his instincts and his palate. And I trust Matt, so even though I like measuring things, I don’t mind that he doesn’t love it as much as I do. During his last visit, we were making my much-loved Roasted Broccoli and Tofu, and I asked Matt if he’d like to prep the tofu. (That’s another thing I love about Matt: he’ll eat tofu with me. And he actually likes it!) The chopped tofu was sitting in a mixing bowl. I stood in front of Matt, a bottle of olive oil in one hand and a tablespoon in the other. “The tofu needs two tablespoons of oil,” I said. Matt reached for the olive oil, leaving my other hand dangling in the air attached to a tablespoon. He uncapped the bottle, poured a healthy splash of oil over the tofu, and, with his bare hands, mixed the tofu until it was glossy and aromatic with oil. I laughed at us—me with the tablespoon still in my hand, Matt with his hands coated in olive oil—and set the spoon on the counter. Clearly he would not be needing it.
Everybody who cooks has his own style. It’s one of the things that makes home-cooking so lovely and unique. If you are cooking as one member of a pair, I say embrace the uniqueness! Leave the measuring spoons on the counter! Let the olive oil flow! If this feels a bit devil-may-care for you, try doing what I do whenever Matt and I are on together: let yourself be on vacation, even if it’s just for an evening. Have fun, be spontaneous, and enjoy the magic.
* Delegate…as it pleases you. My friend Nicole tells me she and her husband, Andy, used to have minor disagreements about things like how carefully spices ought to be measured. Their solution? She (or he) who opens the spice jar gets to season as she sees fit. Nicole and Andy are also very gentle with each other when they offer corrections. By the way, they love to cook together.
A delegation strategy can be employed in lots of ways. Matt and I do this from time to time, especially when fresh mozzarella is involved. Matt makes an amazing caprese salad, and he likes to make it when it’s high tomato season. He’ll make his salad as an appetizer for us to nibble while I get our soup started.
As a cook who spends most of her time in the kitchen alone, I must confess that I love having a partner in crime, someone with whom to split the onion-chopping and potato-washing. Ever since we met, I knew that there was something special about Matt, but I had no idea that we would come to share so many mundane moments made magical. With Matt, everything is more fun.
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I have a special treat for you today. My dear friend Ammie just published her latest cooking magazine (or “cookzine,” as she likes to call it), Clove-Minded: A Valentine Cookbook. Last weekend I got to curl up with my copy. I was utterly charmed by the illustrations, including a racy one that you’ve got to see to believe. Clove-Minded is a little piece of the cooking history that Ammie and I have shared—she’s included a few of her favorite recipes from Life, Love, and Food—but it also features lots of shiny new recipes that I can’t wait to try, including her Apple-Cheddar Cheese Pie (accompanied by a very useful Apple Chart!), Crème Andalouse, Chicago Diner Scones, and Goat Cheese-Olive Empanadas. And her Soy Chorizo-Potato Pastries are not to be missed—they are amazing. Spicy, rich, and quite impressive as they bake up into big shiny bronze pillows, I love these things.
You deserve Soy Chorizo-Potato Pastries and a chance to enjoy Ammie’s funny prose and adorable Apple Chart. For just six dollars, you can purchase your own copy here, or you can try to win a copy right now! Leave a comment about your own sexy, messy adventures in the kitchen, and one randomly chosen reader will win a copy of Clove-Minded. As an extra treat, I’ll include a special baked something, fresh from my kitchen. The deadline for the drawing is a week from today, Monday, April 6, 2009. I’ll announce the winner the next day.
Good luck, and happy cooking!