Food and love are blended together for most people, but for me it goes a little deeper than my mom's chicken soup.
Growing up in a household headed by two serious eaters and cooks, I've always had an appreciation for the pleasures of the table and the kitchen. Instead of having wild parties when my parents were out of town, I cooked for a few girlfriends; I distinctly remember a menu of gazpacho, paella and flan from the then-new Time-Life Foods of the World series, "The Foods of Spain and Portugal."
But it was after I moved to my first apartment, during my sophomore year in college in New Orleans, that the real love affair began. Surrounded again by food, I spent my spare time making gumbo and jambalaya, and perfecting the town's spicy version of hollandaise. I brought what I jokingly called My Patented Get a Man Swedish Meatballs to potlucks. Women were unimpressed, but my male friends weren't.
In fact, I sometimes realized I had a crush on a guy when I caught myself daydreaming about what I would cook for him. It wasn't just that—never having been a beauty, I had to find another way to a man's heart. I felt accomplished and sensual and cosseting when I was cooking for someone, giving of a special gift that most of my competition couldn't offer.
Late-night omelets were a specialty, and sometimes spaghetti aglio e olio, whipped up to quell another type of appetite. When I was in a relationship, the days and nights of cooking and eating were epic. I read Gourmet magazine before bed, dreaming of the next dinner a deux. The meals that I managed to put out from the crappy kitchens in the cheap apartments I rented in New Orleans were pretty amazing. I may have had good pots and pans and serious knives—my parents knew what I wanted for Christmas and birthdays, and I spent my tips from waitressing either dining out or buying kitchenware—but in one apartment only one of the burners worked on the stove. But nothing deterred me if I was in love.
I once broke it off with a man I'd started dating after I slipped him some kidneys in mustard sauce. He got mad at me when I finally told him what they were—even though he loved them when I'd introduced them, not incorrectly, as veal. My favorite beaux ate anything and everything; as far as I was concerned, it was part of the price of admission, along with a sense of humor and being over 5'10".
When I first cooked for the man who would become my husband, it was a bit of an arm twister: We worked together, and he wasn't keen about an involvement. But I had a mad crush, and he reluctantly agreed to come over one Sunday afternoon, after he'd gone to the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, arriving late in cutoffs that clearly weren't intended for sitting down in.
I don't remember what I wore, but I made chicken with 20 cloves of garlic and a salad with the bacon-tarragon mustard dressing from the Four Seasons. The kitchen in my studio in Gramercy Park in Manhattan was so tiny I called it the kitchenina—even smaller than a kitchenette.
I didn't win him over that night, but I was in full-court-press mode, and I made it my business to find out what he liked. He's Italian; I made osso buco with risotto, bolognese sauce, shrimp scampi.
I fell in love with him when I found out that he liked tripe and liver and onions, and when he half-jokingly told me he knew who to ask to get a man killed. I think he may have fallen for me when I made a full Chinese meal for his best friend's intended wife, who grew up in Hong Kong. It was my first time cooking in his shared apartment, and I got extra points for six courses in an unfamiliar kitchen.
I've been cooking for him ever since.
But we are in an open relationship, and I fantasize about cooking for other people too. We live in Maine now, and both work at home, so it can be hard to meet people. But I know I'm gaining a toehold with a new acquaintance when I want to invite them for dinner, and my passion is cooking a friend's favorite foods for their birthday. When houseguests are coming, I obsess about menus for weeks before they arrive.
Some people write poetry. I make pâté.