Essential Tools

A Kitchen Hack that Outlasted the Boyfriend It Came From

Yeah, it's that good.

April 30, 2018
Photo by Bobbi Lin

I was nervous. We had been seeing each other for months—exploring restaurants and parks and movies and parts of New York that I didn’t even know existed—but this was the first time we’d gotten together in the kitchen. Cooking made me happy. He made me happy. But I wasn’t sure how well the two would mix.

Nevertheless, I had just bought A New Way to Dinner, and the low-maintenance promise of Amanda Hesser’s fish tacos seemed perfect. It was sexier than chicken, more complex than pasta, faster than homemade pizza. Plus, it answered the anticipated dilemmas my anxious mind prophesized—lots of steps to divide between two people, hands-off cooking for a short break, and flexible flavors for different taste buds. We divvied up the shopping list and set a Friday night date.

Squeezing into my narrow kitchen, we bumped elbows and hips as we set up prep stations. My hasty, messy method was a stark contrast to his methodical arrangement. I buzzed with a nervous energy while he calmly studied each step on the dog-eared page. Before chopping the onions and tomatoes and cilantro, he grabbed my roll of paper towels, tore off four sheets, then drenched them in water. After wringing them out, he slipped two sheets under my wooden cutting board and two under his.

“I learned this in a cooking class I took a couple years ago,” he said. “This will keep the board from slipping around. Plus it’s easier cleanup.” He picked up his knife and got to work.

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I felt somewhat embarrassed that I’d never thought of it before. It was so obvious. The friction of damp towel between our boards and the slick countertop allowed us to quickly and safely chop chop chop.

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Top Comment:
“Mount Gay & OJ with a dash of bitters. Learned from my first boyfriend in 1984. I was a hick from New Hampshire, he was from Boston and attending Vassar, so he obviously was much more cosmopolitan than I could ever be. Of course, I figured out later that he was just a dink, but I still like that cocktail, so score 1 for me.”
— Dennis S.

I didn’t know he’d taken cooking classes. But it shouldn’t have surprised me. He was someone who was always learning—sailing, hiking, climbing, beekeeping, drawing, photography. It was something I admired. When he decided to try something new, he approached with an open, curious mind, pushing himself into classes and workshops. He believed in unashamedly learning the basics, no matter how simple.

Our conversation drifted to other techniques he’d learned in cooking class as we chopped and cooked. When we sat down, enjoying our tacos in silence, I started thinking of classes I could take, of the ways I could challenge myself. Our first foray into cooking as a couple was perfect.

I soon realized that perfect dinners don’t translate to perfect relationships. My need for consistency, a partner to talk to and confide in, collided with his need for freedom. Passive comments turned into sleepless nights of anxiety and tearful confrontations. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when something that made you so happy turns. Our relationship ended a few months later.

Since then, I ventured into rock climbing, which I now do almost every week. I've also taken painting classes and signed up for historical tours of libraries and banks and parks. I volunteer more regularly. I stopped being embarrassed about what I didn’t know and push myself out of my comfort zone. And, most importantly, I keep my cutting board from slipping and sliding again—and right now, that's all I need.

Have you learned a technique or recipe from a partner that stuck around longer than the relationship? Share them in the comments below.

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Katie is a food writer and editor who loves cheesy puns and cheesy cheese.


Ash March 16, 2021
From one ex, I learned that you can cook with chopsticks.

Another wanted to buy proper chef's knives (Wuhstoff), which we split up when we separated and I still have to this day.

A third introduced me to porridge/oatmeal (which was just something my dad ate and hated growing up), grating apple into porridge, and making porridge with half milk and half water.
Carolyn B. March 15, 2021
Thanks to a chef ex, I can scale a fish (submerged in a sinkful of water to keep the scales from going everywhere)!
Lina March 15, 2021
We (my family, Mom, Nonna) have always used bar mops to wipe down counters, tables, etc. I was taught young using a wrung-out bar mop under the cutting board helps keep it still.
Suzanne B. June 1, 2018
Rock climbing is so much better than a relationship where you are constantly in an up and down situation.
I use the plastic washable cutting sheets. I have a very small kitchen and storage of a nice cutting board doesn't figure in.
Cherie May 5, 2018
I learned to put a dampened cloth under my cutting board somewhere in my past - and it is a great hack. I think that's an appropriate word. In fact I smiled all through this article and the comments too.
akashocd May 5, 2018
this is so good that I loved it very much
akashocd May 5, 2018
the recipe is so good and its taste is also very good
Janet G. May 4, 2018
A damp kitchen towel under a cutting board works better than paper towels, and you can rinse it and wipe down the counter with it when you’re done, if you aren’t cutting meat. It’s eco-friendly too! P.S. I like the word “hack”, hack away!
Gilda O. May 4, 2018
I chop tomatoes with a bread knife, like my ex (who is a chef) used to do, and add lemon zest to some risotto or meat dishes, because I've seen him doing so...little tricks that stuck way longer than our relationship!
Deanna W. May 3, 2018
I like to use the nonslip things you’d put under rugs rather than paper towels. It’s just as non slip (or more so), can go under bowls when whisking, and last way longer.
Deanna W. May 4, 2018
I usually cut it so it’s slightly smaller than the board, and cut a few so if I need multiple boards or bowls I have them. I used to use wet dish cloths, but after the great turmeric incident, I switched to something I don’t mind replacing.
Hoi May 3, 2018
I learned how to evenly chop and dice an onion from my ex. Which was really appropriate, because there was a lot of non-onion-related crying in that relationship, too.
yvette May 3, 2018
Sounds like a total win of a dating relationship! You received lifelong gifts and learned more about what you need. Remember, a moment, a season or a lifetime. All can be wonderful!
Ttrockwood April 30, 2018
Love this tip (which i already use), great column but please please PLEASE stop using “hack” as a word!!
Maureen May 3, 2018
"Hack" IS a word. Do you mean stop using it as a noun? According to Webster, it's a perfectly acceptable noun: "a usually creative solution to a computer hardware or programming problem or limitation." We've expanded it beyond the bounds of computer programming. So Katie has my permission to go on using it that way whenever she wants.
Dennis S. April 30, 2018
Mount Gay & OJ with a dash of bitters. Learned from my first boyfriend in 1984. I was a hick from New Hampshire, he was from Boston and attending Vassar, so he obviously was much more cosmopolitan than I could ever be. Of course, I figured out later that he was just a dink, but I still like that cocktail, so score 1 for me.
Jennifer M. April 30, 2018
I had never even heard of Tuna Poke before meeting my ex. (Just proves that trained chefs don't know every, little thing about food). He made it for me 3 times I think, before we were no longer together. The last time he made it, I watched him intently, writing down the recipe and steps as he went. I will now have that recipe forever. Some things stand the test of time; some don't.
Jennifer M. April 30, 2018
I accidentally cut into a Sil-Pat once, so now I use a piece of that under my cutting boards.
Tammy M. May 3, 2018
Are you willing to share that poke recipe?