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A Kitchen Hack that Outlasted the Boyfriend It Came From

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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.

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“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.

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.

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.

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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.

Tags: Tips & Techniques, Essay