Chicken

My Boyfriend Wouldn’t Cook for Me—Until He Met This Chicken Tinga

And now he won't stop.

May  7, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

My boyfriend Nate can’t cook. Not even buttered noodles, or a pot of rice. The other morning as we lay in bed, our stomachs growling, I asked if he thought he might be able to feel out a simple task, like frying an egg—something so intuitive, there’s a cliché about it happening by accident on a hot sidewalk. He just looked at me for a few moments, sheer panic in his eyes.

“I guess I’d get a…pan?” he said. “And make it really…warm?” he continued bravely, emboldened by my nods. “Then I’d, you know, dump an egg in, and just, like, fry it.”

“Okay,” I said. “Not a bad start. But what about the cooking fat?”

“The cooking fat?!” he said, emitting a pinched moan. He flipped over, to face the wall.

When we first met, I found Nate’s culinary ineptitude charming.

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It was the sort of attribute a love interest in a film about young, quirky people in New York might possess, I thought—confidence in all other aspects of life, yet a propensity to quake in fear when asked to mince shallots. If only he’d had an oven in his dorm room, he’d have kept math textbooks in it.

And Nate loved to eat. He really appreciated food, which was the part I thought was important. He joined me on hours-long subway journeys to find New York’s spiciest khao soi, cheesiest cacio e pepe, or juiciest xiaolongbao. He kept a running tally of the best things he’d tasted that week (a hot, spicy deli sandwich), that month (pad krapow), that decade (a tie between goat vindaloo and, inexplicably, cafeteria chicken cutlets). Once, for my dad’s birthday, I made habanero hot sauce in the kitchen of our shared dormitory, and he stood next to me the whole time, dipping little pieces of bread into the pot supportively.

Seven years went by like that, with me at the stove and Nate hovering nearby. I went on a trip to California and brought him back a long wooden tasting spoon, so he could lunge at sauces over my shoulder while I stirred. When asked, he might peel a carrot or open a can of tomatoes. Mostly, though, he existed in the kitchen like he existed in my life: encouraging, unobtrusive, patient, and uncomplaining about my love for garlic.

But the way we view our partners’ habits has a funny way of shifting faster than you can say, “Wait, remind me how that mediocre-sounding movie about quirky New Yorkers ended.”

I switched careers to become a full-time food writer. I began sleeping with a stack of cookbooks the size of a preschooler on my bedside table. All of my pantsuits went into a tote bag, which got jammed into our apartment’s only closet; my apron collection tripled in volume. And over the course of the intervening year, Nate’s distance from all the whisking and searing began to feel more and more like distance from me. His reticence toward planning a dinner menu was no longer the gentle thoughtfulness I’d always loved, but instead an indifference to my interests. Every over-shoulder lunge of his tasting spoon was an intrusion. His exacting focus on any small assigned task—something I so admired when he was piloting a rental car, but which in the kitchen became: “Is this onion sliver too thick? How about this one?”—seemed like a preemptive excuse to back slowly away from the cutting board.

I desperately wanted to share this new part of me. But he was lingering around the periphery, like I’d invited him to my house party and he wouldn’t stop drinking beer in the driveway.

For my birthday this year, I asked that we make dinner together.

“I’ll help. It’ll be fifty-fifty,” I said, handing him a cookbook from my stack that I’d been obsessing over, Tu Casa Mi Casa: Mexican Recipes for the Home Cook, by Enrique Olvera, Luis Arellano, Gonzalo Goût, and Daniela Soto-Innes. “And I won’t make you fry an egg.”

He chose a few recipes, and we shopped for groceries together.

Nate got started on the salsa verde, which meant charring tomatillos, a quarter of an onion, serrano chiles, and garlic in a heavy frying pan—in lieu of a comal—over high heat. (“No…no cooking fat?” he asked. “No cooking fat,” I said.)

We blended the charred ingredients with cilantro and salt. The result was a deeply flavorful, acetic, almost raspy salsa that we’d intended to eat with tortilla chips while we cooked the rest of dinner, but which disappeared within four minutes.

Meanwhile, we worked on the tinga de pollo, a shredded chicken, chipotle chile, and tomato dish from Puebla that we'd both always loved, and used to order over tacos during our early dates at Brooklyn’s La Superior.

Nate ran point on a broth, with chicken breasts, onion, garlic, and salt. I fielded his questions while I prepared Tu Casa’s tortillas and arroz verde to pair with the tinga, which Olvera notes can be served as a soupy stew, or cooked down more as a tostada topping. The clear, delicate flavor of the chicken broth—which, unlike lots of recipes, actually contains adequate salt—renders it highly sippable in its own right.

When the second phase of tinga (sautéing more onion and garlic with chiles, tomatoes, shredded chicken, and some of the broth) had been completed, we ladled it over our rice. Each bowl received a perky dollop of sour cream and a handful of thinly sliced radish. The smokiness of the chipotles against the broth proved tormentingly savory. When coupled with the contrasting textures of each component (shredded meat, sautéed onion, and just-broken tomato), it made for a stew so comforting, each spoonful was like getting home and hanging up your jacket after a very long trip.

When pressed, Nate revealed a memory it shook loose of his four-year-old self biting into a ripe tomato at his grandfather’s house. And as he ate—at first, blowing on a single bite cautiously, and then, like a bank robber cleaning out a gold vault during a heist’s final minutes—I could see in his expression the incomparable, sybaritic pleasure of tasting something you’ve made yourself.

Seven years went by like that, with me at the stove and Nate hovering nearby. He existed in the kitchen like he existed in my life: encouraging, unobtrusive, patient, and uncomplaining about my love for garlic.

A few weeks after, I got home from work late. I let myself in and dropped many bags down onto the living room floor. A grapefruit rolled out of one, tumbled across the room, and wedged itself between the couch and bookshelf.

“Let’s go out,” I said. “I’m starving.”

“Or,” he said, holding up a package of chicken breasts from the butcher, “we could stay in, and make tinga.”

I leaned over to liberate the grapefruit, and blew away a little clump of dust on its peel. I didn’t ask Nate when he figured out which butcher I liked, or how he knew we had chipotles in the pantry—sometimes, encouraging, unobtrusive, patient partners just pick up on stuff like that.

Later, as I sliced a white onion, I could feel him hovering over my shoulder. He picked up a sliver.

“A little thick, don’t you think?”


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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

15 Comments

Irene Y. May 13, 2019
loved this! So great to read about food through the eyes of your relationship <3 so sweet and honest.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. July 1, 2019
Thank you, Irene!
 
Amy C. May 10, 2019
Ah I love the blend of the recipe and the story - so well written! I want to try this recipe now :)
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. May 10, 2019
Thank you for the nice note, Amy!
 
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Loved this story, Ella, and your humor. More Nate tales.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. May 10, 2019
Thanks Eric!
 
Joan S. May 9, 2019
I loved this story. Now I am going to try the recipe. It looks easy enough.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. May 10, 2019
Thanks Joan! Hope you enjoy it.
 
Foteini May 9, 2019
I have never tried chicken tinga but you make a very compelling argument :-) I am sure there’s some chipotle in the pantry....
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. May 9, 2019
Hope you enjoy it! :)
 
Niknud May 9, 2019
This is a great article.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. May 9, 2019
Thank you so much :)
 
Eric K. May 9, 2019
Aw.
 
Ericka B. May 8, 2019
I love this so much.
 
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Ella Q. May 9, 2019
Thanks for the nice note, Ericka!