My Family Recipe

After 8 Years of Marriage, I’m Teaching My Husband How to Cook

On learning to let go in the kitchen—one imperfect, beautiful pasta at a time.

August 21, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland. PROP STYLIST: JESSICA FARIA. FOOD STYLIST: SAM SENEVIRATNE

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The beat of the knife hitting the cutting board is slow and methodical. I say nothing. My husband is chopping garlic, and this is his pace, and after a year of biting my tongue about his speed, I accept it. After eight years of marriage, I’m teaching Jay how to cook.

When we first met, Jay owned a “good lasagna pan” and spoke of a Bolognese he liked to make, the smell of sausage and garlic filling his apartment as “it simmered for hours”. Later I’d joke that his culinary interests faded as soon as we became serious. And why not? After all, I had worked as a cook in restaurants, written cookbooks, and spent years writing about food. I had the good knives, the copper sauté pan, the ability to jigsaw a meal together out of half a dozen disparate ingredients in the fridge and pantry. I took over the cooking, save for those things that are somehow indelibly seared into a certain male essence: burgers and steaks on the grill and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving—plus, the annual production of a chicken curry he learned to make during a sabbatical spent volunteering in Zanzibar. Jay dabbled in food, but I owned it.

We often had friends over for dinner. I planned the meals, then shopped and prepped for hours (or days). Jay offered to help, but I relegated him to toasting crostini and setting up cheese boards while I ran circles around him doing everything else—a Tasmanian devil deriving grim satisfaction from my ability to get things done. We hosted epic dinners: legs of lamb on the grill, a dozen mezze, trays of sweets, and cheeses paired with jams I’d made from figs I grew on our deck. I whipped up paella with garlicky allioli, sourdough with homemade butter, lengua tacos and mole sauce. Jay lit the candles, put out water glasses, and did the dishes.

Then the pandemic hit. Stuck at home with just each other and without friends filling our table on Saturday nights, Jay asked if we could make cooking our entertainment. He wanted to be part of it.

In the kitchen for those first few meals, I was reminded of our inherent differences. While making a clean-out-the-fridge fried rice, I referred to carrots as more dense, and was treated to a lesson on mass. “Remember, I’m the physics guy,” he told me. “And I’m the cook,” I countered, explaining that carrots take longer to cook and onions have a higher water content.

Then the pandemic hit. Stuck at home with just each other and without friends filling our table on Saturday nights, Jay asked if we could make cooking our entertainment. He wanted to be part of it.

I’d suggest he add oil to a hot pan, and he’d drizzle a few drops, wincing at my restaurant-y ways of pouring a full glug into the pan. I told him to season his vinaigrette with salt, and he asked me how much. As much as it needs—taste it! He stared at me, unblinking. Jay doesn’t trust that he knows what it means to “salt to taste”; he needs numbers and measurements, not a suggestion to just go with it. In physics and math, you write a proof to show that the rules don’t work. Jay wants to follow strict directions; he thinks in spreadsheets. I think in run-on sentences.

As I tried to explain how he should hold his knife to chiffonade herbs, he sighed.

“What am I doing wrong this time?”

I stopped. I realized that Jay didn’t forget how to cook when I moved in, he just ceded to me the territory I wanted. But also, I had pushed him out of the kitchen, off my turf. I began to question why I had created that dynamic; I was a feminist, not someone clinging to a traditional wifely role. Was I so enamored of being “the cook” that I valued it over being an equal partner? Deep down, I thought cooking was the magic I brought to our daily life. But doing so fed into my tendency to equate my productivity with my worth. Sharing the work—and the glory—felt good.

As quarantine endured, Jay developed more skills, and I learned patience. I showed him how to roll out pizza dough and use a pizza peel to flick the pizza into a burning-hot oven. It’s OK if it’s misshapen; this was for us, not Instagram. We cheered each other through a disastrous attempt to make injera. We laughed throughout an evening of making falafel and later told each other that it was better than any other falafel we’ve had.

Was I so enamored of being “the cook” that I valued it over being an equal partner? Deep down, I thought cooking was the magic I brought to our daily life. But doing so fed into my tendency to equate my productivity with my worth. Sharing the work—and the glory—felt good.

But pasta was where we really relaxed. I showed him how to run the dough through our hand crank pasta roller and instructed him to feel it, to create the tactile memory when it is too wet, when it is dry and crumbly, when it is perfectly smooth and elastic. He got frustrated when his ravioli fell apart, and I reminded him that I have made it a hundred times before; he shouldn’t expect to be as good on his third or fourth try. He got better every time. His Bolognese made regular appearances, and when a friend had a baby or got sick, we layered it into a lasagna together.

One night, we decided to make orecchiette. The dough was far too stiff. Shaping the pieces took forever as we tried to mimic a video of an Italian grandmother flattening and shaping the little cups of dough in a single movement. We pushed our thumbs into the disks, imprinting our relationship on each one; sometimes messy, sometimes too much or too little, sometimes resembling the ideal.

Cooked, the pasta was chewy, thick—an amateur’s job. But tossed with browned sausage and rapini, topped with slivers of toasted garlic and a sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes, it was good. And the next time we made it, much better. We kept going and made it our own. As it turns out, we could work at something together, and it could be imperfect but beautiful—his, mine, and ours.

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Chandra Ram

Written by: Chandra Ram

25 Comments

pinki October 12, 2021
nice
 
Shelley S. August 24, 2021
I really to wanted to love this and I do respect your story but makes me reflect on my mother's generation.
My mother, recently passed at 84, was a great cook and engaged in new recipes etc until her death. They had a close group of couples that had an old school "gourmet club" until almost all of the original group died off. With the exception of my Mom, a career pharmacist, most of the women were fulltime homemakers for the majority of their lives. They all had large families and cooked all the meals for 50 years. These were the women who always brought a dish to every event and hosted delicious dinner parties, wedding showers, baby showers, grad parties and retirement parties with grace and ease. It was amazing how as soon as their husbands retired these men were all of a sudden expert chefs.
My Mother found it amusing and I think there was a fair amount of winking and nodding among those women as they let their husbands mansplain how to boil water better than they had been doing it for the last 50 years. I had a hard time understanding this in my younger days, but as I sit waiting for dinner, prepared by my recently retired husband I begin to see the wisdom of these women.
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
I think that's lovely! I've had a few relaxing nights doing a little writing while my husband cooks dinner.
 
Beth August 22, 2021
What a lovely story! I know exactly what you mean, my husband is an engineer and has to know exactly how much of something - he doesn't understand "spritz" or "shake"or "taste". But every once in a while he sees a recipe in a mag that grabs him and he wants to make it, so I let him and I compliment the result even if it isn't so great. I actually feel guilty because I grew up in a household where cooking was "women's work". My dad couldn't boil water and never set foot in the kitchen. But with the pandemic and we're both elderly now, I do welcome his help in the kitchen. It's a learning experience for both of us.
 
pinki October 12, 2021
nice
 
Sonja S. August 22, 2021
Wonderfully written! Thanks for sharing your story!
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
Thank you - I'm so glad you enjoyed it!
 
Rose L. August 22, 2021
What beautiful writing and so truthful. It made me think of my relationship with Woody in so many ways! You hit the target bullseye!
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
Thank you so much! We'll have to tackle one of your cake recipes soon!
 
Rose L. August 25, 2021
thank you--i can't wait to hear which one and how you felt about it!
 
rogersoman August 22, 2021
Thank you for this. It's a wonderful, spot-on, make-me-smile read. I married "up" to a fabulous woman who is a great cook - but she doesn't like to! I love cooking - and I've been fortunate to pass that passion to our two sons. Years ago, when Joann left the corporate world, she took a more active role in the kitchen, thinking it was part of the "wifely chore" thing. I was bummed, but didn't say anything, because she was putting on a great face. In reality, she wasn't having a good time at all. After a while, we BOTH came clean, and as an added bonus, we moved into homes with open concept living / kitchen areas where we can enjoy each other and our guests while I still do most of the cooking.
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
Agreed! Cooking while your spouse or a good friend or two sits nearby and keeps you company is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening!
 
kiawahbarb8 August 22, 2021
What an absolutely wonderful story, I am married 52 years and I also took on the task of cooking ALL the meals. I loved it. In fact, my daughter and son are great cooks today, and enjoy being in the kitchen. But my husband? I'd kick him out of my space and didn't want any "interference". Just let me do "my thing, please". Just like you, the pandemic hit..and there was a moment where the hubs asked if we could be in the kitchen together..."cooking". I tried, but without success. I like being in my kitchen ALONE, it's relaxing to me and teaching someone to chop garlic the way "I do" or slice carrots, is not something I enjoy. BUT, I will say I give you credit for being so patient and having the desire to share your culinary skills. Kuddo's to you!!
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
I think it's still mostly my turf, but it is nice to tackle a cooking project together!
 
Sharon R. August 22, 2021
Beautiful story about more than food -- it's how we build a marriage or other relationship. It's not always about the results, but the process getting there.
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
Agreed - you can have the "perfect" meal or a really great night together - I'd rather the latter. I'm so glad you liked this - thank you!
 
Bernice August 22, 2021
I love this. Sometimes I find myself stressing about how my daughter chops or preps and she is only 13 and I'm so focused on creating a delicious meal that I forget to step back and enjoy the process with her together which is so much more meaningful, memorable and fun!
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
I'm cooking a bit with my nieces and nephews, and ... whew. It requires a lot of patience and many towels to clean up after!
 
Allison W. August 22, 2021
My problem is like Thomas Jefferson’s issue with books, “so many recipes, so little time.” How many trials do you need to perfect that ravioli? Meanwhile I’m on to something else that sounded awesome. Even my absolute favorite recipes don’t show up that often because there are so many wonderful dishes out there waiting to be made.
 
bmallorca August 22, 2021
That is exactly what happens to me! It can take years to get back to making a recipe again, even if it was delightful
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
True! But quarantine allowed me to spend more time with my cookbooks. And once Jay developed a few favorites, it helped to return to them when he cooked.
 
bek99 August 21, 2021
Thank you for this beautiful reminder of what we lose, when what we do becomes who we are.
 
Liz S. August 22, 2021
What @bek99 said!! Identity is a funny thing. I was just speaking to my financial advisor (I am approaching retirement) about learning in my late 20's, when laid off and suddenly had no "position/job title" ... and it threw me. Subsequently, I vowed that my identity would never be tied to a job. Kind of a departure from relationship as written in the article, but for me, as I am now often "identified" as a "senior" by others ... I am once again dealing with how I see myself. But back to the relationship aspect, letting go of perfection in whatever our role is and inviting partner, children, friend in to be part of ... it can be challenging! This article is a wonderful reminder that inclusion of others in a loved task is more important than "doing it my way". Thank you to the author and also all who commented!
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
Letting go of the idea of perfection = perfect. I'm still working on it, but am glad for the reminder - thank you!
 
Author Comment
Chandra R. August 25, 2021
Thank you - I'm so glad you liked it!