Food has always been a major part of my life. It started in my suburban Westchester childhood in the 1950s with a mother who considered home-prepared meals the benchmark of being a good wife; it went into overdrive once I married.
Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking became my first muse more than four decades ago. In fact, food became the glue in many of our marital friendships, and my husband certainly encouraged my culinary passion. But after 31 years, his passion for me died, and I found cooking mostly solo — our two daughters had settled into their own lives by this point — a lonely chore. Preparing recipes for one seemed to exacerbate my alone status almost as much as checking “single” on many forms. But even worse than cooking for one was dining in silence. Conversation and camaraderie were missing ingredients. I hungered for shared banter about meal preparations and results.
As I stepped into the dating world, not only was a guy’s use of proper grammar, financial honesty, and political leanings important, but so was how he felt about cooking. If he pooh-poohed the idea of home cooking and always dialed for reservations, red flags shot up immediately. Harsh criticism about my cooking was also a potential deal breaker. Fortunately, several guys spiked my interest — but they were always those who either knew their way around a kitchen or were at least eager to give cooking a shot.
Then, when least expected, Mr. Fixup, my first since I’d divorced 10 years before, strolled into my life. On our first date, we dined at a restaurant and the conversation flowed; in fact, the chatter was so good that I don’t actually remember what we ate or drank. The second date was over great pizza, which I tried to eat neatly despite toppings oozing over the crust and onto my plate. By the fourth date, Mr. Fixup helped me cook dinner at my friends’ home; I swooned when he whisked to perfection a salad dressing he learned from his French son-in-law. This was proof that we could cook à deux. Furthermore, he didn’t laugh when I said I loved reading cookbooks in bed.
However, when he stepped into my small Rhinebeck kitchen for the first time, I shuddered. I loved the live conversation but having someone put pans away in the wrong cabinet or reorder spices made me wonder if I had lived on my own for too long. I apologized profusely, but just couldn’t let go of being territorial. When his daughter’s family visited and insisted on making healthy, organic recipes for their baby, I knew I had to yield control.
Once they left, I actually missed the kitchen hubbub, and it became easier to cook as a team. We put away cellphones and sat down with candles glowing. Our first and only disagreement was about a brisket. He took charge, cooking it first in the oven and then on the grill. It became overdone, tough — almost inedible. I was annoyed; it was Adam’s best at $7.99 a pound. Yet, Mr. Fixup rescued the relationship, if not the main course. “You don’t want to look back and think we broke up because of a brisket, do you?” He was dead right. From there, we moved on to mushroom barley soup and roast chicken.
Forget jewelry and watches this time around; now, when we exchanged gifts it was cookbooks, salt and pepper mills, and even a coveted omelet pan. We enthusiastically debated adding more dried cranberries to a favorite blogger’s broccoli salad recipe and made pizzas and photographed them to share online. At one point, we even tried to dial down food conversations to focus on more serious topics: How to remove the Taliban threat, or importance of BRCA screening. Yet, we always circled back to food, proving that the way to my heart definitely was at home through my range.
Barbara Ballinger is co-authoring with Margaret Crane a book about navigating single life after 50 to be published by Roman & Littlefield in spring 2016. Read more by Barbara here.