Pandemic Home Cooking: There’s a New Chef in Town
After my three-decade reign as Queen of the Cookware, I’m learning how to share the spatula.
My husband has a new hobby: cooking.
Over the past 34 years, Doug has dabbled: oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving, pork and spaetzle on New Year’s Day and barbecued chicken on the summer grill. But the kitchen remained my domain. “I cooked in college because I had to,” he explained. “Then we met, and your cooking was much better.”
I embraced my title as family chef. The ensuing arrangement—I cook and he cleans up—grew as seasoned as my cast-iron skillet. I calculate that over our 35 years together, with three kids, I’ve cooked 20,000 meals. I rarely use a recipe anymore, and once the children flew the nest, my meal planning became minimal. Possibly nonexistent. I scan the shelves of the refrigerator and toss bits and pieces together. I estimate amounts and add ingredients by eye. I restore tired vegetables with a stir-fry and a soy-saucing. I randomly pour the final two inches of last night’s wine bottle into the pan.
Then in March, when the pandemic sent us all home, the demand for homemade meals multiplied faster than mold on leftover brie. In April, I spotted a meme that pretty much captured my mood: an exhausted woman stares at a steaming pot, eyelids drooping. Bold white letters shout, “DOES ANYBODY ELSE FEEL LIKE THEY’VE COOKED 450 DINNERS THIS MONTH?”
I still loved being in the kitchen, but my enthusiasm was wilting like old lettuce.
About three months into working at home, Doug stumbled upon the website of Christopher Kimball, a Vermont chef enraptured by international cuisines. Kimball is the former host of America’s Test Kitchen. He now has a culinary fiefdom: a cooking school, radio and television shows, cookbooks, a monthly magazine and the website that captured Doug’s attention. Kimball’s online recipes feature lavish photos, precise instructions and obscure ingredients.
My husband decided to try one dish.
His first attempt—chicken vindaloo, gently simmered and napped in a vivid sauce spiked with ginger, garlic, turmeric and sweet paprika—was a rousing success. Emboldened, Doug started scouring our local Kroger for items like white miso paste, Fresno chiles, lemongrass and orecchiette. Soon after, my little German Village kitchen—and its scant 5 square feet of usable counter space—became a war zone of cutting boards, uncapped spice jars and drippy spatulas. My husband dove into cooking with an appetite reminiscent of Guy Fieri confronted with a plate of chili cheeseburgers.
Of course, I welcomed his help with carrying the millstone of meal prep. At the end of our long, isolated days, I felt grateful that we could turn our little two-person dinners into minor adventures. At the same time, though, this upending of our longstanding pact—I cook, he cleans—unsettled me.
I quickly discovered that my husband’s culinary habits can grate. This may be because I, as an old cook, see recipes as suggestions. I routinely pull sleight-of-hand substitutions with my available ingredients. But Doug, as a new cook, is devoutly loyal to his recipes, unwilling to deviate for fear of ruining the results. His approach to a new dish duplicates his approach to an Ikea bookcase—he reads the instructions and follows them. The same cannot be said of me.
DOUG:(studying his latest recipe) Do we have basmati rice?
ME: No, but we have a bag of regular rice in the freezer.
DOUG: Do we have sour cream?
ME: No, but the 2 percent yogurt in those cute little Fage containers should work.
DOUG: Do we have yellow squash?
ME: No, but those two zucchinis in the fridge can’t hold on much longer.
DOUG: (grabs keys) Going to Kroger. I’ll be right back.
In a similar way, he is as precise as a chemist about measurements. This frustrates me. Most recipes, in my opinion, are sorely under-vegetablized. Dishes loaded with butter or salt also get the stink-eye.
ME: (peers into a sizzling pan) That doesn’t look green enough. We should add twice as many peas.
DOUG: I’m following the recipe.
ME: Look at these adorable cherry tomatoes from the garden. Let’s toss them in!
DOUG: I’m following the recipe.
ME: This half-can of corn needs a home.
DOUG: I’m following the recipe.
DOUG: I need two teaspoons of salt.
ME: Recipes always use too much salt. I’ll put in one. (adds teaspoon of salt)
DOUG: Let’s compromise and use one and a half teaspoons.
ME: I’m good with that. (pretends to add a half teaspoon)
Doug takes cooking times seriously. Outside of the kitchen, he is a trial attorney specializing in electronic discovery, which he calls “the nerdiest branch of the law.” Accordingly, he relishes the logistical challenge of timing various dishes to finish simultaneously. “It’s a version of manipulating Excel spreadsheets,” he says. I’m not quite sure what that means, but apparently it involves setting the oven timer, rather than using my expert methods, like poking with a fork and sniffing the air. My husband will stand patiently over a pot to ensure that it bubbles “gently” for the correct amount of time. I have little patience for such … patience. We’ve had incidents.
DOUG: Can you stir the risotto?
ME: Sure. (grows bored after one minute and checks TikTok)
TEN MINUTES ELAPSE.
DOUG: (returns to kitchen and looks in pot) Dang! Why is the risotto clumping?
ME: (engrossed in a video about making Muenster cheese in giant copper vats) Um, everyone knows risotto is tricky.
During my years in the kitchen, meals often had to be thrown together in a half-hour. I can take tater tots from frozen to crispy in 15 minutes, and my creative mashups of leftovers got us through many family dinners. In the past, I rarely cooked anything too complicated—I never had enough time. Doug has no such qualms. When he found a promising recipe for peanut butter miso cookies that demanded a day of refrigeration and a persnickety baking schedule, he didn’t hesitate for a second. After 10 minutes at 350 degrees, he had to remove the cookies, rap the cookie sheet against the counter and bake them for another five minutes. I was skeptical—as a spur-of-the-moment cookie baker, I would never have bothered with this recipe. Cookies should be mixed up, tossed into the oven and rescued when they smell delicious and have golden-brown bottoms. Yanking them out of the oven to smack them seemed needlessly brutal.
I had to eat my words, though, along with the cookies. The meltingly soft, crackle-topped peanut butter cookies possessed the perfect balance of sweet and salty. After eating my share, I felt obligated to mail a dozen across the country to our son in California so he wouldn’t miss out.
When Doug cooks, he usually asks me to manage the cutting board. “I’m not good with a knife—my fine motor skills are terrible,” he explains. This is true. I’ve seen him turn a simple gift-wrapping job into a colossal Scotch-tape-fueled struggle with the laws of geometry. He also turns to me for sage advice. My brain is stuffed with nutritional information, and I’ve got lots of helpful hacks. I can tell you how to effortlessly soften butter (put it on a plate on top of the preheating stove), fix not-quite-cooked rice (stir in water, put the lid on, keep it warm and wait) and save limp kale (no, you can’t save it—but you can sauté it).
Sometimes, though, my skill set backfires on me:
DOUG: Why do recipes always call for 12 ounces of pasta, when it comes in 16-ounce boxes?
ME: Mystery of the universe. It’s like the hot-dog-to-buns ratio conundrum.
ME: Never mind. Cook the whole box of linguini. We’ll just eyeball the rest of the ingredients.
DOUG: No, no, I’ll adjust the measurements. We’ll make one-and-a-third times the amount of sauce.
ME: (scoffs) Ha! Good luck measuring a third-of-a-quarter of a cup of honey.
DOUG: Oh, I’ll let you do that. My fine motor skills are terrible.
In the beginning, our little fishbones of contention irritated me. After my long reign as Queen of the Kitchen, sharing the throne felt uncomfortable. Yet, with each meal, my exhausting desire to control has ebbed. In exchange, I get delicious food and the joy of watching someone discover anew the same territory I’ve tramped over a thousand times. Doug has evolved, too. Last week, I saw him substitute thyme for tarragon. Today, we conspired to jury-rig our pasta pot for steaming Boston brown bread.
Our challenges in the kitchen remind me, on a smaller scale, of the constant collaboration demanded during our raucous child-raising years. In a two-partner marriage, raising kids throws a pitiless spotlight on your complementary—and clashing—qualities. So it’s reasonable to think that, after umpity-ump years with one person, you’ve got them figured out. They’re a beloved recipe that dependably produces the same results every time. Change the recipe and you can create a disaster—or end up with a bowl of something better.
Even if it may still need a few more peas and a little less salt.