Learning to Cook (and Loving It) Strengthened My Marriage and My Connection to My Jewish Heritage
Cooking never came naturally to me. I was still wildly incompetent in the kitchen by the time I started my fourth decade on this planet. For as long as I could remember, I equated cooking with the simplest of culinary tasks and brushed off my incompetence with jokes — the way we Baurs brush off anything that might be unpleasant. I could scramble some eggs and pour a bowl of cereal, I’d say. That’s good enough.
Except, it really isn’t. There are remarkably few worthwhile excuses for being incapable of cooking your loved ones a meal. My mother did it for decades even though I know she wasn’t nuts about the actual act of cooking. Yet there I was, 30 years old, watching my wife Melanie do all of the cooking like a complete and utter shmendrik.
To be fair, we had an arrangement. She’d cook and I’d clean. If she didn’t feel like cooking, we’d order out. There was never an argument about it.
Nonetheless, I started to feel like the archetype of a CBS sitcom husband; aloof, oblivious, and married out of his league. I needed to change.
I started with baby steps, working under Melanie as a sous chef of sorts. She’d make a veggie burrito mix once or twice a week, so I jumped in to help with chopping veggies while she showed me the general ropes of cooking. It was a bootcamp I needed, because when I say I knew bupkis about cooking, I mean absolute bupkis. I didn’t know about adding oil to a skillet to sauté the onions or adding the seasoning in layers. I couldn’t have even named a spice in our cabinet. Everything was as new to me as human language is to a newborn baby.
The thing about chopping veggies is … it’s fun. There’s something so primally satisfying about slicing through zucchinis, carrots, and onions with a knife. Before long, Melanie was the one kicking back on the couch while I whipped up the burritos myself. I found that I actually enjoyed cooking — disappearing from the world in my kitchen and preparing a meal for the love of my life. I wanted to learn even more. What else could I cook? More importantly, why would I cook it? Melanie comes from a long line of unabashedly proud Greek and Greek American women. When she wants to cook something special, it’s Greek— Pastitsio, baklava, spanakopita, and vasilopita, to name a few dishes.
I’m not Greek. So what could I cook that would say something about me? This overwhelming sense of culinary ineptitude collided serendipitously with a newfound interest in my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. My connection to this aspect of my familial history was tenuous at best for reasons that might make good fodder for a four-part limited series on HBO. Nonetheless, food was the one thing that came through the generations: matzo ball soup, chicken paprikash, and all kinds of sweet pastries and desserts. I realized that if I wanted to explore this aspect of my identity, food would be the easiest and perhaps most palatable path.
I officially dove down the rabbit hole of Jewish food, with all its diversity, history, and flavor. I very rarely do anything half-heartedly, so this meant spending more time in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before I turned the space between our spices, pots, pans, and oven into my mikvah (Judaism’s ritual bath), immersing myself in the culinary canon of my ancestors. Now, writing recipes and articles about food is kind of my thing.
Over time, the more traditional roles we fell into during the first five years of our relationship switched. I had a new role. I was the one going to the grocery store and doing a majority of the cooking. Although who did the cooking was never a sore point in our relationship, Melanie has since admitted that the flip has been a significant stress relief. This is especially true after she recently took a big step in her career by accepting a new job with a greater workload and more responsibility. It’s also allowed her to find more time for herself, to exercise and focus on her running — something that’s become an increasingly important part of her identity over the same period food and cooking became important to me.
It all shows that everyone has a little piece of themselves buried underneath the obligations of life and relationships. If someone can help take the load off, it can help a partner find and pursue a dormant passion.