One day recently, while wandering the grocery aisles aimless, uninspired and wondering what to cobble together for dinner, I started thinking how most families or relationships are dominated by one cook. For some, having that special kitchen know-how can channel creative spirit, create a refuge, offer daily meditation, nurture loved ones and share a valued commodity; but sometimes, just sometimes, that aptitude can become a big-ass burden. And that, my friends, is the kiss of death.
That’s when I got the idea to swap for seven days with my significant other the tasks of menu planning, grocery shopping and meal preparation.
Cold breakfast cereal, leftover lunches and the occasional two-night déjà vu dinner are accepted preconditions, so really it’s only five dinners. For the regular cook of the house, five dinners doesn’t seem like much, considering impromptu meals have been conjured from mere pantry ingredients or a quickie run through the market has yielded a meal deserving Food Network accolades. For the partner who has been on the receiving end of this continuous culinary bliss, taking control of five dinners is tantamount to being unwillingly enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu cooking camp.
I suppose I should have seen the future coming years ago, during our courtship, when I arrived for a romantic weekend at his home in Jackson, Wyo., and laid out on the counter were all the raw ingredients for one of my favorite dishes, Osso Buco. A++ for the menu planning and grocery shopping, but seriously, I’m going to be swept off my feet by having to cook my own dinner? To give my partner some credit, he does know his way around the grill and, once we moved in together, his exploits weren’t half bad, if you hanker for all your food to be cooked on an open flame.
For his first dinner, the cookbooks are stacked high and he sorts, flips, scours and scribbles until he has a lengthy list categorized by retailer and organized by food group. A quick glance over his shoulder and I begin to feel my arrogance slip away. He has this under control; he knows what is realistic for a weeknight meal and thus the menus are wisely chosen for their efficiency and ease. But once he leaves for the store, the phone starts ringing.
He calls asking where “they” keep the basil. “Um, by the other herbs,” I glibly respond. After subsequent calls, I start to feel like a support hotline, anxiously awaiting the next desperate call, during which I calmly and patiently guide my charge away from the brink of frustration and rage and toward the top right-hand shelf where the Kalamata olives are stocked.
Fish tacos: They sound yummy, fast and fresh. Too bad he didn’t buy any fish; apparently he didn’t have the time to hit the third store for that ingredient. My partner perseveres and improvises by substituting frozen shrimp. I’m impressed: thinking on his toes. This is a really good sign, until I see two whole pounds of shrimp defrosting in the sink. I give a quick demo about proportion and food safety, and he is back on track. He is only one moment into cutting some onions for a bean salad, when I gently replace the serrated paring knife in his hands with a regular chef’s knife and show him how to save his fingers from danger.
Soon thereafter, I see him meticulously measure out two tablespoons of fresh lime juice for the sour cream cilantro sauce—a recipe that takes approximately seven minutes. He then pauses repeatedly to peek at a baseball game on TV in the next room, wasting approximately three minutes for each of the five times he looks. In the end, the suggested 45 minutes of preparation time for this meal is drawn out to more than twice that duration. The end result of his labors, however, is a spread of delicious shrimp tacos, a pinto bean and corn salad, and a vibrant red cabbage slaw.
The end realization of my experiment: Cooking is a practice like yoga or law. You aren’t born an expert, but you can certainly get a heck of a lot better if you persist, work hard and accept some missteps in the process. My new job, as the returning resident chef in the family, is to know when to get out of the way.