When Romance Spills Into The Kitchen


November 26, 1990|By ALICE STEINBACH

AT SOME POINT IN EVERY ROMANTIC relationship, the moment arrives when the woman involved is overwhelmed with a desire to cook a meal for the man involved.

At least once.

It's a primitive instinct, of course, this need to impress a guy with your ability to whip up a mean cassoulet. In fact, I am told by social scientists -- although not very reliable ones -- that when it comes to affairs of the heart, the urge to cook is almost as strong as the need to think obsessively about sexy lingerie.

(I am also told -- by a twice-divorced male friend -- not to worry about such things; experience has taught him if you stay in a relationship long enough, a woman will inevitably lose both urges: to cook and to wear sexy lingerie.)

Well, anyway, a combination of events recently found me in my kitchen. And by the way, just finding my kitchen represented a triumph of long-term memory functions as I have eschewed all activity in that area for years. But, like riding a bike, it all came back to me rather quickly. I had no trouble identifying such items as measuring spoons and frying pans and chopping knives.

Deciding on a menu for the evening was quite another matter. For a while now, my idea of a home-cooked meal has been a Healthy Choice Beef Tips Dinner or Lean Cuisine Tuna Lasagna.

Once, however, I had a reputation among my friends as an accomplished cook, and so I began pulling out some old recipes. I laughed out loud as I read some of the notes penciled in next to recipes for Boeuf en Croute and Steak au Poivre -- those were the days when we all ate beef once a day -- and remembered how serious I had once been about my cooking.

I was a new wife, anxious to be successful in the role and determined to have it all: a brilliant career, an enviable marriage, perfect children. Such are the dreams of youth.

But reality teaches you to strive for perfection where you have at least a slight chance of achieving it; and so I set my sights instead on becoming the perfect cook and hostess. I became obsessed with clarifying butter, poaching pears, boning chicken, chopping vegetables like a professional chef, breaking up flour particles to make a smooth sauce. My motto was: There are no minor cooks, only minor eaters.

Everything was braised or chafed or flamed in brandy or calvados or Marsala or a hearty, red wine. Those were the days of wine and boeuf.

At one point I seem to recall my husband's asking wistfully: "How about a nice lamb chop and some mashed potatoes for dinner one night?"

Mousseline de Jambon. Cassoulet de Castelnaudary. Diplomate aux Fruits. Did I ever really concoct such things in my kitchen? And what exactly are they? Was I serious? But the earnest notes and the stained, well-used recipe cards attest to the seriousness with which the young woman who was me approached all this.

Odd, I thought, as I read over the old recipes, that I can't seem to connect now with that part of my life.

Then, a few nights after pulling out all the old recipes -- and my past along with them -- I had a dream. In the dream I saw a young woman standing in a warm, fragrant kitchen, her face flushed from the heat, the windows steamy. I even smelled the scent of burnt cognac hanging in the air.

And suddenly I remembered in the dream what I couldn't retrieve in waking life: I remembered what it felt like to be the Me of those years; a young woman, uncertain and searching for an identity. And trying to find it, partly, through mastering the nurturing and orderly act of cooking.

The strange thing is that in the dream I was two people: the woman I used to be and the woman I am now. When I woke up, what remained with me was a feeling of having something back. A part of myself, I guess.

I suppose I should tell you that I decided the other night to impress my guy by serving him Chicken Marsala. He seemed to like it but, frankly, we got so involved in conversation about other things that I forgot about the food. It just doesn't seem that important anymore.

Still, there was a moment when the food and the candlelight and the flowers conspired and, oh, just so briefly, I found myself thinking -- with humor and affection -- about the days of wine and boeuf.

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