Within a single few days, I simmered white chili and stir-fried beef with bok choy. For brunch, I made my daughter-in-law’s crème brulee French toast casserole, a puff of souffléd challa over a foundation of caramelized syrup. Exquisite, my guests said. I brewed minestrone. Made butterscotch pudding from scratch. The kitchen gods (sculpted in stone and enthroned atop my fridge) smiled down on me. It had been a while.I used to cook and be cooked for all the time. Ask any woman—having a man cook for you is a delicious turn-on. I have been wooed with soup, seduced by a stew, soothed with risotto. And I’ve cooked to express all kinds of love: baked a child’s birthday cake, simmered a family pot of chicken soup for cold nights. Also, for husbands and other close friends, made a simple sauce of fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil that spoke of summer in winter and asked for a warm embrace in a warm bed. And in summer, fixed crab cakes, seasoned with Old Bay—a sexy blend of spices. Crab, some say, is an aphrodisiac. Agreed. Cooking at its best is an expression of something higher, more abstract than zucchini. Call it love. Call it art.
Among many of my midlife friends, it’s become a lost art. “I no longer cook,” says a married one. “I heat and I arrange.” She buys ready-to-serve dishes from Wegmans or pre-marinated meats from Trader Joes and saves homemade for when the kids are in from college. A divorced friend shrugs. “My mother told me that the fastest way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Wrong. The girlfriend followed a different map and snagged the guy. So cooking leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. ” She dines out often, or scrambles eggs or micros Lean Cuisines. I understand. I’m guilty myself. Still, reading Erica Bauermeister's book made me realize how much we-who-no-longer-cook are missing.Eight times year I’m reminded of how food and its preparation connect us. Both the gourmet group and a couples book club I belong to have dinner as the evening’s fulcrum. And the spouses cook these dinners together, work side by side, chopping, sautéing, roasting, baking homemade bread. Toba may do the gazpacho and Andy his incomparable salad, but they’re hip-to-hip in the kitchen. Lenne glazes the cornish hens while Hal mashes the potatoes. PJ and Hamp work in tandem. These couples may be past the baby-making stage, but they’re still creating something lovely together, a feast at least, and taking pleasure in the process.
I know of a woman who brags that she hasn’t cooked dinner for her family in decades, except on holidays. Today this social worker has retired to halftime practice and usually dines early, on whatever, and alone. Her husband, a workaholic, logs in around nine having grabbed a slice of pizza at the commuter train station or yogurt from the fridge. Which he eats in solitary silence. How sad, I think. How symptomatic of a marriage gone as stale as a week-old bagel.Cooking is love in the active sense. For lovers, it’s a dance together. For family, it’s glue made of sugar and butter and cinnamon. For friends it's a gift. Of course I have more half-baked theories. But right now there’s a meatloaf in the oven I need to check. It’s my mother’s recipe, with a sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and onions. It will taste of love and memory, of laughter and lost times. And it won’t need ketchup.
We would love to read your comments on the joys of cooking—or not cooking—at midife. And please share your favorite recipes. One will win for its author an inscribed copy of my next novel, Happy Any Day Now, coming out this summer.