Why am I perched on the edge of a rickety folding chair, in a crowded, stuffy bookstore waiting to hear a man tell me what he had for breakfast? Everyone else in this room sees an author who is here to read out of his new book, sell and sign as many copies as possible and get out the door to dinner. I see Mark Bittman, the man who saved my marriage. He doesn’t know it. And neither does my husband. But I precede the story.
The life-changing phone call came at 1:15, December 4, 2008. I usually heard from my husband every afternoon, but not this early. He would call from his office to say hello, ask what we were having for dinner and check to see if there were anything he could pick up on the way home. When I answered the phone, he didn’t say hello. Just, “I’ll be home in an hour. For good. I’ve been laid off. By the way, what’s for dinner?” What’s for dinner? Was he kidding? I felt like the floor had slipped out from under my feet and he wanted to know what his next meal was going to be? “Let’s decide when you get home.” It was the only thing I could come up with to say to this man, my hunter, who was just now unemployed and who was hungry.
The next hour seemed like a year. Instead of concentrating on what to have for dinner I whirled around the apartment with the ‘what if’s’ of fear and panic fueling me. Would we be able to live on one income? What would we do about health insurance? Dental insurance? Dog insurance? Where could we cut back? Christmas dinner was only three weeks away. Forget the prime rib. I would make lasagna.
Right about the time I was deciding what jewelry I could hock, I heard someone fumbling with the front door lock. Before I could reach the door it flung open and my husband stumbled in. Or at least I hoped it was my husband. I recognized the shoes but couldn’t see the face hidden behind three overflowing grocery bags. Without saying a word, I grabbed one of the bags and led the way to the kitchen.
“Where is the copy of that magazine with the apples on the cover” he asked “there’s a pork recipe in it that I want to make”.
No ‘hello.’ No ‘don’t worry sweetheart, everything will be okay’. The world as I had known it this morning was falling apart and he wanted to roast pork? Oh, and by the way, since when did he read my food magazines?
“Uh, I think it’s in the bathroom” I mumbled and started to unload the grocery bags. Two Maui onions, a net bag of bright orange clementines, one bunch of spring green asparagus, a wrapped hunk of grass-fed pork shoulder …wait. Asparagus? In December? Was he crazy? WE CAN’T AFFORD THIS!!!
I continued to unload more bags. Ingredients that just the day before would have felt like funny, small extravagances now foretold a future in the poor house. A bottle of extra-extra-extra virgin olive oil from a convent in Tuscany. A tiny round of goat cheese whose price tag was inverse to its size. Just as I was pulling out the slab o’ pâté, I heard him tapping away on the computer. Then I heard voices. And then I heard the printer. A moment later he walked into the kitchen waving a piece of paper.
“And, for dessert,” he said “we’re having Mark’s clafoutis!!!”
You can’t stay frightened when someone says a word like ‘clafoutis.’ And you certainly can’t stay angry when that same person is offering to make one for you.
But this was just too much for me. I burst into tears. And then I started to laugh.
The clafoutis marked where the shift in our lives began and how it deliciously continues. My hunter has turned into a gatherer. I leave for work in the morning to hunt down a paycheck. He gathers ingredients and cooks. My kitchen is now his kitchen. He cooks. I clean-up. He stepped into my world and asked me questions I had forgotten to ask. What does this tool do? Can’t I use a chef’s knife instead? Let’s hang the cast iron fry pan closer to the stove. And I had questions for him, too. How do you load a dishwasher? Where is the recycling bin?
I was heading down the Embarcadero, after work, with the cold January wind blowing in my face when my cell phone rang. Chef Husband was calling. I have come to think of these calls as an amuse-bouche. A bite-sized glimpse of what is for dinner. Yesterday he called to ask if he could substitute sorrel for tarragon and how long should the chicken brine.
“Meet me at the bookstore in the Ferry Building.” he said, “I’m on my way there now. Look for me in the front row. Mark is going to be there.” An evening with Mark? Not so odd, really. After all, we had dinner with him every night.
Yes, there was Chef Husband, along with 117 other Mark Bittman fans, front row, center, with a stack of new Bittman cookbooks piled on the seat next to him. I managed to slip in just as Mark began to speak. For the next 30 minutes I juggled books and recited to myself the 30-second elevator speech I planned to deliver as he signed Chef Husband’s books. I was going to tell him how his New York Times on-line videos have been the foundation that we are building our new life on. That when Chef Husband is up in the middle of the night he is at the computer watching Mark make our next meal. Once I knew what I was going to say I spent the rest of the time slipping little pieces of paper into each book. Mark could just copy what I had written as he signed each book. I wanted this to go smoothly for both Chef Husband and Mark. While writing, I missed most of what Mark had to say about why he’s off fish, the shifting balance of what we eat and his take on locavorism.
The moment Mark’s talk ended, Chef Husband sprung up from his chair, with just one book. He was the first in line. As I was gathering up the rest of the books, Mark announced that he would not be personalizing any of the books. Signature only. Had I missed something? No personalizing? No time to write ‘To Chef Husband, best wishes, Mark Bittman’? Didn’t he care about my marriage? At just that moment, Chef Husband turned around with the just-signed book clutched to his chest and a big smile on his face. And then I realized that Mark had nothing to do with saving our marriage. It was Chef Husband who is saving it. Recipe by recipe, pork roast by lamb chop by clafoutis. Every dinner was a testament to Chef Husband’s willingness to create a new life in a delicious way.
“Let’s go home,” he said, “it’s time for dinner.”
Postscript: I wrote this piece five years ago at the beginning of the recession. We have survived.