Updated: Oct 1, 2021
There are times when you know you are in a moment that will forever change the trajectory of your relationship, and my most recent one occurred to me when I bit into a homemade, slightly over-fried but indisputably tasty taquito the day after Valentine's Day.
For the majority of my 5+ year relationship with Ian, I've engaged in dinner hordery. a system of patterns that revolve around controlling who cooks dinner, when and how they cook it, and who gets to suffer for having not helped. Spoiler alert -- if you're a true dinner horder, you never intend to accept help.
For a while, dinner hordery served me. I would take care of dinner for 5-6 nights of the week, and Ian would take me out for 1 night. I could equate my hours of labor securing uncommon ingredients, endangering my digits with sharp knives, and cleaning out the innards of various carcasses to Ian's effort of whipping out the credit card after dining at a restaurant.
COVID-related routine disruptions perforated the frail theoretical framework of my system of dinner hordery. As much as I love Five Guys, the novelty of UberEats once a week withered quickly. In April, I stopped drinking alcohol. At that point, the system was completely broken. There was an imbalance in the meal force.
I was cooking all the meals. Meals with fresh minced ginger and whole fish and hours-long marinating times. With skewers and wonton wrappers and double boilers and prawn poop and the incorrigible mortar and pestle. All to be gobbled up in less than 20 minutes and washed down with a glass of...water. All of that, with little joie de vivre in a predictable Groundhog-Day-dian rhythm of existence.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love picking out what to eat.
I love cooking and experimenting with new ingredients. I love my stand-mixer, mandolin, food processor, Dutch oven, cast iron pans and rolling pin.
And I love cooking for Ian. I love that he will try anything once and that he truly believes I'm one of the best cooks in the world. I love that he doesn't complain when meals that take longer than half an hour of preparation turn into a pop diva sing-a-long segment and that he blocks the first steak I cooked him out of his memory (well done...ugh).
I love that he anticipates periodic misadventures in zucchini fritters and sweet potato dolmades and the eternal line-up of juices that couldn't quite thicken into sauces. I love that he continues to eat fresh green beans because they're my favorite vegetable, despite the fact that he loathes them. But as much as I love doing all that work -- and it is work -- I do not like feeling like I am the only one doing work in a loving partnership.
That being said -- in no way was I allowing or inviting Ian to help.
When Ian proposed his gift on Valentine's Day -- to allow him to help me cook dinner -- I realized the truth. I am a dinner horder. Not because I have to be, but because deep down, I am afraid that if Ian can deliver at or near the same level as I do with meals, then I don't have anything else to hold over his head and say, Look at all the ____-ing I do in this relationship.
If I let Ian participate in making dinner, or heaven forbid, be in charge of dinner, then I am letting go of control. Gasp.
Naturally, upon accepting his offer/gift, I rush to the kitchen to control the sequence of his cookbook exposure.
I started with two of the Pioneer Woman cookbooks because they're oriented for a beginner. We decided to select recipes based on accessible ingredients, increased leftover/freezability potential and basic cooking techniques Ian had always wanted to learn, like breading meat, deep-frying and developing an instinct for balancing flavors.
After we whirred through those cookbooks and listed recipes on our master list, I next presented him with some regional cookbooks. The young grasshopper demonstrated a high level of enthusiasm, and his persistence convinced me that it would be okay if I introduced him to the Barefoot Contessa. Ask forgiveness, not permission -- isn't that what they say?
I had to wonder, as I was reading through "Back to Basics" and "Foolproof," if Ina Garten and Jeffrey had ever gone through their own bout of dinner hording. I wondered if Ina ever resented Jeffrey for not participating in culinary duties. I wondered what it must be like to be Jeffrey, who I'm sure has many redeemable and useful qualities of his own other than adoring his wife and her food.
By the end of the day, we had a full page, front and back, of recipes to add to Ian's repertoire. Recipes that we would make together. In my lab. With my tools. And my effortless patience. And Ian's uncanny ability to learn, not get defensive when given feedback, refrain from taking things personally, and not follow instructions, even though they are written clearly and specifically in the recipe :)
The next day, I taught Ian how to make a grocery list. He will claim that he already knew how to make a list and that he's not that helpless. I explained how to group items by category and, if he can, to select recipes that have similar ingredients so as to eliminate food waste. I taught him to check the fridge and pantry to see what we had and didn't have.
Next, I took him to Publix, where I indulged in my favorite game of "How many items can we get until it is inappropriate to ring them all up in the self-checkout line?" Because Ian has such remarkable visuospatial perception, I entrusted him to bag the groceries in a way that maximized brown bag square footage. I imagine my disdain for his not meeting my assumed expectations was quite obvious.
That night, we decided upon our first meal as a culinary team: beef taquitos with an avocado crema (aka dippin' SAUCE) over a salad with cilantro lime vinaigrette. Some essential questions from our first experiment co-creating:
Wait, but not every piece of lean ground beef is completely brown yet before we drain it, is that going to be okay?!
Oh no! We're supposed to add all these ingredients now that the sauce mixture is simmering, but we haven't cut the vegetables up or measured the spices yet!!
How are you rolling those taquitos without the stuffing falling out?
I know the recipe only calls for 8 ounces of ground beef but why can't we just throw in all 2.435 lbs.?!?!
It was really fun.
I realized, as we were enjoying our first culinary success, that I had unintentionally taught Ian another thing. Historically, if I make the determination that a meal I cook is anything less than a 9-10, I will be the first to point out its inconsistencies, affording a way for the person eating my creation (almost always Ian) to agree and offer their feedback in a safe way. I mean, sometimes it is safe. Other times, I pull a Regina George and am like, Oh, so you think it could have used fresh garlic cloves instead of the pre-minced package? I also have a tendency to deflect complements when I have hit my mark, and Ian started to pull my same antics at the table.
I probably could have rolled them tighter...they are bigger than they look in the recipe picture...
I'll probably go 3 minutes and 3 minutes instead of 5 minutes and 3 minutes in the hot oil like the book says...
And when I commend him on a job well done, he responds something along the lines of blah blah blah still don't understand why we couldn't add all the meat...they're just taquitos.
I don't know that I could fully capture my response to him, but the essence of it was that they were so much more than just taquitos. They represented a turning point in our relationship. A calling of the bluff. An "I'm your huckleberry" moment if I've ever experienced one. And to lump all the extra beef on top would smother the cheesiness of the moment I finally allowed someone into my inner sanctum.
The moment I allowed someone to help.
The help I never asked for, but should have, much earlier than Valentine's Day of 2021.