My senior year of high school, my French teacher, Madame Schumacher, told me I was a great cook, and that one day, I would make some lucky man a wonderful wife.
“I remember when I first got married, I only knew how to cook one thing,” she said, smiling. I’d never seen her smile before. She was a stern woman, with dark, beady eyes. She wore sweater sets and long skirts like she was from another time period — it was difficult to imagine her younger years. “The same thing every night. My husband was so sick of it. But your future husband will never be bored.”
What an idiotic thing to say, I remember thinking at the time. We were gathered after school at someone’s house making coq au vin, for French Club — a group I’d joined earlier that year in a panic that I didn’t have enough extracurricular activities on my transcript to impress a college admissions officer. But Madame Schumacher seemed to be implying that as long as my cassoulet was on point, I didn’t have to impress anyone except my future husband.
This was not the life I was envisioning for myself.
When I was a little girl, my parents purposefully never gave me any kitchen or cooking toys. Instead, they gave me books, and, one year, an immensely un-fun toy microscope. But I’ve always loved to cook.
I didn’t see it as connected to gender, even though my mom was the one doing most of the cooking when I was growing up. She prepared beautiful meals for our family every night and baked on the weekends. She always let me help, even when I was tiny, making up tasks to involve me like “counting raisins for oatmeal raisin cookies.” She never told me how many raisins she needed – just that we needed to fill a cup and that they needed to be counted. It was kind of genius.
For her, cooking was fun, generous, and improvisational – it was an act of love. On special occasions, she rolled dough for homemade pasta the way grandmothers and great-grandmothers did in our family generations ago. I couldn’t wait to share my own cooking and as a teenager, occasionally made dinner for the family.
I was so excited the first time I cooked for my high school boyfriend, Paul Mauceri. Eggplant parmesan, spaghetti, and red wine we were too young to be drinking. It felt grown-up. Like playing house. I imagined us married, how fun it would be to cook like that every night.
Paul and I broke up shortly after prom, but I kept cooking. In college, I hosted “orphan Thanksgivings,” for those of us who didn’t have enough money to fly home to be with our families for the holiday.
As an adult, living alone in New York City, I never made fancy meals for myself. It didn’t seem worth the effort for just one person: me. I’d make simple pastas or heat up a can of Amy’s Soup. Though, I still loved cooking for boyfriends, friends, and family gatherings. Cooking for others felt like an excuse to prepare something elaborate.
When my husband Hugh and I started dating, we lived across the country from each other and our visits every few weeks felt like special occasions. Even simple trips to the grocery store together felt novel, and I loved preparing meals for us at home, flexing my cooking skills.
One night when I was feeling particularly ambitious, I cracked open a cookbook to make homemade pasta, like my mother did on holidays. Homemade pasta, if you haven’t made it, is an enormous pain in the ass. Unfortunately, I only realized this after I was already halfway through the process and it was too late to abort. By the end of it, I was covered in flour and there were egg yolks running down the sides of my kitchen cabinets. I’m not sure how that happened, it was a blur. The pasta was delicious, but I vowed never to do it again.
About a year later, we were engaged and moving in together. I was so excited for the start of our lives as a cohabitating couple. I’d never lived with a partner before. Our new place had a huge kitchen and I had so much fun making us dinner that first night. “We live together!” I couldn’t stop giggling.
I cooked the next night, and the next, but as the week wore on, something hit me – wait a minute. Am I the COOK now? Some 1950s housewife? I was furious. I’d become the woman Madame Schumacher told me I’d be. I’d always thought of myself as this independent, badass woman, and now I’m standing in the kitchen, passive aggressively chopping carrots for a soffritto. What. The. Fuck.
I saw a lifetime of cooking for my husband stretched out before me. I had a complete and total meltdown right there. I put down the chef’s knife, sat down on the couch, and cried. I called my mom in tears. I was falling into a quicksand of domesticity that I was completely bringing on myself.
“It’s very, very hard,” she told me gently. I could hear in her voice that she had felt the same thing many times in her own life. She gave me great advice – reminding me that there were no rules, and that it takes effort to set boundaries to take care of myself. Yes, I loved to cook. But I didn’t have to.
I was excited to marry Hugh, but apart from our love and commitment, I didn’t really know what it meant to be married. I felt so foolish. What were our roles? What does it mean to be a wife? Suddenly it dawned on me – being a wife is whatever I want it to be.
Something about the convention of the institution was messing with my head, but I knew that Hugh and I would decide together, as we go through life, what our marriage was going go be. Do we open a joint checking account? Buy a house? Adopt a baby? Figuring out dinner seemed like a good place to start.
That night, over mushroom ragù, Hugh paused from eating, put his fork down and looked at me across the table.
“You know, this is absolutely lovely, but you don’t have to do this every night,” he said. “It’s not something I’d ever expect. I can always heat up a frozen pizza.”
I felt bad, I told him. If I make something for myself, I want to include him. “Don’t!” he told me, taking my hand. “Really.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.
I still love to cook. I don’t do it daily, and I keep it simple, preparing what I’m in the mood to eat, usually making enough for both of us. Some nights Hugh gets us take out. Last week, we both worked late and came home exhausted. I ate a bunch of leftover roasted carrots. He ate a bag of tortilla chips and two spoons of peanut butter. We watched a trashy reality show. We opened a bottle of wine. It was the perfect dinner for two.