Marriage at the dinner table


I would like to be able to say that the “stunned” feeling that came upon my husband on the day he first thought of marriage was caused by me — by my exceptional beauty, loving ways, scintillating wit, and rare intelligence. It was caused, however, by food. Specifically, it was a steaming bowl of my aunt’s risotto.

My husband, raised in the Midwest, had never tasted the delights of this creamy Italian rice dish. “I knew then that I wanted to be a part of this family,” he says. In the end, it all worked out for the best. My aunt, now 97, happily made him risotto at nearly every family gathering until very recently, when age got the better of her. My husband gratefully ate it. We’ve been married 25 years. The way to a man’s heart…

Food, though, is the way to a woman’s heart, too. One friend attributes the longevity of her marriage to the cappuccino her husband brews for her every morning. For another, it’s the bowl of oatmeal topped with chopped apples, toasted walnuts, and maple syrup, brought to her in bed. Yet another recalls a candlelit dinner on the patio that her spouse made when she was enormously pregnant with their second child: “There I was, waddling around in a seersucker jumper,” she says, recounting how they danced when the meal was done. “I felt beautiful.” The best-man-in-the-kitchen award goes to an acquaintance’s husband who packs the kids’ school lunches every day. Now there’s a man.

Not that every couple is immediately in sync, culinarily speaking, when they tie the knot. My husband says he never ate a fresh vegetable until he met me, and I had to slowly introduce my family’s Italian delicacies like rabbit and polenta while he fed me my first bratwurst.

Charla Belinski, a parenting writer in Aspen, Colorado, says the ethnic Ukrainian dishes made by her husband’s family intimidated her. “I thought, Well, I know how to make chili, I know how to make spaghetti,” she says. But she learned some holiday cooking from her husband’s mother and grandmother as a way to both please him and to introduce their kids to their heritage.

Sally Edwards, a Chicago-based comedian who takes her show “Family Lunacy” around the country, says that her German husband’s food style clashed with her “food culture,” which she describes in two words: “Jenny Craig.” She leaves all of the cooking to her husband. “I’m down to the microwave,” she says, laughing.

Comedy aside, the marriage table can be a venue for family clashes of titanic proportions. “Food becomes an expression of whatever’s going on in the relationship,” a psychiatrist once told me. Through food, he said, couples can express their more noble emotions, like affection and generosity, but they can also express anger, the need to control, spite, and contempt.

It goes something like this: One of you goes on a diet; the other cooks a big batch of (your favorite) fat-laden chicken and dumplings. Or, one is about to bite happily into a doughnut/sausage/ice cream sundae when the other asks archly, “You’re eating that?!”

Conflicts can be less emotionally toxic but still difficult: vegans versus carnivores; low fat versus low carbs; the get-’er-done diner versus the leisurely gourmand; the TV-watcher versus the table-sitter. Does one of you plate up your dinner while the other prefers to serve it family style? Do you like your veggies crunchy while your spouse likes them cooked limp? On which side do you fall on the anchovy question? The chili pepper divide? The cilantro wars?

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: “Marriage is a contract entered into between a man who loves garlic and a woman who abhors it.” An ancient poet wrote “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou,” but what happens when she wants her bread organic, stoneground, and made of spelt and he has a hankering for squishy white? Sulfite-free burgundy or an oaky chardonnay?

But when food is not getting in the way, it is oft en bringing couples together. First, there’s the every-dayness of meals, the comfort of routine, of what one writer called the “peanut butter-and-jellyness” of married life. You’ve had a disappointment at work, and he makes your favorite pasta for dinner. He’s coming home late and you chill a bottle of his favorite beer in the fridge. You watch a DVD together and share popcorn and Dr Pepper. When the flu strikes one of you, the other is there with chicken soup.

For Ed Peitler, a psychiatrist, marriage counselor, and church deacon in Charleston, South Carolina, it’s joining his wife on a perpetual diet. “We never actually lose weight,” he sighs.

Then there are the spectacular moments: the blowout anniversary dinner, the romantic picnic, the late-night supper complete with champagne and music. And there are the times when food helps you explore your spouse’s heritage. Dr. Peitler’s wife, for example, found an old recipe given to her mother 45 years earlier by Father John, a priest who had been close to his wife’s family.

“She made the sauce and as we ate it, she reminisced. She remembered Father John and what he meant to her family,” he says. “Even though the recipe itself didn’t knock our socks off , it was worth sharing just so my wife could reconnect with her roots.”

Marriage, as anyone who has ever sampled its joys and challenges knows, involves adjustments — both major and minor — in every aspect of life. There’s bound to be a dish that divides or unites you. It might be pierogies, char su ding, or boudin. It might be pizza with anchovies, or without pepperoni, or borscht. It might be tuna salad with onions — or without. Or it might be risotto. In embracing that dish of Italian rice, my husband embraced not just me, but my family and my heritage. It’s nice to feel loved. CD

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