The Way to a Man’s Heart

On the pleasure of cooking… or not cooking, for love

Sarah Sweeney
Jun 18, 2019 · 15 min read
Illustration by Louisa Bertman

I’really going to miss your cooking, Paul told me on the day I finally moved out of the home we’d shared for three years, his voice creaking with lament. He’d taken a deep breath, winding up to deliver some final parting words, an elegiac salute to our seven years together — the road trips and Target runs, the meltdowns and make-ups, what we’d learned and who we’d become — but all he could think about was my grilled skirt steak tacos.

We’d broken up months before I moved out, and lived together awkwardly until I did, squirreled away into separate bedrooms while winter tiptoed into spring. Our set-up was torturous, but I knew the wait would be worth it — come June, I’d fly to Mexico after securing a sabbatical from my journalism job “to write poems,” I’d pleaded in an email to my editor. But neither Paul nor my work knew that I was running a small-time grift: I was headed to Mexico to be with Eduardo, the scuba diver I’d met a summer earlier on vacation with Paul. On our final afternoon in Cozumel, Paul insisted on hanging back at the resort, and so I’d embarked on a snorkeling excursion alone, mildly annoyed with Paul, yet totally unaware that I’d soon launch a yearlong affair with the tour guide who led a group of Canadian retirees, honeymooners, and me through Cozumel’s famed reefs.

And so from the night of our February break-up to late May, I told no one — least of all Eduardo — that I’d continued to cook for Paul. I cooked because I’d religiously made our meals for three consecutive years and to suspend operations, while ultimately fair, simultaneously seemed cruel. He’d come to rely on my cooking, to revel in my cooking, and after all those months of deception — pining for Eduardo from our shared bed, physically cheating on a return trip that fall — I felt like I owed him those meals. Paul was a 40-year-old man who was more than capable of fending for himself, and yet my dedicated culinary repertoire had rendered him into an adult baby I felt beholden to keep alive so I could absolve myself of cheating.

Shortly after we moved into that apartment on Tower Street, sandwiched between a funeral home at one end and Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery at the other, I was rabid to make a home together. To start a new life and a new lifestyle. No more mattresses on the floor and cheap Yellow Tail shiraz. I’d finished my MFA, accepted a cushy job at Harvard, and believed I was going to marry Paul, so I bought a cake stand with a matching glass cloche. It was a wedding gift to myself — my first time living with a boyfriend was a milestone that warranted adult accessories. I admired the cake stand’s modernist simplicity on my kitchen counter, even though I’d never baked a cake in my life. The sea-foam green KitchenAid stand-mixer arrived next — another prop in the whimsical Nancy Meyers-esque version of my life I was trying to create. But I believed these were the accoutrement of both wives-to-be and well-rounded career women who could interview everyone from Lionel Richie to Nobel physicists, then turn around and whisk in unexpected guests, put the kettle on, and merrily serve slivers of almond torte haloed in powdered sugar, perched on the cake stand like a still-life painting.

Turns out, baking was daunting, mathematical and unspontaneous, but savory cooking suited me. Making a meal is the ultimate act of love where I’m from in North Carolina, and one of my most vivid memories from youth is watching my mother whip potatoes with a hand mixer, splashing in milk and squares of butter, until the consistency was just right. She’d detach the beaters — one for my brother, one for me — and we’d greedily lick off the creamy mash until nothing was left. Partly because of her, I’d always known how to cook — you can’t grow up in the South and not feel biblically tempted by fried foods, let alone shirk the ancestral culinary history embedded in our DNA — but after moving in with Paul, I’d willfully set out to become what I’d later call myself: an accomplished home chef.

I’d arrived at a place where I could open a friend’s cupboard or fridge and envision the meal I might confidently whip up on a lark. I’d obsessively watched Iron Chef as a teenager, and now endured recurring dreams of competing on Food Network’s Chopped. In some dreams, I got so anxious, so overcome with self-doubt that I’d choke. But in real life, I delivered. Studious Food Network scholarship — including weekend morning lessons with Bobby Flay, Giada de Laurentiis, and Ina Garten — had taught me basic knife techniques, vocabulary, and a rudimentary understanding of culinary principles. All I needed was practice. I printed out recipes at work, bought used cookbooks online, subscribed to Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Cooking Light, and systematically taught myself to cook. Once I felt comfortable, I stopped obeying recipes, malleable as they are, often just a primer on which ingredients pair best and how to manipulate them to their most flavorful. And after I felt confident diverting from recipes, I ditched them altogether. Recipes became guidelines, building blocks I used to craft a culinary catalog wholly my own.

I began whipping up elaborate meals each evening, spooning Paul’s portion into Pyrex before walking the short distance to the dive bar where he worked to hand-deliver his dinner. The craggy MBTA mechanics who sidled up at the bar each night whooped and whistled as Paul peeled the lid off a still-steaming gourmet supper and dug right in. Their attention — jealousy — both embarrassed and terrified me.

These men saw me as the smiling embodiment of domestic pageantry, but there was another me, the me who’d grown restless, the me who’d started to crave more, who thought there must be more. But then I looked at Paul and our apartment and our life — our friends all said we made it look easy — and thought, But isn’t this what I’m supposed to want? I’d convinced myself that settling down and making the perfect home would make our lives better, but while I’d charged ahead personally and professionally, I’d grown increasingly resentful that Paul had failed to transform into someone who wanted more from life than to sling drinks to miscreants at a dilapidated pub. Someone who hadn’t let his driver’s license lapse for more than a decade and who insisted we put the bills in my name because he’d been “off the grid” for years, and that was a badge of pride. Someone who, when I woke to pee at 3 a.m., wasn’t hovering over the stove in a trance, watching two hot dogs boil and churn.

“After the artful and nutritious meal I labored to make?” I’d taunt him, standing pirate-eyed in my pajamas, kidding but also not.

When Paul ate, the mechanics all sighed and shook their heads because they were old and single and sad and they knew. They knew how lucky he was, and for so little.

To his credit, Paul had never requested this kind of errand from me; I’d chosen to do it because I’d loved him, and because I thought if I kept churning out meals, surely something would click for him. Nightshift after nightshift, Paul’s meals poured in: garlic and lemon roasted chicken with caramelized root vegetables; red shrimp curry and sticky rice; pork medallions drizzled with a peach-balsamic reduction. Scallops au poivre. Sunday night braised beef short ribs and airy parsnip purée. Sometimes I sat and nursed a beer, watching while he ate, and this small hour of bonding between my regular 9-to-5 and his nocturnal schedule became near-sacred. We rarely had sex; instead, I derived pleasure from witnessing anyone, but especially the person I’d sacrificed the prime years of my 20s for, enjoy the dish I’d delightfully cooked up.

I was good, I had talent, and I knew it because people responded to my food. They tasted, looked me up and down, and declared that they never would’ve guessed. How would they? I had been quietly and efficiently domesticating myself. And I had done it all alone — Otis Redding piping through the record player, the cat’s tail swishing between my legs — the Emily Dickinson of my own kitchen.

I rarely cooked in Mexico. I’d decided to devote myself to writing, to adventuring with Eduardo. Mexico became the perfect place to recalibrate, which meant taking a break from cooking, too. Mexican food was cheap and delicious and I craved it constantly — tacos, caldos, tortas, and sopes — and it proved an endless joy to savor authentic cuisine and not some suburban bastardization. But even my rented condo came equipped with a six-burner gas stove, outdoor grill, and the nearby grocery store offered a pantheon of exotic fruits and never-before-seen ingredients I could’ve spent the whole summer trying to master — and I was tempted often.

Except cooking had left a bad taste in my mouth. The activity I’d loved for so long — braising and stewing, dicing and chiffonading, even just saying the word chiffonade — had turned sour. I winced when I thought of my past life with Paul — the weekends he slept until 3 p.m. while I furiously tidied the apartment, the thrice-a-year mediocre sex — but I resented my domesticity the most. And so in a small but symbolic rebellion, I vowed never to cook for Eduardo.

Girls read and hear from an unbelievably young age that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, a phrase worthy of a thousand embroidered pillows, a phrase so innocuous-sounding that no one would ever suspect that it was a patriarchal slogan to cajole women into formation with domestic tradition: to keep a man, you must cook for a man. Women rule the household, while men rule all else. And while I’d unmistakably lit the fire on my home-cooking career, then diligently stoked it, the fuse had been invisibly hovering overhead all along, just waiting for the spark. How could I have escaped my domestic fate when both society and a lineage of domestic elders before me had nurtured the Martha Stewart within, latent and simmering?

My mother had been a reluctant chef, too, someone who eschewed her domestic talents as much as she embraced them. After another harrowing fight with my father had ended with a drinking glass shattered against the back of his head, she’d stormed through the house declaring, Once men lined the block to see me.

My father had grown detached, misanthropic. Chronically ill with Crohn’s disease and worsening alcoholism, he required a level of caretaking that I, at age 9, couldn’t yet comprehend. I only knew that my mother was exasperated, fed up, every one of our silly juvenile requests met with a protracted sigh as she hovered over the stove or set the dinner table, my father smoking pot on the porch while another episode of Saved By the Bell temporarily tranquilized my brother and me. After dinner, my mother and I gathered in the backyard and tossed leftover bread into the air for the birds to fetch. I couldn’t know then that the danger in caring so industriously for someone else is losing yourself, shrinking and shrinking into a puddle of resentment, obliged to feed even the birds.

In and outside of the kitchen, my mother had made a career out of servicing unworthy men, and I’d long ago decided in some valiant youthful delusion that I’d do better. But the cultural scaffolding that constantly reinforces a woman’s domestic role is both sly and completely obvious. Just look at TV and the countless commercials featuring ecstatic housewives opera singing about dish detergent or new-fangled mop-heads in a 20-second slot that seems harmless enough, but that’s exactly the point.

Even in Cozumel, it was hard not to feel like a housewife. Eduardo worked six days a week and so I kept busy with writing, but inevitably I was confronted by more mundane matters: housework. My condo rooftop housed a rusted, 80s-era washing machine that shook and lurched with each use. In the morning I’d climb up there with my mug of coffee and basket of clothes and get to work. From that vantage point, I could see all the way to the port and the glittering Caribbean that swallowed each night’s sherbet-hued sunset, but I could also view my neighbors’ rooftops around me. Sometimes, I’d be doing laundry at the same time a neighbor (it was always a woman) was hanging hers to dry, stringing each garment on the line, and sometimes we even made eye contact, this shared look of knowing, because these duties were thankless and bland and likely ours to shoulder for the rest of our natural lives.

I didn’t do Eduardo’s laundry, but I’d considered it. Since settling in, we’d established a precarious dynamic of fighting followed by fucking. Our plan had been to ramble the Yucatán countryside for a few weeks, whiling away the days on a Tulum beach, blissed-out on sex and margaritas, before eloping. But Eduardo’s breakneck work schedule not only hindered us at every turn, he was jealous, too. More than jealous, he was paranoid and unreasonable — if I drank, if I cursed. “You lose your respect,” he’d tell me after I’d order another beer or drop fuck in conversation, which would launch us into another epic quarrel. When I’d returned to the island in November — “for my birthday,” I’d lied to Paul — Eduardo was a poetic, funny, politically-engaged man of the sea. A conservationist. A humanist. But during my sabbatical, Eduardo was transformed. He played drums in a local band and during their debut show by the port, Eduardo accused me of not paying enough attention to his performance because I was too busy flirting with one of his friends. And if I wasn’t seducing his friends, it was the butcher, the taxi driver, the pool boy, the guy from the bowling alley, and if there’d been a priest, then surely I would’ve been after him, too. I’d saved and sacrificed and swindled and lied to uproot my life to be with someone who believed no man was safe in my presence, including himself.

I could feel him slipping. I could feel our year of desperate messages and rhapsodic yearning slipping. We used to believe that meeting serendipitously on a boat — me without Paul, and Eduardo covering a colleague’s shift — was a cosmic portent that we were destined to be together. Only now our momentum had started to skid. I knew that he was irrational, that this behavior was unsustainable in any relationship, but I blamed myself anyway — for my independence, and for refusing to fall lockstep into my assumed gender role for the first time in my life. And I wondered whether doing his laundry, cooking him the recipes I’d honed through Paul, and slipping into domesticity once more might’ve signified my devotion and quelled his distrust for good. I knew it was ridiculous even then, but I loved him and so I longed to launder, I longed to cook. The way to a man’s heart.

But I didn’t. Just before my sabbatical was scheduled to end, I found a Mexican cooking class on the island. On a Saturday afternoon, I scoured Cozumel’s mercado municipal for fresh seafood and vegetables alongside an older woman named Josefina. Back at Josefina’s home, we marinated red snapper in sour orange and achiote — a paste made from annatto seeds — then baked the fish in banana leaves. We assembled papadzules, a traditional Mayan dish with an earthy sauce of pulverized pepitas, and a mango and cucumber summer salad macerated in lime and dusted with flaked habanero. Then Josefina schooled me on tortillas: just water and masa harina. “Mix until it seems right,” she said, “then roll a small ball of the dough in your hands, flatten into a circle with your fingers, and then with the palm of your hand.”

She lit a cast iron skillet on the stove and added a dollop of lard, watching as it melted before turning to the tortillas I’d made by hand. “Your edges are bad,” she said, dangling one from her fingers before sliding it into the lard, “but it has the right shape.” She picked up another. “This one is not so good. You want a circle. You want clean edges. You don’t want this,” she said, pointing, “this is a hole.” I watched my holey tortilla seize and sizzle in the lard as Josefina worked a ball of masa in her hands, pressing and flattening until it was concentric, perfect. “In Mexico, we say, ‘if you can make a perfect tortilla, you are ready for marriage.’”

By the time I returned to Boston from Cozumel — single, heartbroken, and crashing on friends’ sofas — I thought I’d never cook again. I resumed work and subsisted on bananas and crackers, my appetite whittled to nothing in my mourning. I associated cooking and even the absence of cooking with the downfall of two major relationships and that siphoned away my prior culinary joy. Gone were the days of sumptuous stews and hours-long braised meats, slouching off the bone; oatmeal, cereal, soup, fruit — I lived off hospital foods.

Until one day, I was hungry again. It was fall, and Boston’s piercing cold incited a deep, soul-longing for spaghetti and meatballs. My world tour of devastation had left me apathetic toward food, but now I was ravenous — and after a summer in Mexico, I craved nothing but America’s crassest: towering burgers of ungodly proportion, pulled pork sandwiches, even a simple Caesar salad. My god, I’d missed croutons. It felt like re-discovering food entirely, and so inside my new apartment, I hastily unpacked my pots and pans before being paralyzed by the realization that I’d never turned my attention to what might please my own palate. I’d always concerned myself with what Paul wanted, what might impress him. But I’d never sat down to write a grocery list and asked myself what I and only I wanted to eat. I’d never truly enjoyed my own food because it had never been for me.

The notion seemed unthinkable — people enjoyed my food, surely I must’ve too, and yet the act of cooking had never been about my pleasure, but the sacrifice to ensure someone else’s. Through food, I thought I could please Paul into growing up. Even denying Eduardo my food had been about making sure his pleasure had a replacement: me. I’d made my body the dish, and he’d devoured me.

Even now, I can’t separate eating and cooking from relationships and sex. From the finely-diced mirepoix on the cutting board to the precision of baking, cooking a meal for someone can be pressurized, granular, labor-intensive — yet gratifying and rewarding. Which is what makes it dangerous. Un-learning that male pleasure is no more valuable than mine has left me guarded with men. One minute you’re making out in an Uber, the next you’ve fallen through love’s trap door, and that’s when the laboring begins. And after so many romantic fiascos — that I wouldn’t trade, not now, not ever — cooking is one of the most vulnerable things I can think to do.

The last time I cooked for a man, he’d billed the evening as a joint pizza-making effort, which seemed harmless enough. I’d grab some dough from my secret North End spot, we’d decided, and he’d pick up the rest. We didn’t even need to cook the pizza at that point — just the mere mention of sharing responsibility for creating a meal sparked a sea of sexual fantasies starring Chris. He was an attorney and judiciousness in such matters made sense. A man of the law, I thought, adjusting my outfit in the mirror beforehand, a man of equality.

But when I got to Chris’ shoebox-small Beacon Hill apartment, he had no tomato sauce, no canned tomatoes, and no fresh tomatoes, either. No basil. No sausage, soppressata, or other classic pizza ingredients. He didn’t even have cheese. Instead, he opened his fridge and produced the roasted Brussels sprouts from a few nights ago and a smidge of leftover butternut squash purée. “Let me just make sure it hasn’t gone bad,” Chris said, plying off the plastic lid for a sniff. He couldn’t tell and foisted the puree under my nose next. “I can’t tell either,” I said. “But, what you’re telling me is that this is all you have?”

But getting rid of Chris’ leftovers had been his plan all along, I soon realized, as he explained how he religiously ate every item in the refrigerator — every butt-end of a bread loaf or spare radish — before he shopped for more. I pictured him reading depositions at his desk while gnawing on a carrot, jonesing so badly for a burrito, but there was still half a bag of carrots to go. It was all so comically disappointing.

Sensing that, Chris was suddenly willing to abandon the leftovers and amend his gaffe by hitting the Whole Foods early. But I’d already run his available ingredients through my Chopped filter and conjured the pizza we were going to make. There would be a thin layer of butternut purée topped with Brussels sprouts and caramelized shallots, drizzled with a homemade balsamic glaze, our pièce de résistance.

“It’s fine,” I said, and cranked the oven. “I know what I’m doing.”

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Sarah Sweeney

Written by

Writer, traveler & sometimes journalist. My essay collection “Tell Me If You’re Lying” debuted from Barrelhouse Books in 2016. Visit me at sarah-sweeney.com

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Sarah Sweeney

Written by

Writer, traveler & sometimes journalist. My essay collection “Tell Me If You’re Lying” debuted from Barrelhouse Books in 2016. Visit me at sarah-sweeney.com

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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