This is All on the Table, a column featuring writers we love sharing stories of food, conflict, and community.
It was that date. The one where you invite the guy over to your apartment for a home-cooked meal to see if there’s real chemistry.
Tim and I had been set up about a month earlier. We went on one of those no-nonsense, low-stakes drinks dates designed to determine if there was enough interest to warrant another. There had been, and over the next few weeks we met at two bistros and a trattoria, getting to know each other over steak frites, pasta pomodoro, and other delicious but tame fare. At these meals I learned that Tim came from a close-knit Irish Catholic family and was one of six children (five of them boys). His descriptions of his childhood seemed plucked from a 1950s handbook—a stern but amicable father, a sweet homemaker mother, and orderly family-style dinners served promptly at 6 p.m. after his parents had enjoyed a single measured 1.5-ounce cocktail each and said grace.
“What on earth does one cook for a family of eight?” I wondered aloud. Tim smiled and told me with nostalgia that Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup featured prominently; Twinkies and Ring Dings were Friday night’s dessert; and that he was his mother’s “best eater.” He also mentioned that his father, a germophobe, preferred his meats well-done.
This did not bode well.
My parents—divorced when I was five and each on their third marriage by the time I met Tim—drank with abandon, cooked adventurously, and preferred their meats bloody. “Food,” my mother always told me, “is poetry for the mouth.” In our home the kitchen was where the action took place. By day Mom, a Le Cordon Bleu-educated chef, tested recipes for her Boston Globe column and her cookbooks, and in the evenings my brother, stepfather, and I gathered along the counter to watch the show: Mom, a dry manhattan in one hand and some cooking implement in the other, pounding, mincing, whisking, and flipping, confident that the way to all hearts was through the stomach. Under our adoring gaze she’d spatchcock fowl, coax soufflés to rise, and tuck sizzling snails into shells under clouds of garlicky butter, delivering bites into our open mouths like she was feeding baby birds in a nest.
But back to Tim and this nerve-racking dinner date. I wasn’t anxious about performing in the kitchen—I was my mother’s daughter after all. What had me worried was what kind of eater he was. What if I was falling in love with the possessor of a tepid palate and resigning myself to a lifetime of bland meals? Food was my family’s love language. It was how we communicated. I didn’t want to tamp down my voice…. I needed to be heard! I tried to focus on the pro side of the ledger: Tim was handsome, smart, funny, and kind. Did it really matter if he wasn’t Anthony Bourdain?
I looked at my cookbook collection, perched on a shelf in my tiny Manhattan kitchen and reached for a copy of my mother’s Do-Ahead Dining, the jacket of which featured a slab of gorgeously rare roast beef. The table of contents was organized by season and number served; headings included “Leisurely Summer Luncheon for Six” and “Christmas Brunch for Sixteen.” My finger slid down the list of recipes designed for two: sautéed shad roe, intimate duckling dinner, veal kidneys in wine sauce. No, no, and no. I began bargaining with myself: I could handle it if Tim wasn’t a culinary daredevil—an aversion to innards would not be a dealbreaker—but a baseline appreciation of excellent food was nonnegotiable. Then my eyes landed on a long-forgotten favorite, “Greek-Style Shrimp for Two.” It was the perfect dish, chock-full of robust and delectable ingredients like fresh tomatoes, tangy feta, piquant basil, and sweet shrimp—sophisticated yet not too challenging.
Two evenings later Tim sat on an antique stool in my galley kitchen, drinking a glass of white wine while I channeled my mother bantering and showing off my knife skills, pressing the tip-end down while rapid-fire rocking the blade across a garnish of parsley. To my delight, when I opened the oven door, releasing a puff of intoxicating aromas, Tim closed his eyes and inhaled audibly, giving the bouquet the attention a miracle deserved.
Over his shoulder in the next room, a beautifully set table awaited us, candles flickering. But I couldn’t wait. I spooned out a pink shrimp topped with melted feta and sprinkled it with freshly chopped parsley. Tim’s eyes were still shut. “Open up,” I said, blowing on the morsel. Our first, albeit tiny, moment of vulnerability and trust.
Tim did as I asked, smiling in anticipation, and I popped the bite into his mouth. He moaned with pleasure, a sound so appreciative that it conveyed all I needed to know in terms of our culinary compatibility. Without opening his eyes, he reached for my hand, turned it over and kissed the inside of my wrist. “This is perfection.” And it was.
Adrienne Brodeur is the author of the national bestseller Wild Game and executive director of Aspen Words. Her novel Little Monsters is out now.
Shrimp With Feta and TomatoesInspired by the Greek classic shrimp saganaki, this riff features a bright mix of fresh tomatoes with shrimp and feta for a fast dinner with plenty of oomph.