Pretend you're in a foreign country," I say to my husband, slapping some unidentifiable substance on the supper table. I know for a fact that he has eaten many things in his life out of politeness or starvation, including frogs roasted over a campfire in southeast Asia and mystery-meat stews boiled in a pot in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
He has many tales to tell of meals he has eaten around the world: lambs roasted whole in Turkey, and seafood feasts in Bangkok. He subsisted on nothing but salmon the summer he worked in Alaska, and ate corned-beef hash for 21 days in a row while on a troopship.
The man has been willing to eat whatever he had to, except, since he got off that troopship, corned-beef hash.
Corned-beef hash is the only meal I have served him in 40 years that he has refused to eat. At the time I attempted to serve it to him, we had been married just a short time and I didn't know about his 21-day experience of it.
All I knew was that corned-beef hash was the only thing I could afford for lunch when I went to an elegant restaurant in New York City when I was single, young, new to the city, and trying to be sophisticated. There was a poached egg on top of the hash, and I thought it was delicious, even if it did cost $2.50.
In those days, I was what was called a "career girl," and everybody, including me, was surprised when I got married. I knew next to nothing about cooking, but it was assumed by both bride and groom that I was in charge of things like that. For a while I certainly did try to fill the role so well illustrated in women's magazines of the 1950s, even though I was often reduced to tears in the attempt. But I gradually gave up trying to achieve domestic perfection and carefully cultivated the reputation of one who did not know how to cook.
At family feasts, I was excused from such arcane activities as making gravy. I was assigned to bring dinner rolls from the bakery or asked to provide the olives, pickles, celery, and radishes.
We were close to celebrating our silver anniversary before our older daughter, visiting us with her husband, suddenly looked up from the dinner table and said, "Hey, this is good! You know how to cook!"
I held my finger to my lips. "Shhh!" I said. "Don't tell anybody."
But it was true. In a quarter of a century, out of necessity and trial and error, I had learned how to cook, at least in terms of plain Midwestern cuisine. I had learned to make gravy. I had learned how to put cheese on things and make use of cans of mushroom soup. I had graduated to tomato sauce and spices.
I had done all this because somebody had to cook, and my husband was not about to learn how. But I cherished my reputation as the one in the family who, though she had many other charms and talents, just didn't know how to cook and was forgiven for not knowing.
Yet inevitably the truth has slipped out. Now, after 40 years, my husband says, "No one can cook eggs as well as you can," and "Your apple pie is better than my mother's," and "You make the best homemade soup in the county." I think he is, as he has always been, humbly grateful for whatever is put in front of him to eat.
Yet it is also something else, I realize.
In literature and life, food is love, isn't it? His steadfast expression of delight in whatever is served, and my dogged attempt to keep putting palatable food on the table, has communicated the fact that we appreciate each other, we are important to each other.
So he expresses pleasure, and I try to please him. I think of new ways to serve chicken. I always have apples, melons, and bananas in the house.
But every now and then I just get tired of this food business. I awake in the morning and wonder what we'll have for dinner that night, and then I wonder how it is that my life seems to be one long feeding frenzy.
I want to forget about the food pyramid and just reach into the cupboard and open up some cans and heat up whatever is in them and then slap the concoction on the table and say, "Here, pretend you're in a foreign country."
Whenever something snaps and I do that, my husband looks at me curiously but eats whatever it is without complaint, as he has always eaten whatever I've served without complaint - except for corned-beef hash.
That's an important exception. I know his limits, just as every now and then he is reminded of mine.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society