When in Rome, I became a Roman
My husband is a varsity cook. I am an Olympic dishwasher. But since his work hours are longer than mine, I have no excuses: I have time to prepare dinner before he comes home. Sometimes I wait for him to cook - but then our meals become gluttonous gorges. We cook late, eat later, and waddle to bed like penguins.
So I find myself begging the vegetables in the refrigerator to tell me how to prepare them. I coax cookbooks into revealing quick, easy dishes. I squeeze my eyes closed and try to summon the recipes my mother hammered into me. Each time, I ask myself: Isn't it easier to dial and dine?
Not in Italy. When you're married to an Italian, you must learn how to cook. (And take-out or home delivery is greeted with an imperious "tsk.") Chances are an Italian husband knows how to cook a few meals. But you will be in better stead with his parents if you learn how to cook for him.
The women of my generation often dismiss the idea of cooking for their husbands as antifeminist. The stereotype of a 1950s housewife serving up a meat-and-potatoes meal for her hard-working husband is one that many women in their 30s hesitate to embrace, probably because their office hours are as long as their husbands'.
As a newlywed, I peeled the stickers off the pots and pans fresh from my bridal registry and attempted to make a dinner worth coming home to. Turning to friends for recipes, I heard a recurrent melody: One of my generation's greatest challenges is making time to prepare what my father calls "a proper meal." Moreover, we struggle even to define it.
On my father's recipe card, it is a sirloin steak, mashed potatoes, apple sauce, and perhaps a few carrots - all served on our kitchen table. For me, it's not what I eat, but how the meal is served - and who shares it with me.
In search of recipes, I page through my childhood. Growing up, I craved the SpaghettiO's and hot dogs made for us by Helen, our elderly babysitter who lived next door. Knowing our parents would have never allowed it, we reveled in the deliciously illicit opportunity to dine like the King and Queen of Junk Food in front of a sitcom.
Helen never varied her menus much from the high school cafeteria where she cooked for two decades. For years, we thought spaghetti and meatballs came from a can and that carrots were best served soggy.
My best friend in college was bewildered by my food choices at first: My cafeteria tray bore two glasses of whole milk, two hot dogs, and a side of Fritos. While other young women nibbled celery stalks, I gobbled grub like a guy.
My husband, on the other hand, grew up with a babysitter named Maria who made homemade pizza dough. From an early age, he sat by her side and watched her prepare her postwar version of a proper meal - always from scratch. She sent him to school with a thermos full of piping-hot homemade gnocchi al ragu. She taught him how to create a feast from a seemingly empty refrigerator. Several years ago in Rome, I saw him practicing his olio di gomito with Maria coaching him, their cheeks sprinkled with flour.
Ironically, what I consider a proper meal is a weekly, and, in some cases, daily custom in Italy. The notion of several seatings at a Roman restaurant is not even a blip on the culinary radar screen. If you book a table, it's yours for the evening. When you sit down to eat in Rome, you converse about your day, your friends, your latest recipes, your love life and, sometimes, your job - for hours. You must sit still.
When, long before we were married, my husband first invited me to his house for dinner, he opened the door wearing an apron over his dress shirt and jeans. "This is an act," I thought. I later learned that he feels happiest in an apron. He had set the table. "How civilized," I said. He looked puzzled. Seven years and approximately 2,000 dinners later, I now know that sitting down to eat is a daily ritual for him, and often preferable to a restaurant. He was born a foodie - and I have become one. He and the customs of his country have taught me to enjoy sitting still to eat.
Now my recipe for a proper meal includes sitting around the kitchen table with friends and family, listening to each other, and eating con calma; switching the roles of who dons the apron and who washes up; giving thanks - and not just on Thanksgiving. No TV blares in the background, no phone rings; the clock stands still. Candles burn to waxy stumps.
Living in Italy has revamped my appreciation for food. (To my husband's relief, I no longer eat SpaghettiO's, and I have never dared serve them to him.) A proper meal begins with setting a place to eat - whether in a field, on a train, or around the kitchen table. And there's no saying when it might end.