Have we become that married couple? Huddled over plates of food, silverware clinking, starring into the near distance, chewing, sipping. In my thirties and forties, when out to dinner with my first husband, Tim, I made sure to fill the silence, researching beforehand timely topics: politics, books, movies, community events so that no lull was left to hang between us. I would smirk my judgy smirk at the silent couple a table over. “Oh how sad to no longer have anything to talk about. Every morsel swallowed a silent scream of desperation. It’s over and you just don’t know it. So sorry.” Yet, here we are, my Ranger and I, enjoying quiet dinners, pausing only to nudge away a begging husky. What does all this silence mean? Could it really just be exhaustion? Has working with the public all day left us without any words for each other?
A love of food and making food has always been one of the seams of my relationship with The Ranger. The first time I turned the car around in Seattle and drove back to the coast to figure out why I was attracted to this man in the first place, he greeted me with a tray of crab stuffed mushrooms and a perfectly chilled rose´. Hmmm…no block of cheese and PBR? Isn’t that what kids his age do? Yet, here was something that showed real ambition. On other visits, he simmered away at homemade calzone, smoky baby back ribs, and herb-stuffed ling cod on the grill. But probably his most romantic gesture, early on, was when he emailed me a snapshot of him holding a 32 pd. Chinook, with the note, “I’ll catch ‘em, if you cook ‘em.” I hardly knew the man, yet the domesticity those words implied was a bit thrilling, even though I’d already sworn to keep my heart tightly locked up after the shit kicking it got in divorce court.
Indeed, The Ranger has held to that promise, catching fish and crab, foraging for mushrooms and seaweed, picking berries and nudging a small vegetable garden into baskets of greens and snap peas. He presses my mom for family recipes when we visit New Mexico, and has perfected her open kettle pinto beans, which are so much better than my beans because they require patience and changes in water and attention and all manner of detail that I can’t seem to manage. Digging into a steamy bowl, fragrant with childhood memories, I’m still just a tiny bit discouraged that a white boy can make better beans than me. But then I comfort myself with the fact that I make his mother’s golipki, pigs in a blanket, and potato salad with just the right amount of tang and Polishness.
When we finally married and bought a house after six years of non-committal grilling and sautéing, the Ranger turned into a Farmer and the garage got taken over as a place of fermenting, pickling, dehydrating, smoking (the fish kind), grinding to powder, and hanging things upside down. Me, I’m just the sous chef and have become remarkably good at taking direction. It is sometimes jaw dropping, however, when I realize I’ve traveled from the money stink of Madison Avenue to the ocean stink of canning tuna.
It’s not like this is the first time I’ve been in a relationship with someone who loves to cook and eat as much as I do. I still think about Curt’s country fried chicken as the best I’ve ever eaten. Apparently rice flour is the key. He and his wife now run a B&B in the California redwoods and their website includes much raving over his breakfast frittatas and fluffy biscuits. Tom ended up going to culinary school in Paris after a near death experience made him rethink his life in advertising. After six months of perfecting the crepe, he then, of course, went back to advertising. My favorite ex, Chris, during an autopsy of how three years of college romance didn’t end up in marriage and five Catholic children, summed it up perfectly, “The difference between you and me, Romero, is that you live to eat. And I eat to live. Huge.” This, as he served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. And Rainier beer. (Actually, I really love Rainer.)
Yet, in these relationships, we cooked for each other. With the Ranger, we cook together, elbow to elbow, in our tiny kitchen with the counter space of a Winnebago. Even when we’re fighting mad about something, we still cook side by side, the only difference being the pepper grinder takes a real beating! And absolutely everything needs to pass through the mortar and pestle. Or, we call a truce while he manages the grill outside and I manage the furious chopping of vegetables inside.
What I’ve come to realize is this…the details of the day eventually make their way to the surface, before dinner, sometimes after, when we’re walking the dog at sundown. But dinner. That’s church, candles and all. Sacred time. The day is over, and no matter what passed before us earlier, happy or sad, discouraging or hopeful, all of it is set aside so that we can return to this one thing. A meal prepared with our own hands and shared at the corner of a long table, looking out at the ocean or inside at the crackling fire in the stove. That we can sit comfortably in silence is a real blessing, and a huge relief, something I never understood before.
For someone who loves words so much, it’s hard for me to admit that sometimes they are inadequate, and often fail to capture what it means to be in a relationship that is so deeply loyal and love-soaked, it doesn’t need the packing peanuts of conversation to fill it up. We can simply pass the salt.