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I like that we talk about food. Food was the first thing we really had in common.

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What I Mean By That            February 1, 2001

Before, he never had much to do with food

by Jeff Stimpson

Email to a FriendBefore Jill, I never had much to do with food. Now I do.

'What do you mean by that?' Jill wants to know.

I mean that I once planned meals during the commercial breaks, and for a long bachelor stretch I lived with another guy and one pot for pasta. We dined separately and took turns scrubbing the pot. Now and then I'd bespatter the broiler with a sirloin. Sliced bread was a valid starch. A complex meal was Shake'n'Bake on pork chops. Domino's delivered.

Then came Jill. 'What do you mean by that?' she wants to know.

Jill cares about food so much she writes a cooking newsletter. On our first date, Jill invited me to her house and served me twelve ravioli. She'd asked me to dinner, boiled the pasta suggestively tender, and arranged it on the bowl as if working on her makeup. She was obviously nervous. This I remember. She ladled on the red sauce and brushed my fingers with hers as she passed me the plate.

'It was tomato sauce with fresh basil,' says Jill. 'I cooked the ravioli until it was done. You're so stupid.'

Jill thinks it's interesting that I remember it as a date, and she remembers it as a casual dinner invite. 'I remember it as an occasion where I had the upper hand. I boiled some pasta, I cooked some sauce. Period. The end.'

If it wasn't a date, why did she need an upper hand?

Sometimes we talk about the dishes I brought to this marriage. I still make pretty good scrambled eggs, and Jill has always been charmed by the tortellini salad from my bachelor days. I think she marveled at the simplicity of boiled cheese tortellini tossed with iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes, slicked with Wishbone Italian dressing and served in two green plastic bowls. She wolfed it down and praised it, and I think her right hand even came up to her chin and bent inwards - her ultimate compliment to food.

'That's not what I found charming,' Jill says. 'What I found charming was that you knew how to make something I'd consider eating. And, you know: it's my left hand.'

Jill has taught me how to talk about food. Like when she's pointing out what went wrong with a recipe: 'You have to keep stirring / blending / fluffing / folding, for minutes / hours / all night while the pot is covered / uncovered / boiling / empty,' she will explain. Just like in algebra, I will nod and nod. She's introduced me to stewed tomatoes, black olives, hot peppers, and yogurt. I still hate all of them.

My vocabulary has changed, too. Salads are 'dressed.' Egg whites are 'folded.' Butter goes on a 'dish.' Spaghetti sauce now comes out of a 'pot' and not a 'jar.' Crab chips go in a 'bowl' and not 'between the cushions.' Jill calls my cereal bowls dog dishes. They're deep and they carry a man's portion of Raisin Bran. I guess a dog could eat out of them and come away satisfied.

'Do you not know why I call them 'dog dishes'?' she asks. 'Do you honestly not know?'

I've realized that my wife actually cares that saucers match cups and that drinking glasses not come from Mobil stations during NFL promotions. When we travel, I'm as interested as she in finding something new to eat, like burnt ends in Baltimore and Cornell barbecued chicken in upstate New York. I eat every meal off plates. Sometimes I even eat at the dining room table. Together we picked out the countertops for the new kitchen. At one time, I didn't even know counters had tops.

'I think it's obvious you're a different and more sophisticated person,' says Jill, 'with improved taste since you married me.'

I like that we talk about food. Food was the first thing we really had in common - we both had to eat - and talking about it eased that vulnerability of eating in front of a new love. Later we talked about food for Jill's newsletter. Later still, I wrote for the newsletter and dug into that stuff in the dog dishes and what it meant to me. Lately we've talked mostly about baby food.

From that ravioli in the tomato basil sauce to last night's ribs in our new oven, food has meant our future together.

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