Romancing the Stove
I met Frenchman serendipitously. A mutual friend and I had stopped at a café on a Saturday morning where he happened to be having breakfast. He stood briefly and asked us to join him.
Olive-complexioned, Frenchman was in his early 40s but looked younger. At 6- foot-4, his lanky figure had been chiseled by tennis and soccer. I liked the way he ran his fingers through his dark hair and the way he sat, leaning casually with his legs crossed. I fancied his long eyelashes, longer fingers with perfect horizontal manicure, his designer jeans. I thought he was beautiful; I wanted to touch him.
I was obsessed with the crossword puzzle folded into a neat quarter-page on Frenchman’s lap while he held his pen and coffee cup in the same hand. It was the tough day for crosswords, and nearly all the squares were filled.
That’s hot, I said to myself.
We exchanged pleasantries between sips of cappuccino. Our conversation quickly pivoted to our recent travels and global affairs. I felt his energy as we talked. A few minutes later, Frenchman asked me out on a date. He wrote my phone number in the margin of his unfinished crossword. We met for dinner four days later.
Frenchman was my kind of person.
He listened to classical music, jazz, and NPR. Frenchman loved words and obsessively studied the etymology of dictionary entries. I made my living on storytelling, yet when we played Scrabble, he’d beat me by 75 points. Frenchman said he loved me for my intelligence, my social and cultural awareness.
I fell in love with him immediately. I was charmed by the way he talked, in a baritone brogue, using formal English. And then there was the way he pronounced my name: zha-MEE-lah. Still, I was most captivated by his insatiable appetite.
I’d spent many years as an editor, managing restaurant critics, observing dining habits. Frenchman could eat. On one of our dates he asked to finish my pasta dish which was cold, gummy, and swimming in greige sauce with dollar-store parsley flakes. Jeez, he’s really hungry, I assumed.
“You always leave a little bit,” he said of my untouched leftovers.
When I’m full I stop eating. Frenchman was never full. He’d finish what he was eating and whatever plate I’d started. Frenchman inhaled foods that made me look sideways. Cold oatmeal. Questionable leftover chicken. Ice cream a season past its expiration date.
As we continued to see each other, I kept track of fresh things Frenchman liked to eat. Coffee. Honey. Chocolate.
Cooking is the only way I know how to seduce a man. I’d managed to reel in other boyfriends with a roast chicken here and handmade pasta there. I rarely dated. I’ve been called “complicated”—and not in a good way. Food is my way to bypass the friend zone. I’d usually start with a gateway recipe, something easy like a pot de crème or a quiche.
The first time Frenchman invited me over, I asked if I could bring dessert. I baked molten chocolate cakes using the four-ingredient method taught to me by Jean-Georges Vongerichten years earlier, using the best French chocolate fèves and Tahitian vanilla beans. As we talked about our days and played a round of Scrabble, Frenchman devoured these pastries with his hands. “Ouf, these are so good,” he said, eyes closed, shaking his head.
Frenchman kept inviting me over, so I kept bringing him desserts.
I’d use the best local honey to infuse panna cotta, which I would unmold onto a pool of caramel then garnish with lemon thyme leaves. I would present him with tartes aux citron using the same lemon curd recipe my grandmother taught me when I was 6, long before I could use the stove unsupervised.
“Anything you make for me is special because I always eat the same thing,” Frenchman said whenever I offered to cook. Frenchman didn’t cook much. He kept a tub of protein shake mix on his kitchen counter and a Keurig coffee machine. Sometimes fruit. His stove went largely untouched.
I cooked new dishes for him every chance I could as a deliberate act of love. I loved watching him scarf down food I’d prepared, tickled by the way he’d twist pappardelle around his fork. I blushed when he’d sop sauce with le quignon—the rounded end of a baguette. For Frenchman, nothing I cooked ever needed more salt or garlic. He didn’t care if a dish was bland or the pasta was too al dente because, as he’d tell me with a shrug, “After I finish my meal I’m going to make love to you.”
The deeper I fell for Frenchman, the more elaborate my dishes became. I’d make braised lamb stew and lemon tarts—on a weeknight. He’d tell me I was beautiful and ask me to come closer. When I’d present him with buttery scallops over pea puree and orzo with tomatoes from my garden, Frenchman would lean over my chair and put his face against my cheek. If I made carrot cake with lemony cream cheese frosting, we’d make love on the floor.
Love will make you cook complicatedthings. For Frenchman, I mastered a three-day technique to confit duck legs. He loved this dish. I stocked tubs of duck fat in the freezer so I could easily cure the legs or fry potatoes. Frenchman would separate the meat from the leg and save the crispy skin for the last bite.
“You’re the only woman, besides my mother, who has ever cooked for me.”
Frenchman said this when he especially enjoyed a meal. When I asked him about her most memorable dish, he’d become animated: “Lapin à la moutarde!” Braised rabbit with mustard.
I wasn’t familiar. When he described how his mother cooked rabbit, he’d squint and chef’s kiss, and his accent would go full-on South of France. It was clear this country stew was something special. I was determined to cook it.
I had traveled in France, including the region where Frenchman was from, but could not recall ever eating rabbit with mustard. Some U.S. magazines referred to it, but there were no recipe reviews. French magazines called it a “grandma’s dish” but offered no helpful guidance. There was conflicting information on how to serve it. But how hard could it be?
Lapin à la moutarde is a simple dish. Shallots. Parsley. Wine. I just needed rabbit. After some research and a 30-minute drive, I found a shop with four small, intact rabbits on display. But when the butcher held one up for my approval, I squirmed. I had been cooking my entire life but had no idea how to choose a rabbit.
What should I look for? How should it smell?
I began to overthink the recipe, because I had no idea what I was doing. Should the sauce be beige or brown? Do I deglaze the pan with white wine or red? Do I serve it with a salad? How. Is It. Supposed. To. Taste? No chef friend I could call was familiar enough with lapin à la moutarde to help me. Frenchman didn’t cook. Somehow, the idea of cooking a dish for someone I cared deeply about began to give me anxiety.
Finally, I asked Frenchman what he wanted to eat.
He touched the side of my face and said lovingly, “I know that whatever you cook, it will be great because you made it.”
That night, I put down the rabbit and made duck confit.
Frenchman said it was the best he ever had.
Get the recipe: Lemon Curd Tart.