I learned to cook before I learned to write.
Although today I make my living as a writer, cooking was my chosen profession for 10 years. My mother, whose sense for the perfect ingredient was rivaled only by the likes of Julia Child and James Beard, acted as my professor in the culinary arts, and I accumulated credits as I loitered in her kitchen.
But when I reconnected with an old lover -- my very first lover, in fact, and the first man I have known intimately since my marriage ended -- everything my mother had passed on to me fluttered out the kitchen window.
My lover, a luscious French-Italian milange of a man, apprenticed at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He was a private chef for years, preparing meals for the rich and famous, waltzing around the kitchen like Fred Astaire, his hands in sync with his taste buds, his feet in rhythm with the cadence of the KitchenAid.
I fell in love with him when I was 18, a naive college freshman with only a few good recipes to my name. Three years my senior, he introduced me to french fries with vinegar, scrambled eggs with Tabasco -- and sex. After five years of on-again, off-again romance, we went our separate ways.
Two years ago -- with three broken marriages, three children and three decades between us -- we were reunited at a family gathering. We spent the weekend catching up, flirting and competing over which one of us made the better brownies. Mine, which I had brought to the party, caused everyone to drool over their rich chocolaty moistness, which surely made his gastronomic blood boil. He challenged me to a duel, our brownies the weapon of choice. We would meet in Vermont at my sister's log cabin in mid-November for a brownie bake-off.
My lover was famous for his brownies, which he sold at specialty shops in the Hamptons. One bite that weekend in November and I was inescapably infatuated.
We spent the winter writing to each other, blowing kisses through the mail. Toward the end of May last year, we rendezvoused at a small seaside resort, consecrating our renewed affection with the finest foods we could find.
Our romance continued with weekend trysts at my provincial New England home. As a single mom and freelance writer, macaroni and cheese was the most challenging dish in my repertoire, and I was more at ease with a word processor than a Cuisinart. I was intimidated by my lover's vast knowledge of food preparation and his endless scrutiny of ingredients.
So the first time he came to my house, I chose to prepare a dessert I had rehearsed many times before. Summer pudding, a classic English dish, came to mind as the perfect showcase for the juicy berries in season during that July weekend. I tap-danced through its preparation with ease: I simply lined a bowl with slices of bread (crusts removed), poured in a compote of gently simmered fruit, covered the top with more bread and chilled the dish until it reached a puddinglike consistency. Served with a classic crhme anglaise, it is always a showstopper, its presentation alone a feast for the eyes.
He was duly impressed. And then I challenged him to a quiz: Could he successfully identify all of the ingredients?
He failed the test.
This was a brilliant accomplishment for me. Our nights in restaurants often consisted of searching our food for traces of a flavor or subtle hint of herb the other had not detected. He usually won.
Our obsession with food carried over to our lovemaking. We found ourselves unable to reach ultimate satisfaction without a Grand Marnier truffle on the nightstand. Fortunately, our competitive spirit did not follow us into the bedroom.
I have now spent nearly two years reacquainting myself with gastronomy and other sensual pleasures. I have become more comfortable in the kitchen, though I still stick to fail-safe recipes.
For our last encounter, I dug through an arsenal of recipes in an attempt to find a dessert that would outdo the summer pudding. I found it in the star dessert of my short-lived home-baking business 10 years before: cassata alla Siciliana -- five layers of moist poundcake, interspersed with a sweetened ricotta filling laced with Strega and chunks of chocolate and nuts, finished with a buttery chocolate frosting. A dessert certain to inspire hours of erotic indulgence.
But it had been years since I last created the confection, and I was unquestionably nervous. I started preparations the day before his arrival. By 9 o'clock that night, I was tired and still had a ways to go. As I rushed through the filling, I forgot to drain the ricotta -- a necessary step to ensure that the mixture would be gratifyingly thick and rich. Watching it mingle with the sugar in my KitchenAid, I knew I was in trouble. It looked like ricotta soup. My heart dropped to my knees.
I panicked and paced and finally came up with a solution: I folded a pint of whipped cream into the chilled confection. My substitution created a new recipe that outdid the original. I was both ecstatic and relieved. I completed the cake at midnight and crawled into bed, marveling at my culinary initiative and artistry. I was beginning to experience those old feelings again. Could this be? Was I once more falling in love with cooking?
My lover arrived the next day, tired and hungry. After I'd presented braised salmon seasoned with dill and lemon, accompanied by spring green asparagus, we spent some time reacquainting ourselves. Then I served the dessert.
Looking him straight in the eyes, I grilled him on the composition of the cake. He sputtered, then folded, falling dismally short. I smiled. This relationship looked like it had potential. Not only was I falling in love again with my first lover, I was also falling in love again with my first art.