On "engagement chicken" and redefining the meals for which we marry

They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach — but what about my heart?

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published February 12, 2023 5:30PM (EST)

Homemade roasted chicken with spices, thyme and lemon (Getty Images/istetiana)
Homemade roasted chicken with spices, thyme and lemon (Getty Images/istetiana)

I tend to think that most of Ina Garten's recipes are pretty magical, but there's one in particular that people speak of as if it holds special powers. It's a basic roast chicken — one packed with citrus, thyme, onion and garlic — which Garten calls her "engagement chicken."

As actress Emily Blunt simply put it in an interview, "when people make it for people, they get engaged." Such was the case for Blunt, who made it for her now-husband John Krasinski, as well as for Meghan Markle, who allegedly made the chicken for Prince Harry right before he proposed.

Garten herself appeared in a 2018 episode of "Sunday Today with Willie Geist" and said, "I do know that [Markle] liked to cook my roast chicken, which we call 'engagement chicken,' because whenever you make it, somebody asks you to marry them."

"So, what we're driving at here is that you were responsible for the royal wedding?" Geist responded with a chuckle. But I didn't learn about Garten's special chicken from celebrity interviews or even from the Barefoot Contessa herself.

Instead, my first introduction to "engagement chicken" came through an email sent by a pastor's wife a few months before I became a Bible school dropout. Within that context, the recipe's name was less of a wink at the simultaneous delight and absurdity of modern domestic performance and more of a reminder of certain expectations with which I had grown up.

Namely, that I would find a husband and cook to keep him — exactly as generations of women had done before me.


There's a song by Josh Ritter called "Getting Ready to Get Down" that begins like this: 

Mama got a look at you and got a little worried

Papa got a look at you and got a little worried

Pastor got a look and said, "Y'alll had better hurry,

Send her off to a little Bible college in Missouri."

I vividly remember the first time I heard it. It was a Sunday morning, and instead of sitting in a church pew, I was lazily driving along Old Frankfort Pike, a verdant 16.9-mile route between Kentucky's state capital and Lexington that is often called Thoroughbred Alley. Osage orange, redbud and sugar maple tree branches wove together overhead, forming a dense, knotty canopy that broke every few miles to reveal stretching bluegrass pastures.

Much like the subject of the song, a young woman who lets the judgment of her churchy hometown neighbors roll off her back, I was sent to Bible college by my parents in what I believe was an effort to curb my intrigue in anything their church would have deemed "worldly." At the time, I was 16, simultaneously cocky about graduating high school a couple of years early and deeply uncertain about my own impending foray into Christian womanhood.

Before ultimately transferring to a small liberal arts college, I spent a single semester at a Kentucky seminary, where the running joke was if you graduated from the women's ministry department, you wouldn't receive a bachelor's or master's degree. Instead, you would be graduating with an "M.R.S. degree" — and you hopefully had a husband to go with it.

"A ring by spring" was the goal, meaning that the pressure to find and secure a future spouse within the first six months of college was palpable, especially inside the women's dorms. I remember sitting in a lilac-painted student lounge while "Fireproof" — a 2008 film in which Kirk Cameron stars as a firefighter who turns to a Christian self-help book to save his marriage — played softly in the background. There, the girls tried out different phrases. In retrospect, they were expressions of that same anxiety.

"I'm waiting for my Boaz" was a popular one, referring to Ruth's steadfast husband in the Old Testament. "You should be letting God write your love story" was another, commonly doled out to impatient single seminarians or those who had just been dumped. But the most popular advice (or warning) by far that was given to the young Christian women in my circles was that "God won't bless you with someone until you focus on becoming a Proverbs 31 woman."

For the uninitiated, that chapter of the Book of Proverbs offers a description of the ideal bride, which also serves as a metaphor for Christ's relationship with the church. "A wife of noble character who can find?" the section begins. "She is worth far more than rubies."

The ideal wife is industrious and hardworking. She is well-respected by both her peers and her servants, kind to the poor and "speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction on her tongue." Some contemporary theological scholars disagree over whether this portrait is prescriptive for modern-day followers or simply descriptive of expectations of the time, but such discourse was flattened in the lilac room.

I remember one of the resident advisors, a sophomore who flaunted her newly bejeweled ring finger as she flipped through her Bible, pointing out a specific stretch of verses from the passage:

She is like the merchant ships,

bringing her food from afar.

She gets up while it is still night;

she provides food for her family

and portions for her female servants.

"You see girls," she said cooly. "The way to a man's heart has always been through his stomach."


Also presented in verse is a chapter introduction within "To The Bride," a 1956 cookbook compiled by the editors of the magazine of the same name. The book was marketed to future brides and newlywed women who knew that "a juicy red steak . . . will soothe the rough edges of [men's] tempers." The poem reads:

The way to a man's heart

So we've always been told, 

Is a good working knowledge 

Of pot, pan, and mold. 


The talented gal

Who can whip up a pie, 

Rates a well-deserved rave

From her favorite guy.


A juicy red steak, 

Or a tender, fish fillet

Done to a turn

In a bright copper skillet


Will soothe the rough edges 

Of tempers, no fooling!!!

And leave a man happy

Contented and drooling. 

These lines introduced a chapter that was titled, perhaps coyly, "The Care and Feeding of Young Husbands."

"To The Bride" was just one example of a wave of mid-century cookbooks that were directed at young women during a period of radical cultural and culinary shifts. Amid World War II, canned goods were sent to soldiers overseas, and according to the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, "Americans were encouraged to purchase frozen foods."

During this time, women were expected to pitch into the war effort and often to seek employment outside the home, which was even reflected in advertisements for convenience foods. A wartime ad for Shredded Ralston whole wheat cereal, which featured both men and women, emphasized that the meal was "ready-to-eat when I'm ready" and was punctuated with patriotism.

Whether or not you were a blushing bride or a veteran housewife, the cultural message post-war was clear: "The men are coming home — and they want dinner on the table when they get there."

"No wonder Uncle Sam says, 'Eat foods like this every day,'" it said.

Following the war, however, convenience foods steadily lost their sheen as a patriotic choice and were repositioned as a lazy one. This eventually dovetailed with some general hand-wringing about Betty Friedan's seminal feminist text "The Feminine Mystique," which interrogated domestic labor and the ways in which American women were culturally obligated to the kitchen.

Clashing attitudes about a woman's place — and whether it was solely in the kitchen — are very apparent when assessing cookbooks from that time period. As Johanna Bracken, whose mother Peg published the cult-favorite "I Hate to Cook Book" wrote in the book's re-release, the '50s and '60s were "a time when women were expected to have full, delicious meals on the table for their families every night" and offered women "who didn't revel in this obligation an alternative: quick, simple meals that took minimal effort but would still satisfy."

Whether or not you were a blushing bride or a veteran housewife, the cultural message post-war was clear: "The men are coming home — and they want dinner on the table when they get there."


To aid in the effort of becoming a Proverbs 31 woman, the seminary I attended offered women's ministry workshops that were essentially home economics classes taught by the male faculty member's wives. In them, students learned skills such as making homemade detergent, how to sew deconstructed pairs of blue jeans into aprons and how to lattice pastry strips to make a neat pie crust.

Photos of these Pinterest-worthy accomplishments would be uploaded to social media with hashtags like #domesticswag. As this was before the advent of Instagram stories — which allowed users to see who had viewed their reel of temporary posts — the unmarried female students would gather in the lilac lounge and spend hours speculating about whether the seminarian of their dreams had seen their posts or not.

"There's nothing in the Bible that says a girl can't bake a man some cookies. And there's nothing that says you can't roast that man a chicken."

This greatly aggravated one teaching pastor's wife, who counseled the young women in her classes to take a more direct approach. "There's nothing in the Bible that says a girl can't bake a man some cookies," she would say. "And there's nothing that says you can't roast that man a chicken."

Each semester, she would send out an email with a link to Garten's recipe. When it was my turn to receive the recipe, it was accompanied by a short note: "I can't promise a ring by spring, but this ought to help."


Only a few years prior to the release of "To The Bride," Pet Milk Co. published a cookbook titled "Husband-Tested Recipes." According to the book's author, Mary Lee Taylor, it was packed with dishes — like "pork gems" suspended in gelatin with creamed peas, Western meatballs and banana nut salad — that would garner one's husband's approval.

"Yes, these and other delicious appetizing dishes you prepare using the recipes in this book are sure to win his praises," Taylor wrote. "More than that, every one of these 'Husband-Tested Recipes' is easy to follow, failproof and money-saving. He'll praise these dishes . . . You'll like these recipes!"


I've been on the receiving end of three proposals. I've only accepted one — and that was when I was 17.

I know it sounds a little shocking in this day and age, but young marriages are still very common in the denomination in which I grew up as a means to deter "sexual impurity." So, when my then-boyfriend was preparing to ship off to military boot camp, it made sense that he would leave me as his fiancée. My mother was thrilled and began filling a series of plastic bins with cookware and china as a sort of modern-day hope chest.

After he graduated, he stayed over in the guest room at my parent's house, and I was encouraged to make him breakfast the next morning in what felt like a practice run for my impending marriage. Like a Proverbs 31 wife, I remember getting up while it was still dark to make what I thought was a pretty impressive spread: Garten's French toast bread pudding topped with fresh whipped cream and citrus zest; oven-baked maple bacon; low-and-slow scrambled eggs; crispy potatoes; and fresh-squeezed orange juice with the pulp meticulously strained out.

I don't remember much about that morning, but I do remember that my fiancé woke up late, shoveled a plate's worth of food into his mouth and then, after making eye contact with me, just sort of grunted an acknowledgment before returning to the couch to watch TV.

Don't get me wrong: As I look back now, I recognize that he was also just a kid. However, in that moment, I simultaneously burned with the rage of a weary sitcom housewife whose efforts were taken for granted by her bumbling husband, while also feeling the acute shame of a child who tried to show a crayon drawing to a parent, only to be impatiently waved off. It was my first taste of the way in which women's domestic labor can be treated as an expectation, rather than an expression of love or care.

Within a few weeks, I found myself sealing up my ring in an envelope and mailing it back to a military base in North Carolina.

While doing the dishes that morning, my mind kept returning to a story I had heard while growing up about my great-grandmother. She had gotten engaged to a boy from her hometown before going to college, but after a few weeks on campus, she spotted my eventual great-grandfather across the quad. When they made eye contact, she was immediately besotted.

As the story goes, my great-grandmother surreptitiously shoved her engagement ring into her sock and went to talk with my great-grandfather. They hit it off, and within the week, she sealed up her engagement ring in an envelope and sent it back to her fiancé. At the time, she wasn't even sure if she and my great-grandfather would date, let alone marry, but she couldn't go through with a wedding knowing that there might be another life out there she hadn't yet considered.

Within a few weeks, I found myself sealing up my ring in an envelope and mailing it back to a military base in North Carolina.


Over a decade later, in what some would perhaps consider an ironic turn, I work in food media. It's a career that has allowed me to professionalize my passion for observing how the ways in which we eat reflect who we are, as well as how our culture and communities operate. That said, I remain a little shocked by how much of cooking is still framed around finding a husband.

Garten's engagement chicken isn't the only recipe touted as a shortcut to matrimony. "Top Chef" winner Buddha Lo has a "marry me pasta," a play on amatriciana, while Rachael Ray has developed a vodka sauce that purportedly ensures you won't be single for long. There are enough "marry me cookies" and "marry me cakes" for it to have become something of a trope in the world of food blogging, right up there with recipes that are almost as good as grandma's.

Google "husband-approved recipes," and you'll be greeted with hundreds of relatively recent Pinterest boards and blog posts. In 2020, Taste of Home published a list of "39 recipes husbands can't get enough of," including some real "meat and potatoes" fare like beef chimichangas and burgers with grilled cheese sandwiches as buns.

"It's said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," the article read. "And these recipes from our readers prove it."

There's no denying, however, that cooking for someone is a potent demonstration of care, something I think I've actually internalized a little more deeply because of my upbringing.

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I fiercely treasure the moments I've shared with people I love (or even just like) over food: there was the Thanksgiving dinner my best friend and I made for our very small pod during the second year of the pandemic; the baked manicotti I made as a salve for my grad school roommate's breakup; the homemade coconut candies a pen pal sent to celebrate my first national story. About five years ago, I began seeing a man who recognized that part of me and tailored his gifts appropriately.

One of the first nights he stayed over, he brought his overnight bag, a toothbrush and a vacuum-sealed bag of duck prosciutto he had dry cured. I took it as something of a sign because I had duck eggs in my refrigerator, which we used the next morning to make a particularly decadent carbonara flecked with the salty, flaky prosciutto.

A few months later, when the bush outside his front door sprouted fat, sweet blackberries, he spent afternoons collecting them in little pint-sized tubs. He would bring them by my place, and I would watch him fold them into a series of clafoutis, a baked French dessert of fruit, traditionally black cherries, arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter.

On many late summer mornings, I still wake up to the smell of butter, sugar and burst blackberries wafting from our kitchen, intermingling with the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. This is the year that we've talked about getting married; when we do, I can honestly say that it will be because of, at least in small part, his clafoutis.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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