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May 11, 2005: Perspective

Recipe for a happy marriage

(Linda Helton)

Recipe for a happy marriage
Step 1: Dish out the compliments

By Johnny Saunders ’97

Johnny Saunders ’97 is an editor and writer in New York. His wife, Jessie Carry Saunders ’98, is a chef and author of Not on Love Alone: A Year of Delicious Dinners and More for Newlyweds (Marlowe & Co.).

This is an essay about food and love, but it begins, as nearly everything does these days, with real estate. My wife and I live in Greenwich Village in New York City, on the unattractive end of an unfashionable block. Our building was once a tenement. It’s a five-story walkup, and our apartment is on the top floor (hauling groceries and laundry up the five flights has greatly expanded my lung capacity and given me the thighs of a Sherpa). The walls are thin and seem to be made of some mixture of papier-mâché and Spackle — when you drill into it, a fine powder collects on the ground. Our apartment itself is not large: If we ever have children, they’ll have to sleep suspended from the ceiling, in pods. The floor slopes, which is unfortunate, because after climbing all those steps it’s demoralizing to face an uphill walk from the front door to the couch. We have no pets; we don’t have room for them, and, besides, the little mouse that pops its head out from under the dishwasher every once in a while is companion enough. When friends first visit our apartment, they inevitably say, “How cute!” by which they mean, “How tiny!”

My wife, Jessie (née Carry, Class of 1998), and I were married in 2001, and the many new appliances we received as wedding gifts seemed to give our existing appliances an inferiority complex. The television spontaneously shed its volume-control buttons; and our refrigerator, which was old and made strange noises at night, not only ceased to refrigerate, it actively began to heat the food. Our shower is worse: It’s both capricious and vindictive. If you want the water a fraction of a degree hotter, just the slightest, tiniest amount, even if you turn the handle less than half a millimeter, it seems to be thinking, “Oh, I’m not hot enough for you, is that it? You want it hot, do you?” and proceeds to blast you with scalding water.

So why do we live here? For the kitchen.

My wife is a chef: In May she published her first cookbook, Not on Love Alone: A Year of Delicious Dinners and More for Newlyweds, and she has her own catering concern in New York. She loves our kitchen. It’s not a kitchenette or a walk-in kitchen; it’s a real kitchen, and goodly sized. Plus, I’m a book editor, which, salary-wise, ranks just below chimney sweep. So, for now, we’re staying.

Food and love are inextricably linked in our lives. Jessie first wooed me with food. When I was 20, and she 18, I spent the summer alone and friendless as a paralegal in Knoxville. During one of our epic phone calls I mentioned a mysterious food — it’s uncanny how conversations with Jessie always get around to food — that I’d had on a trip to Italy with the Princeton soccer team: It was creamy and delicious, I told her, and made of some strange rice-like grain.

Now, Jessie’s and my upbringing could not be more dissimilar. Whereas she grew up in a household that routinely sat down to meals with actual courses, served by candlelight and consisting of foods with French names that even today I have trouble pronouncing, I grew up in a household in which garlic salt was a major staple — as were taco salad and something called “lemon-and-pepper chicken.” Jessie, who had learned to cook at the knee of her father, Peter Carry ’64, an amateur gourmet chef, immediately recognized my mysterious Italian food. When she visited me in Knoxville later that summer, she brought a bag of arborio rice and a hunk of Parmesan cheese from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side. She made me risotto. I’m not exaggerating when I say I can still remember the wonder with which I gazed at her, then down at the plate of risotto, then back at her again.

I told her in ersatz Italian that she was the finest chef this side of the Po.

A few hundred meals later, we married. Food continues to play a key role in our relationship; in fact, how we eat is a direct barometer of how we’re getting along as a married couple. A typical conversation may run like so:

Me (reading a magazine): Hmm, it says here the number-one indicator of a man’s socioeconomic standing is the physical attractiveness of his wife.

Jessie: What does that mean, that you should be a garbage man?

Me: No, that I should be president of IBM.

I ate like a king that night, as I recall.

Jessie and I have developed a system that works very well for us. I consider it June and Ward Cleaver contemporized: She does all the cooking, and I do all the cleaning. With dinners routinely consisting of, say, pork loin braised to perfection in milk, or roasted chicken with watercress, or hand-rolled pasta with buttery, crunchy, homemade croutons, I think we can all agree who has the better end of the deal.

Jessie has a meal for every occasion. Desserts are her favorite: She bakes and decorates a Yule log that so closely resembles a real log (her meringue toadstools are a thing of beauty) that you want to toss it into the fireplace. For Valentine’s Day, she pops a bottle of champagne and whips up beignets with a chocolate ganache filling (or, as I call them, doughnut bites). And on my birthday she grits her teeth and makes me my favorite dessert of all: Duncan Hines yellow cake with frosting from the packet (the chemical aftertaste conjures up pleasing memories of my youth). Sometimes, loving the one you’re with means lowering your standards.

As I reflect on the many lovely meals I’ve eaten with Jessie, I realize there must be an irony to being a starving artist and eating like a king. But for now I’m too satisfied to see it. end of article



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