All this food you cook means nothing to me,” said my husband of 23 years, standing in my kitchen.
To make his point, he pointed to a pan of Sicilian bay leaf meatballs and white wine simmering on the stove.
It’s been a few weeks since he announced he was leaving and we’ve been trying to talk and figure out what went wrong.
It would be several more months before he left the letter admitting that he had actually fallen in love with another woman. So far everything seemed confusing; and as the biggest shock of my life. My mind flashed back a quarter of a century of shared meals and I thought I might be sick.
To be honest, I did not see the end of my marriage. Until the day he left in June 2020, he still brought me a cup of tea in bed every morning and all his text messages ended with five kisses. I thought we were fine or as fine as you expect to be when you have three kids and a busy life and have been together for a long time. (I was 19 when we met, he was 26).
But what if I’ve been paying attention to the wrong things for years? Food, mainly.
I’m a food writer, and from a young age, cooking for others is one of the ways I express love.
During the first spring lockdown of 2020, like many people, I cooked even more than usual for him and our two younger children, ages 11 and 17. (Our oldest son, a 21-year-old student, was locked up in another city).
It’s asparagus season—my husband’s favorite vegetable—and this spring we’ve been eating it all kinds of ways: grilled and steamed and tossed in a salad with big croutons and a bacon vinaigrette.
Just a month before he left, I made him an apricot tart (from Diana Henry’s recipe) that glowed like an orange sunset. Then again, maybe I was wrong to equate apricot tart with love. To him, until now, this magnificent fruit tart seemed just another pointless cooking.
Nora Ephron once wrote (in her novel Acids) about a marriage where cooking was initially one way to say “I love you” but then became the only way.
Much of that first year after our separation passed in a haze of tears, and I often returned to the words he had said in the kitchen.
In the harshness of the breakup, it was agony to think that my cooking had meant so little to him. My heart ached as I remembered all the birthday cakes I had made for him; all stews and pies; all soups and risottos; all pasta dishes and salads; all roast dinners and curries.
The bee recipe for a broken heart
Soft-boiled eggs will always be my first love for a weekend breakfast, but these are my second love.
There’s a cozy elegance to a soft-yolk egg in a small dish. For these I can thank the book by Gail Pirie and John Clark.
They taste and look luxurious and can be varied with whatever additions you like, such as a spoonful of cream at the beginning, plus parmesan at the end, with or without a drop of truffle oil; a splash of soy sauce, grated ginger and chopped chives at the end instead of vinegar; a few flakes of smoked trout with crème fraîche and tarragon.
- 1 large slice of sourdough bread
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- Butter, for the ramekins
- 2 eggs
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme or marjoram
- ½ teaspoon red wine vinegar
I like to make special pre-buttered soldiers to go with this.
Preheat the oven to 160c (320f) fan. Cut the bread lengthwise into long fingers and place on a baking sheet.
Drizzle with the melted butter and bake until golden, about 10-15 minutes. During this time, boil a kettle and pour the contents into a pot on which you can place a steamer.
Place the pot and steamer on high heat.
Rub butter into the bottoms of two ramekins.
Make sure you have a sturdy fish slicer or palette knife handy to pop the ramekins out again at the end.
Gently crack an egg into each ramekin.
Sprinkle with salt to taste and the leaves removed from the herb sprigs.
Place in the steamer, cover and cook for 4 minutes. They’ll probably need a minute more, maybe two. The second the egg whites look cooked, they are done.
Carefully lift the ramekins out of the steamer and onto a plate using a fish fillet or palette knife.
Eat with the toasted soldiers by adding a tiny drizzle of vinegar to each egg before dipping your toast into the creamy yellow yolk.
I remembered our wedding cake, which I had baked myself in a huge heart shape. He said he likes fruitcake but can’t stand glazed cherries so I used chopped dried apricots instead of cherries.
I remembered some of the ambitious dinners I had cooked for him before we had kids. I see from the notes I left in the cookbooks that the fall after we were married, I made him ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and mascarpone; wild mushroom risotto; and crab linguini.
And then I began to see his comment from a different angle. Maybe my cooking really was meaningless to him. Although I had my doubts, especially after hearing that he now uses my Polenta Crispy Baked Potatoes recipe with his new fiancee! He had wasted no time getting engaged after leaving me.
But cooking was not meaningless to me. I felt more and more that it strengthened me. So many other things I tried to comfort myself with, from alcohol to books to movies, reminded me of him.
People often joke about “comfort food” as if it’s just a childish treat: the applesauce and custard you eat because it reminds you of school dinners. For me, comfort cooking is something much deeper than that. That’s what you have to do sometimes to pull yourself back from the brink.
Before he left, I had already begun work on a cookbook based on the idea that cooking can be a cure for many of the problems of modern life, whether you’re cooking for yourself or for a crowd. I have now found this to be truer than I ever realized.
At first, it was one of the many disappointments of the breakup to realize that I would now be the one who would have to do all the cooking (and all the other household chores).
Yet, to my surprise, I found that the kitchen was the only place where I felt better, not worse. (It helped that my kids started doing more dishes, which was just as well, since my daughter developed a serious baking habit that generated countless amounts of dirty bowls, spoons, and stirrers).
The week after my husband passed, I made the meatballs from the Falastin cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley: meatballs sandwiched between slices of roasted eggplant and tomato in a rich tomato sauce. The torn basil leaves are put on top after it comes out of the oven and served with wheat bulgur or rice pilaf.
It’s a bit more complicated than I would normally make for a midweek dinner, but I found that making something with my hands was just what I needed.
I was afraid to tell my children that their father was gone. Knowing that I could not completely protect them from pain, I cooked the things they loved the most. When I scroll through my photos from that time, I see lots of things like roast chicken and mashed potatoes and zucchini and basil moussaka smothered in lemon béchamel.
I’ve found that cooking can remind you of your own strength, even when you can barely stand up.
Whether or not I had cried the night before, I had to get up in the morning and make breakfast for my youngest son before he left for school. I often made him hazelnut waffles (a recipe I kept tweaking for the book), and seeing my own trembling hands take eggs, flour, and nuts and turn them into sweet golden waffles made me feel a little less worthless.
The added bonus was that even though I had little appetite, there were waffles on the table and so I ate.
Through food, I began to find my way back to the person I was before I met my husband. I could revisit the flavors and textures of my childhood, making steamed butter eggs with herbs and toasted soldiers that reminded me of the baked eggs my mother once made for me and my sister. Or I could make a spicy paneer jalfrezi, all in a baking pan in the oven, which reminded me of the takeout my dad used to buy.
Cooking was also a way to make the meals I ate alone when my kids were with their dad feel like a treat rather than a penance. I came up with comforting dishes for myself, like cauliflower and cheese souffle.
If anything deserves to be called self-care, it’s surely cooking for yourself. Many days I felt like a needy child who wanted someone to cook for me, but now that person had to be me.
My own mother had dementia and was in a nursing home where I was no longer allowed to visit. If I wanted to eat the comforting vegetable soups she once made for me, I had to make it myself. It was a wonderful moment when I discovered a much lazier way to make soup by putting all the vegetables together in the pan, no sauteing required, and simmering them with water or stock and a little seasoning. I call it “Soft Soup for Worn Nerves.”
I even found a recipe that helped me solve the problem of what to do with my wedding ring that I had taken off my finger shortly after my husband passed away. I put the ring in a bowl in my bedroom, and for ages it gave me a sad, tingly feeling when I walked past it.
But then I came across a recipe for lentils from Syria: Recipes from Home by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousavi. The recipe is called Burned Fingers because the lentils are so delicious you risk burning your fingers.
They are seasoned with pomegranate molasses plus a generous amount of fried onions and green cilantro. On top of the lentils were little crispy croutons cut using a wedding ring. I had to try it. As I served sweet and sour lentils and wedding ring croutons to a group of girlfriends, I suddenly realized I felt better. The ring was no longer a symbol of rejection. It was transformed into a tiny cookie cutter.
Over time, the children and I began to establish new food rituals that had no associations with my ex-husband at all, and I no longer flinched when I looked at his empty place at the table. I found I loved having groups of friends over to test out recipes from the book, and my son took on a new role as sommelier, opening bottles of wine and elderflowers for the adults and trying to get everyone full of drinks.
I then tentatively started dating in January 2022, a year and a half after he passed.
“Think of it like a cup of coffee,” my sister told me. I wasn’t sure if I could love again, and the process of judging people based on a photo seemed disgusting. In the end, dating apps weren’t for me. But just imagining myself in a different relationship gave me a new perspective. What if my ex-husband’s comment in the kitchen was more of a gift than a burden?
If he hadn’t left, I could have spent another 20 years cooking for someone who doesn’t care much about food. Now I had a chance – just maybe – to meet someone for whom cooking meant as much as it meant to me. It was worth a try.
n Bea Wilson is the author of The Secret of Cooking: Recipes for Easier Life in the Kitchen (Fourth Estate).