love these days

In Quarantine, Cooking Is Our Love Language

Illustration: By Stevie Remsberg

Maybe the most aroused I’ve been during quarantine is while touching pasta. A few weeks ago, my partner was explaining why some dried noodles are better than others. He slid his fingers along a stick of bucatini, pointing out how the rough, chalky texture makes sauce stick to the strands. I felt it too, and we compared the craggy surface to a smoother strand of spaghetti that wouldn’t absorb a hearty Bolognese. The difference, he explained, comes from using a bronze mold to shape pasta, an old-school, more expensive method, instead of one coated with Teflon, which is used to make most industrial noodles. Sensual.

I plunged my finger into the leftover pasta water — a shallow pool of thick starchiness he’s been adding to sauces — and felt turned on by his obsession with food minutiae. I realized I was going slightly insane, but also that food has become our love language in the absence of any other stimulation.

In the pandemic, the conventional rules of attraction do not apply. Most of us look a little more feral and bloated, a cross between college students cramming for midterms and bears in hibernation. But when your social life has been reduced to one person and your apartment walls, the monotony is the real turnoff. It becomes harder to see the qualities that attracted you to someone in the first place, like how charming they are at dinner parties, how excited they are by concerts, or how curious they become while traveling.

Instead, couples have to mine the domestic sphere for reminders of what makes their partner seductive. And for me, that desire has come in the form of a crispy fish sandwich at the end of a long day, a short-rib stew that’s been simmering for four hours, or yes, a perfectly coated strand of pasta.

I always knew Michael was a good cook, but thought I’d missed out on his best years in the kitchen. Throughout our seven years together, he’s tempted me with stories of how he used to make duck confit or lobster with hollandaise sauce, back when he had more time for the kitchen and less money to spend at restaurants.

But our relationship has coincided with what I like to call the “work monster” years.

On a typical weeknight before the COVID-19 outbreak, we’d sit together in the living room while he stuffed his face with a burrito and I ate leftover lunch from a Tupperware. Exhausted, we’d rush through some small talk before letting Netflix suction out whatever was left in our brains. The New York dream, baby!

Weekends were for gluttony. We’d nurse our work stress hangovers and real hangovers by ordering fried-chicken sandwiches and stuffed agnolotti at restaurants, avoiding any menu item with vegetables and often mumbling about how we could “make this better ourselves.” But we never did, because we felt depleted and cooking required too much energy. On a good week, Michael would panfry some fish on Sunday and we’d feel a brief sense of domestic triumph. We’d talk about how we should “really cook more” before returning to our degenerate eating habits for the next six days.

Now, of course, our hobby of adding new restaurants to a Google doc and trying them on Saturday night is gone. For the past few months we’ve been inside most of time, fielding calls from loved ones back home about what it’s like to be in the epicenter of a virus’s warpath (it feels like being inside a lot). Not only do we have the time to cook, it’s become the only thing we look forward to.

I say “we” in the loosest way possible. Michael is undoubtedly the go-to chef. While I come from an Italian family and grew up making handmade gnocchi with my Nonno, I’m better at eating than cooking. In the kitchen I’m messy and flustered, so worried about following a recipe to a tee that I forget my cutting board has become rife with cross contamination.

Michael’s the opposite: He’s all confidence, focus, and control. When I ask how long it takes to cook fish or steak he responds “until it’s done,” an intuition honed from countless hours of watching meat-grilling videos on YouTube as a form of relaxation. When I ask if I can help, he says “please don’t,” which has led to many arguments about his control issues and my sloppiness.

But during quarantine, I’ve succumbed to his culinary dominance. And in the process I’ve realized that watching him cook reminds me why I wanted to jump his bones in the first place.

For one, he exudes competence. We met in an office, and before we started dating, I loved that he was the get-shit-done guy who would not only fix your computer or stay late to edit your story, but he’d do it right. This same chutzpah and drive for excellence is always on display in the kitchen.

He’s an encyclopedia for cooking tips, like how you should sear ground beef before breaking it into pieces, dry potatoes out in the fridge before roasting them, and add the garlic to the pan later than when the recipes tell you to, or it will burn. He knows that the collar is the best part of fish, and that the spinalis dorsi is the tastiest cut of cow.

But along with the cockiness — and there is a lot of cockiness — he’s also curious. He always asks how I would improve a meal he’s served. “Needs more crunch?” he wants to know after we bite into fish tacos. “Less acidic?” he’ll ask about a kale salad dressing. Then he makes a mental note of how he’ll cook the same dish next time.

He’s dedicated the better part of this quarantine to figuring out the best way to braise short ribs and turn them into a ragù. He’s made at least three different versions of this meal, with three different kinds of pasta, and each time, he picks apart his results — the anchovy worked but the meat’s too stringy — with the intensity of a Hell’s Kitchen contestant.

Of course Michael’s cooking is not purely altruistic. He gets pleasure from the sound of meat fat crackling in a pan, a sense of control from arranging finely chopped things on a cutting board, and an ego massage when someone praises his food. But it still excites me to see how much care he puts into the process. I know that when he brings me a BLT at lunch, he individually salted each piece of tomato, added an extra layer of mayo in the middle so it wouldn’t be absorbed by the bread, and broke a piece of bacon in half so that it perfectly fit the bread’s crusty parameters. Even if he does all that purely for his own satisfaction, it feels like love.

The food is a real perk of being stuck together, but it’s also just nice to see him come alive at a time when our lives have been panini pressed. When I watch Michael take a good bite, I remember how attracted I am to his insatiable lust. When he chews a fatty piece of rib eye or savors a perfectly caramelized onion, it’s like he’s seen God. He closes his eyes, leans back in his chair, and shakes his head while saying “fuck!” as if he can’t believe something on this earth has the audacity to taste so good.

And so when everything’s bad, like when we’re having that fight about whether I wiped down the mail thoroughly enough, and all we want is to get more than 800 square feet away from each other, I cling to the food as proof that we’re going to survive.

The other day he was in a foul mood. Every time I tried to goad him out of it, he’d snap shut like a clam. But I knew he was making cacio e pepe that night. “Cacio e pepe,” I’d repeat to myself like a calming mantra, whenever I wanted to yell. And you know what? The noodles doth transform the man.

As we slurped bucatini coated in starchy water, cracked pepper, and mounds of pecorino romano, Michael began to soften. He talked about how the pasta could be less al dente, the sauce a little saucier. Then he reheated what was left in the pan, incorporating those notes, and seemed calm. Happy, even.

In Quarantine, Cooking Is Our Love Language