Studies suggest that stress is countered by the smells of food cooking in a home, which are received by the brain's limbic system (the ancient part of our mind, which stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system); in other words, the smells of cooking relax us, put us at ease, though we are rarely conscious of it. Did you ever wonder why, at every party, the kitchen is the most crowded room? Why it's a pleasure to walk into a home when a roast is in the oven or a Bolognese is simmering on the stove? Bills are easier to pay when short ribs are braising. A working kitchen is a natural stress reducer.
Too often, couples with kids, couples who are busy working and busy taking care of those kids, use what little free time they have to go out, to go to a party, to do any number of social activities that further prevent them from connecting. Most evenings, by the time our kids are in bed, Donna and I are too tired to do anything more than watch an hour of unchallenging television. Not the best time for cooking, or for sex.
Which is why I recommend a midweek lunch at home at least twice a month for couples with kids. Once the kids are regularly gone during the day, carve out two hours (more if you can swing it) to rendezvous at home. The home itself will be strangely, wonderfully peaceful. Neither you nor your partner will be exhausted; instead, you'll still be fairly fresh and energetic—it's time for lunch, after all. Whichever one of you is the cook, make something simple. My most frequent choice is a salad of arugula or frisée with fat bacon lardons, a poached egg on top, a fresh baguette with butter, and a very good pinot noir or Shiraz (this is the time to have a decent bottle: when you can really appreciate it). Donna will open the wine, set the table, light votives (we always have candles—even in brightest summer, there's something about live flames dancing). If Donna finishes getting ready before I do, she tosses the salad and we talk while I poach the eggs.
And then we sit and we eat slowly. We can't eat slowly enough. And we talk, really talk, about ourselves, not the kids. We make plans for the future. We discuss our work and what we hope to do. The conversations have proven to be so fruitful that I've taken to keeping a pen and pad at the table, to ensure I don't forget any good ideas that arise in this very relaxed and fruitful environment.
If the food has been delicious and satisfying and the conversation easy and engaging, one of us will make an obvious glance at the clock. Time is not unlimited—a child needs to be picked up from school at some point, there's more work ahead. Nor is the next move guaranteed—hoped for, more than half-expected, but not certain. Perhaps one of us is stressed about a work deadline, or an unavoidable conflict has arisen, a much-sought phone interview that could only take place in the middle of things. But it's that look at the clock that announces intent. And Donna will say something like, "Meet me upstairs?" And then I know that this lardon salad with poached egg and baguette will have its much-desired and perfect conclusion.
Within the hour, life will be as it was, with kids and errands, busyness and work. The midday interlude will fade with the smell of the bacon. But its effects leave the mind and body nourished. I feel good, really good, on these days and think to myself, We have got to do this once a week, at least.
But we don't, because work, travel, and schedules conflict. This midday union is a time commitment, but it's also really important. Just because it's deeply pleasurable doesn't mean it's an indulgence. Think of it as a business lunch, important business for the two of you. Schedule it.
Much is made about families eating meals together: everyone in the house at the table to share the evening meal as often as schedules allow. I believe in this. I believe that the meal is best if it's prepared with fresh food you've cooked yourself. But less commonly noted is the value of a couple—parents—cooking and sharing a meal alone. This is every bit as important in the cooking life of a household.
The chorus of voices espousing the importance of food and cooking is growing for a reason. We've realized that cooking is important in ways we never dreamed. I believe that cooking is fundamental to our humanity, that even those who do not cook should spend time around people who are cooking. The work of gathering, preparing, and sharing food makes life better in profound and far-reaching ways for all the people engaged in it, cooks and noncooks alike. Indeed, to argue otherwise would be akin to saying that our sexual lives are likewise unimportant, optional, unnecessary. Yes, we can get by without sex, and far too many likely do; for really the first time in history, we can get by without cooking as well, by eating out or buying all our food precooked, but this, too, is an unhappy and self-diminishing choice.
Which is why I recommend that all couples roast chickens together.
From Man With a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families, edited by John Donohue © 2011 by John Donohue. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.