In my prekid days, I lived with my wife in a shaded little bungalow in Palm Beach, Fla. The evenings were balmy, and I thought nothing of getting dinner rolling, then coaxing my wife into a little preprandial fling. What better way could there have been to pass the time while the charcoal turned to burger-searing embers? There was no better appetizer, and the meal afterward was remarkably satisfying. The conversation that followed had an uncommon ease.
Now that I'm a parent, the evenings are filled with something more than warm breezes. Family life can feel like a gale-force event. Forget creatively trying to pass the time. Just sitting down to dinner seems to eat up the clock. But not long ago, on a tear on my blog about the way food companies try to convince us that cooking is too hard to do on our own and that we're too stupid to succeed, I dashed off a recipe that included a hard-earned suggestion. I had learned by now that to recapture and maintain the excitement of my relationship takes planning. In this case, though, not much. With a little invention, a simple roast chicken—one of the great staples of cooking life—becomes something entirely new.
Roast Chicken for Two
Step 1: Preheat your oven to 425˚F or, if you have ventilation, 450˚F, and use convection heat if it's available.
Step 2: Wash and pat dry a 3- to 4-pound chicken. Truss it if you know how, or stuff 2 lemon halves in its cavity. Season it aggressively with kosher or sea salt (it should have a nice crust of salt). Put it in a skillet and slide it into the hot oven.
Step 3: Have sex with your partner. (This can require planning, occasionally some conniving. But as cooks tend to be resourceful and seductive by nature, most find that it's not the most difficult part of the recipe.)
Step 4: Remove the chicken from the oven after it's cooked for 1 hour, allow it to rest for 15 minutes, and serve.
Properly executed, such a dish is extraordinary—economical, satisfying, not overly caloric, fun to prepare (in fact, worth making simply to pursue Step 3), and potentially a valuable recipe in your weekly cooking routine.
I'm not speaking with tongue in cheek. I'm actually—strongly and earnestly—recommending you make sex a part of the routine of cooking. My idea proved very popular; it was gleefully retweeted. Perhaps it is a novel idea, though I daresay it received attention only because of our lack of imagination and the general prudery embedded in the American psyche. One commenter, apparently quite enthralled by the notion, has gone so far as to pair specific sexual acts with specific cooking techniques on a blog (a little on the obsessive-compulsive side, but nothing to fault).
Perhaps people have been so quick to embrace this idea because they sense it is both a literal and a figurative expression of important, possibly universal truths: that the act of cooking and the act of nonreproductive sex share similar traits and have similar results. Cooking, like sex, is good for your marriage.
Humans are the only animals to cook their food, and aside, perhaps, from the bonobos deep in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we are the only animal that has sex for fun. Virtually every other behavior we engage in can be found in our cousins lower down the food chain. Examples abound in the natural world of primates who express emotions, use language, act aggressively among themselves, show sympathy, and even exhibit what behavioral psychologists call theory of mind—that is, are aware of another animal's consciousness and possible motives and actions.
Humans are animals, so it is not a surprise that nothing we do or express isn't also done or expressed elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Cooking—and having sex for fun–is what makes us human.
To deny ourselves either diminishes the creatures that we are, and to practice both with greater frequency and competency deepens our humanity, which leads to a more fulfilling life. All good things. Roast chicken and sex: They're good for you!
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.