Till Din­ner Do Us Part

Un­happy cou­ples have many dif­fer­ent quar­rels. Happy cou­ples have the same quar­rel again and again and again

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Adam Gop­nik

When, in later decades, I would in­di­cate to peo­ple the size of the small New York apart­ment that my wife, Martha, and I lived in for three years af­ter mov­ing from Mon­treal, they’d al­ways ask the nat­u­ral ques­tion: How did you go on to­gether at all? How come you didn’t get fu­ri­ous with each other, or come to hate each other? From a non-, or anti-, ro­man­tic an­gle, the apart­ment — a place we had called “the Blue Room,” in hon­our of an old Rodgers & Hart song I was in­sane enough to re­mem­ber, and Martha was in­sane enough to take se­ri­ously as a guide to life — had the look of one of those ex­per­i­ments that bad so­cial sci­en­tists run with un­der­paid stu­dent vol­un­teers: How long be­fore they go crazy when forced to live to­gether in a space not big enough for one per­son, let alone two?

We didn’t fight, though. One rea­son we didn’t fight was that the stu­dio was so small, so small that you could never get suf­fi­cient per­spec­tive for the fight­ing to hap­pen. In or­der to re­ally have a quar­rel, you have to sort of step back three steps and eye the other per­son darkly. There just was no room for that. We were on top of each other, not in that sense — well, in that sense, too, at times — but we were also col­lid­ing with each other all the time. I don’t have any men­tal im­age of Martha from those years, ex­cept as a kind of Cu­bist paint­ing, noses and eyes and ears. You al­ways

say when you’re hav­ing a fight with some­one, “I saw him or her from a new per­spec­tive.” But there was no new per­spec­tive to see from in a nine-by- eleven room. There was only one, and that one al­ways close up.

But we did have one fight, I have to con­fess—we had it of­ten, and it was about food. My the­ory about mar­riages and fight­ing is that — well, ev­ery­one knows Tol­stoy’s thing about how all happy fam­i­lies are alike and how un­happy fam­i­lies are un­happy in their own way. My the­ory is that all un­happy mar­riages have many dif­fer­ent quar­rels in them, while all happy mar­riages have the same quar­rel, over and over again.

And that is how you know that it’s a happy mar­riage — that there’s one quar­rel that two peo­ple have from the day they’re mar­ried to the day they die. It’s not that they don’t have a quar­rel: it’s not that that quar­rel is not, on its own terms, of­ten quite vi­o­lent. It’s just al­ways the same — so that the cou­ple come to know all the steps in the dance of that par­tic­u­lar quar­rel. It be­comes their rit­u­al­ized steam valve, their anger dance, their shake-a-spear mo­ment.

And the stan­dard re­peated quar­rel of every happy mar­riage is more of­ten than not some kind of quar­rel about food. It’s hu­man na­ture to turn a mouth taste into a moral taste — to make a ques­tion of how some­thing feels in your mouth into a ques­tion of what it says about your world. That’s the ba­sis of every di­etary law. When we imag­ine God, we don’t imag­ine him in­dif­fer­ent to ap­petite. No, we imag­ine him en­raged and en­rap­tured by what we’re eat­ing — he tastes ba­con and de­clares it bad and tastes matzo and can hear a whole heroic his­tory when he breaks it. Every

mouth taste in­stantly be­comes a moral taste. And so when we need to fight — and no mar­riage can sur­vive with­out some use­ful fric­tion — we fight about food.

My un­cle Ron and my aunt Rose, for in­stance. They spent most of their life, through about sixty years of mar­riage, hav­ing the same ar­gu­ment about food. My un­cle Ron in­sisted that the rea­son they give you large por­tions at restau­rants is to charge you more. And my aunt Rose in­sisted that the rea­son that they charge you more at restau­rants is that they give you such large por­tions.

And they car­ried this ar­gu­ment along like a Beck­ett play, from Philadel­phia to Florida and then into the hospi­tal, where my un­cle Ron had surgery on his vo­cal cords, and would say, forced into a high falsetto, “The rea­son they charge you more is be­cause they want to. And they trick you with the large por­tions.” And she would say, “No, Ron. That’s not the rea­son at all. They have their costs. They have to charge for them.”

My grand­par­ents had a sin­gle quar­rel, about the lan­guage of food. My grand­fa­ther came late to this coun­try and my grand­mother ear­lier, and so, he com­plained, she, se­cure in her knowl­edge, would never ex­plain to him what im­por­tant food ex­pres­sions ac­tu­ally meant. When he was eighty-eight and I was vis­it­ing him in Florida, he took me aside and said, “There’s some­thing no one will ex­plain to me, even though I’ve been wait­ing for some­one to ex­plain it to me for seventy years.”

“What is it, Grand­pop?” I asked, as so­lic­i­tously as I could.

“What do peo­ple mean when they say, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it, too’? What else are you sup­posed to do with your cake?” he de­manded. It’s a good ques­tion. It haunts me still. (Of course, the in­tended mean­ing is clear enough: you eat the cake and it’s gone. But the form of the im­per­a­tive un­der­mines it, that “have.” It im­plies a kind of Schrödinger’s cake, at once tan­gi­ble and still in front of you, and, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, in your stom­ach. I got his con­fu­sion.) So it shouldn’t be a sur­prise that my fight with Martha in the Blue Room was about food, too. For rea­sons that were both gen­er­a­tional and pe­cu­liar, food al­ready had an un­due im­por­tance for us then. Or at least it did for me. The restau­rants of New York en­rap­tured me — we didn’t go to any, but I loved the idea of them. I would lie in bed, af­ter we un­rolled and en­wrapped the “triple fold” sofa every night, and read what was then the premier guide to New York din­ing out, Sey­mour Britchky’s The Restau­rants of New York.

No one re­mem­bers Britchky now, but at the time he was the ter­ror of the New York restau­rant scene, the last cred­i­ble en­try in the once long Man­hat­tan ros­ter of mon­ster/mas­ter crit­ics — his tone “scathing,” like those of the char­ac­ters one saw cel­e­brated in for­ties film noirs, the ones Ge­orge San­ders or Clifton Webb would play, al­ways wear­ing a silk dress­ing gown and cra­vat or sit­ting in the bath­tub with a writ­ing desk. It’s a van­ished tone now, in the age of mass am­a­teur re­views on Open Spoon or Ta­ble Talk or what­ever the cur­rent fo­rum is called. (“I took my honey here for birthday din­ner, and — wow! — what a blowout. Five stars, for sure.”)

At the time, though, his crit­i­cism, first is­sued in a news­let­ter and then col­lected yearly in a book, seemed thrilling in the power of its sneer­ing, the cer­ti­tude of its ex­clu­sions. The power critic of this kind de­pends on the light­ning turns of his con­tempt and his favour: no one should ever be sure where he would land, or on whom. Cle­ment Green­berg, the equiv­a­lent in the art world, would ex­com­mu­ni­cate a gen­er­a­tion for splash­ing paint in­cor­rectly, then em­brace another for mak­ing gi­ant wan wa­ter­colours. I turned Britchky’s pages over and over in bed, rel­ish­ing the author­ity of his judg­ment, read­ing about restau­rants where we could never pos­si­bly go. It was a time, the last time, when the reign of three-star French lux­ury restau­rants was still taken for granted in New York. All of the ones he graced with three and four

I re­al­ized that in or­der to keep our lease and to save our mar­riage, I was go­ing to have to change my ap­proach to cooking.

stars were of that kind, all the beau­ti­ful “La”s and “Le”s, now gone: La Car­avelle, Le La­van­dou. (That last one was par­tic­u­larly fine, of­fer­ing a del­i­cate platepaint­ing style no longer chic. Once, Martha’s fa­ther did come to town and take us there. I still can re­call each plat, and still think it the best meal I’ve ever had.)

Britchky, my men­tor, knew no lim­its. He con­cen­trated more on the man­ners and mores of the restau­rant as it worked its way through the meals than he did strictly on the food on the plate. “The lesser of th­ese cap­tains,” he wrote about those at the Four Sea­sons in the Sea­gram Build­ing, “will lie as eas­ily as he will blink, and he in­forms you, un­blink­ingly, that there are no desserts on the menu that are not on the cart. He does not want the trou­ble that crêpes en­tail, or to spend the time wait­ing for souf­flés, or to take the walk to wher­ever the cheeses are kept.” I shared his mock­ing in­dig­na­tion at the poor cap­tain, whom we had seen right through, to­gether. At other mo­ments, he could be scathingly satir­i­cal of the false hopes that din­ers brought to ta­bles: “Pairs of lonely ladies, whose of­fice salaries are sup­ple­mented by al­imony, share their trou­bles here,” he wrote of a long-for­got­ten Ital­ian place called Clau­dio’s, “try­ing to make a spe­cial evening of an or­di­nary Tues­day, spend­ing too much money in a restau­rant they fig­ure must be fancy be­cause they never heard of most of the dishes.” I loved that sen­tence. It was like Mau­pas­sant with rat­ings.

But all of that world of menus and prices and sneaky cap­tains and pa­thetic as­pi­ra­tion, fas­ci­nat­ing though it was — and I ac­tu­ally de­vel­oped the habit, shame­ful as it sounds, of jump­ing up, ac­tu­ally leap­ing in my sneak­ered feet, when I walked past La Côte Basque or La Car­avelle to claim just a mi­crosec­ond’s glimpse of the gleam­ing in­te­rior, briefly but beau­ti­fully vis­i­ble as you rose above the cur­tained win­dows that sealed the restau­rant off from the street — all of that was beyond our reach. The only restau­rant we could (very oc­ca­sion­ally) af­ford was a ham­burger joint on Sec­ond Av­enue, or else pork schnitzel and pota­toes at the old Ideal Restau­rant on Eighty-sixth Street, where, in ac­cor­dance with the New York prin­ci­ple that ev­ery­thing at­tracts its own, those pale, pasty-faced Cen­tral Euro­pean fam­i­lies would gather at five-thirty in the evening for cheap and pal­lid din­ners. (The way in which any restau­rant in­stantly com­pels the clien­tele ap­pro­pri­ate to it as­tounded me; if some­one opened a restau­rant serv­ing hu­man parts one morn­ing at 8 a.m., the city’s can­ni­bals would have filled it, hap­pily, by sup­per­time.)

So if great food were to be had — fine food, French food, leap- wor­thy food — I would have to cook it. I used to try every night; my mother was a won­der­ful cook, and she taught her sons how to cook. For our wed­ding, she had given me a se­ries of haute French cook­books: Si­mone Beck’s Simca’s Cui­sine and a book of Roger Vergé’s and some­thing of Michel Guérard’s. In­ap­pro­pri­ately haute — in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the space and my skills, I mean — their recipes de­manded poach­ing and roast­ing and mar­i­nat­ing and above all sautéing, even flam­béing, along with all the other high­heat and smoke-mak­ing pro­ce­dures of a French coun­try kitchen.

I had a tiny three-burner gas stove, with a match­ing Easy Bake–style oven be­neath, to pro­duce all this. (We had had to haul crisply baked cock­roach bod­ies out of the oven when we first cleaned it.) But I have never cooked so am­bi­tiously, be­fore or since. I would stand there in that corner, cre­at­ing pil­lars of smoke and flame, which would then go pour­ing out of the sin­gle win­dow and onto the street. Ev­ery­one was con­vinced that we were run­ning a crack den. But that was the only way I knew how to cook. Some­times, hard as it is to be­lieve, we had peo­ple “over” and I made them côtes de veau Foyot and Grand Marnier souf­flés.

And so I would sauté the lit­tle bit of filet of beef, with its nicely re­duced sauce, and put it out there on the din­ing ta­ble, and Martha would come along and, bravely wav­ing her way through the veils of smoke, sit down and cut into it and make that face — you know that face — and say, “Oh, can I have this a lit­tle bet­ter done?” be­cause, yes, that was her na­ture.

She was a well-done per­son. And she had mar­ried a rare hus­band.

This was a huge abyss, much larger than any re­li­gious abyss that could di­vide the two of us. She ac­tu­ally liked well-done meat! When you’re court­ing some­one, you don’t ac­tu­ally be­lieve that when they say “well done,” they mean it — you think it’s a kind of af­fec­ta­tion that they’ve de­vel­oped and that they will ob­vi­ously give up the mo­ment you start liv­ing to­gether. (She had,

I found out later, felt the same way about my Si­na­tra records.) I had, in our col­lege years, be­lieved that was true for Martha’s taste for “well done,” that it was just a kind of flir­ta­tious ges­ture — who could ac­tu­ally like things that are well done?

Un­til I went to her par­ents’ place for an out­door bar­be­cue, and I saw her fa­ther put a ham­burger down on the grill and leave it there for the ap­pro­pri­ate five min­utes, and then another five, and then another five, and then another five...fifty min­utes went by; the thing be­came as dense as a hockey puck, just sit­ting there, siz­zling mis­er­ably, on the grill.

Of course, there was a rea­son Martha came from a well-done fam­ily. Two gen­er­a­tions back, her an­ces­tors were Ice­landic peas­ants. And, ba­si­cally, ev­ery­thing for them was rare — they had no fire, they had no trees, they had noth­ing to do but hack off a small piece of raw lamb or pry open a rock mus­sel and eat it and then wait a day and hack off another bit of the lamb or pry open another mus­sel. So mov­ing to­ward well done was, in her fam­ily, a sign of es­cap­ing from your peas­ant past.

Now, my par­ents were rare peo­ple. But it was ex­actly the same kind of gen­er­a­tional mech­a­nism that had made them so. They had grown up in Jewish fam­i­lies where there was noth­ing but pot roast and meat loaf — that was still, in Florida, my grand­mother’s cooking. Things that were cooked past blood, things cooked not just past rare, but beyond recog­ni­tion. My par­ents’ way of claim­ing their iden­tity as Euro­pean­minded and fran­cophile peo­ple, as in­tel­lec­tu­als, was to have ev­ery­thing as rare as hu­manly pos­si­ble. Blood was old Europe, steak tartare was far from Florida, pink in­side was Paris.

And I be­lieved in rare, as a moral prin­ci­ple, be­cause...well, be­cause my par­ents had brought me up to be­lieve in it, just as pas­sion­ately as Martha be­lieved in well done as a moral prin­ci­ple that she had been brought up with. But it was not (I thought) just a clash of fam­ily val­ues. There was ob­vi­ously an el­e­ment of sex­ual re­jec­tion in her con­stantly turn­ing down the pink and bloody meat that I would of­fer her night af­ter night. The sym­bol­ism was a lit­tle too self-ev­i­dent to be put down to mouth taste. When I of­fered my young wife some­thing that was beau­ti­fully pink and bloody and she made a face that said, “Can you take this back and change it?” its mean­ing was all too ev­i­dent and echoed through the lit­tle space all too clearly.

So, one night in that first bleak-cozy win­ter, I went off to a fish­mon­ger’s on Eighty-sixth Street and I bought some tuna. Now, the early eight­ies were a kind of piv­otal mo­ment in the his­tory of Amer­i­can cooking, be­cause it was then that we passed from tuna fish to tuna. Tuna fish was, of course, the thing that comes in cans: you mix it with may­on­naise and you have it in sand­wiches. Tuna, on the other hand, is the beau­ti­ful pink thing that is the fish eaters’ sub­sti­tute for filet mignon, the thing you cook very rare and serve in the French style.

So I went back to the Blue Room and I sautéed this beau­ti­ful piece of tuna and I gave it an au poivre sauce made with brandy, fill­ing the place with black fumes — it would of­ten have been wise, at din­ner­time, to have an oxy­gen tank strapped to your back. Martha pushed her way through the dense thicket of smoke to the ta­ble, grace­fully breast­stroking aside the dark cloud, and cut into the tuna. It was prop­erly rare.

“I can’t eat this,” she said.

It was a crys­tal-gob­let mo­ment—that mo­ment when some­thing pre­cious is about to fall off the ta­ble and break and you know it even be­fore the fall is fin­ished, the break ac­tu­ally made. You know you’re go­ing to­ward dis­as­ter. You feel the real risk. You know that, while in most of the petty squab­bles of early mar­riage res­o­lu­tion is com­ing right af­ter the quar­rel, this quar­rel is some­thing more.

I suc­cumbed to the mo­ment’s po­ten­tial, be­cause the re­jec­tion of the rare tuna seemed to me so fun­da­men­tally hos­tile. I did what I’ve never done be­fore or since: I got up from the ta­ble and I grabbed my rain­coat and I headed for the door like a bad hus­band in a six­ties sit­com.

Headed for the door . . . There re­ally wasn’t very far to go, what with there be­ing only three steps be­tween the ta­ble and the en­trance. Still, I went there, and I opened it.

Then Martha, with a show of force and con­vic­tion and in­ner author­ity that I would not see again even dur­ing child­birth, sum­mon­ing up a spirit all the more im­pres­sive for ris­ing from such a gra­cious and fun­da­men­tally non-con­tentious per­son, went to the door and stopped me.

“You are go­ing back and you are go­ing to fin­ish cooking that fish!” she said.

We looked each other in the eye and we knew that this was a fate­ful mo­ment in the his­tory of our mar­riage, and I went back and I fin­ished cooking the fish.

About a week later, the su­per, Mr. Fer­nan­dez, came to our door and ex­plained that ev­ery­one was com­plain­ing about the amount of smoke that was com­ing from our lit­tle base­ment apart­ment. Ap­par­ently, it was ris­ing right up through the six sto­ries of the build­ing, set­ting off smoke alarms. I re­al­ized at that mo­ment that, in or­der both to keep our lease and to save our mar­riage, I was go­ing to have to change my ap­proach to cooking.

One way we could help our­selves was through a magic word of com­mon in­ven­tion but of our spe­cial use. And that magic word was “medium.” The beau­ti­ful thing about “medium” as a word is that it slides over in­sen­si­bly to­ward its near com­pan­ion — to “medium well” or “medium-rare.” Your part­ner hears the “medium,” and the waiter alone hears the “rare” or “well,” and you get to be­long to two cat­e­gories of moral taste si­mul­ta­ne­ously. It is a won­der­ful word, “medium,” and it can save any mar­riage if you use it prop­erly. Even if the only place you ever go is out, once a week, for a ham­burger on Sec­ond Av­enue.

And since I wasn’t go­ing to be al­lowed to sauté and flambé in that nine-by-eleven room any longer, I had to do the only thing I could do in­stead — and that was to slowly braise, to stew ev­ery­thing that came to me. And the beau­ti­ful thing about brais­ing and stew­ing, as I dis­cov­ered in the Blue Room, is that it has only two moral com­po­nents to it, two de­grees of feel­ing — tough and ten­der. You are no longer im­pli­cated in rare or well done, or even me­di­at­ing with medium. Things are ei­ther prop­erly tough and have to be cooked down, or they are ap­pro­pri­ately ten­der and ready to be eaten. And they more of­ten be­came ten­der than re­mained tough, be­cause I took the time to will them so.

The truth, in ret­ro­spect, is that what Rose and Ron did not know, or quite see, is that if you make a good mar­riage, the prices may stay the same. But the por­tions mys­te­ri­ously grow larger.

Ex­cerpted from At the Strangers’ Gate by Adam Gop­nik. Copy­right © 2017 Adam Gop­nik. Pub­lished by Al­fred A. Knopf Canada, a di­vi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada Lim­ited. Re­pro­duced by ar­range­ment with the Pub­lisher. All rights re­served.

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