Throughout my college years, I’ve juggled the same hats through a variety of circumstances. I’ve lived in apartments in various stages of decay; I’ve been a girlfriend to more than one guy; and through a variety of kitchens and kisses, cooking has always been a constant. But recently, I’ve come to realize that kitchen activities might be even more telling than I thought. I’ve let cooking become a benchmark against which I test the health of my relationships.
My first boyfriend attended college about an hour away from my school, so our relationship hinged on weekend visits. Each weekend, I would wake up early and wait to make breakfast until he woke up, sometimes not until noon. As soon as he was awake, I would begin frying eggs and toasting English muffins, sometimes adding some ham or mushrooms or hot sauce to test the limits of his relatively picky eating.
On a good morning, he would wake up and follow me into the kitchen, where he would sit at the table and blearily scroll through apps or games on his phone while I cooked, catching up on what he missed from the night before. I would serve him first, and by the time I sat down to eat my own breakfast, his plate would be empty, save for a bright smear of yolk—ready to be washed, by me.
While this silent interaction bothered me, I never made a fuss. He was my guest, after all, and in my family, hospitality decorum made it my job to make sure we had a good visit. In logic that is now sickening to me, I took comfort in the fact that I wasn’t alone in this treatment: When we spent time at his parents’ house on breaks, he habitually left a collection of glasses and plates on the kitchen counter for his mom to put in the dishwasher later. I waited, quietly, and hoped that he would grow up.
The final straw came during our last summer together. Although I was saving money for a semester abroad, I splurged on almost $100 worth of groceries for one of his weekend visits, completely blowing my budget for the week
I cooked dinner, I roasted s’mores, I uncorked bottles of wine, and I made some killer spinach and egg wraps for breakfast. I couldn’t make the conversation flow, but I sure as hell could make sure that good food was abundant. We were picking up sandwiches at a great local shop on our way to a lake and when we got to the counter, he hesitated, looked at me, and asked, “So…who’s paying for this?”
His blatant expectation was a blow, painful and startling. Over time, I recognized that our food habits were a symptom of bigger patterns of expectations in our relationship. Every time he failed to wait for me before he started eating, it was a reminder that we were out of sync in other ways, too, from the amount of time we spent studying to what we did when we hung out with friends. My body shriveled as I anxiously skipped meals to offset the calories lurking in the beer and candy we constantly snacked on. We developed a habit of going to Applebee’s—a joke after a relative gave him a gift card for Christmas—but I honestly think he liked their mashed potatoes as much as any home cooked meal I made for him.
One horrible text breakup and a year of recovery later, I was on a first date, and it was going really well. When my date—who is now my partner—mentioned that he liked to cook, I was intrigued. My brief relationships in the interim were with guys who either forgot to plan for meals and then guzzled pizza at odd hours or exclusively concocted protein shakes and the occasional Bisquick pancake. My curiosity about his cooking skills led to more dates, and our first “I love yous” were exchanged over a feast of Asian-fusion dishes and basil cocktails that my first boyfriend would have only eyed suspiciously.
Our cooking has allowed us to translate past experiences into present, sensory ones. He’s taken me back to his undergrad days in Oregon by replicating a favorite cafe’s rice bowls, and I’ve introduced him to the serious art of sandwich construction, where each ingredient is thoughtfully balanced according to texture and structural soundness. We’ve picnicked on mountains and learned how to pickle things, promised to become better bakers, and fretted over the safest internal temperature of chicken. I have felt myself learning and growing in a way that has never before been possible.
Best of all are the times when we argue about who should do the dishes, because we both want to spare the other from wrinkled fingertips and soggy sleeves.
Cooking is an important creative outlet for me, and I’ve come to recognize that ideally, it can be something that I can share with a partner. It tests your communication, as well as your ability to collaborate and compromise. As I prepare to exit college and enter a career, I’ll need a partner who is competent in the kitchen—not someone who expects me to do it all, and the dishes too.