Blog: Just taquitos...
Updated: Mar 24
There are times when you know you are in a moment that will forever change the trajectory of your relationship, and my most recent one occurred to me when I bit into a homemade, slightly over-fried but indisputably tasty taquito the day after Valentine's Day.
Ian and I are not ones to relish in consumer-manufactured holidays. We prefer experiences over products, and are both are so picky that it would be personally irresponsible to expect the other to meet our warped standards for how we treat ourselves. While we could come up with a simple list of vendors, sizes and flavors to draw from for gift-giving occasions (and probably will, once Ian sees the spreadsheet potential factor of this idea), that level of predictability feels more restrictive than romantic.
This Valentine's Day, I was presented with a most unpredictable gift. A gift that I have craved for years, and one that I've also refused to accept. No, we're not at the taquito part yet, but it does involve cooking...
You may be surprised to learn that someone who comes from generations of matriarchal meal domination and who literally grew up in an Italian restaurant is a guilty and self-admitted participant in dinner hordery. Dinner hordery is a term I invented just now. It does not describe the cruel hostess's game of hording everyone's dinner until they perform some humiliating party trick. Rather, dinner hordery is an all-too-prevalent system in which one hordes control of what gets made for dinner, how and when it is produced, and who gets to suffer for having not shared in the above processes that we never intended to share in the first place.
For a while, my version of dinner hordery worked. I would take care of dinner for 5-6 nights of the week, Ian would take me out for 1 night, and takeout would make an occasional cameo. I equated the grunt work of securing uncommon ingredients, endangering my digits with sharp knives, and cleaning out the innards of various carcasses for 5-6 nights of cookery to the grunt work of whipping out a joint credit card after the enchantment of a Charleston meal.
In all serious, it was a privilege to experience the Charleston dining scene at such a frequency, even if it was just to indulge in splitting a sandwich, wings, duck fat fries and a bucket of High Lifes at Tattooed Moose. Spending the last year in quarantine has certainly reinforced that belief -- we have not dined in a restaurant as a couple since...February of 2020? Still we demonstrate peak 2021 prerogative in ordering Five Guys from UberEats because we "don't feel like" driving.
And just like the odds that an UberEats order will be delivered on time and with all components included, so, too, have COVID-related routine disruptions perforated the theoretical framework of my frail system of dinner hordery.
As much as I love Five Guys, the novelty of UberEats once a week withered quickly. In April, I stopped drinking alcohol. At that point, the system was completely broken. There was an imbalance in the meal force. I was cooking all the meals. The damn good meals. The "Cooking for Jeffrey" by Ina Garten type meals. Meals with fresh minced ginger and whole fish and hours-long marinating times. With skewers and wonton wrappers and double boilers and prawn poop and the incorrigible mortar and pestle. All to be gobbled up in less than 20 minutes and washed down with a glass of...water. All of that, with little joie de vivre in a predictable Groundhog-Day-dian rhythm of existence.
Now, don't get me wrong, I love picking out what to eat.
I love cooking and experimenting with new ingredients. I love my stand-mixer, mandolin, food processor, Dutch oven, cast iron pans and rolling pin. And I love cooking for Ian. I love that he will try anything once and that he truly believes I'm one of the best cooks in the world. I love that he doesn't complain when meals that take longer than half an hour of preparation turn into a pop diva sing-a-long segment and that he blocks the first steak I cooked him out of his memory (it was "well done," but it so wasn't...). I love that he anticipates periodic misadventures in zucchini fritters and sweet potato dolmades and the eternal line-up of juices that should have been sauces. I love that he continues to eat fresh green beans because they're my favorite vegetable, despite the fact that he loathes them. But as much as I love doing all that work -- and it is work -- I do not like feeling like I am the only one doing work in a loving partnership.
Now, don't get me wrong (part deux): in no way was I allowing or inviting Ian to be a part of the process of making all that work happen.
When Ian proposed his gift on Valentine's Day, I realized the truth. I am a dinner horder. Not because I have to be, but because deep down, I am afraid that if Ian can deliver at or near the same level as I do with meals, then I don't have anything else to hold over his head and say, "Look at all the ____-ing I do in this relationship." If I let Ian participate in making dinner, or heaven forbid, be in charge of dinner, then I am letting go of control.
That's what he is asking me to give him for Valentine's Day, by the way. At least, Ian asked me to teach him how to cook, and I'm interpreting that as a much-needed personal challenge to stop trying to control the uncontrollable.
Naturally, upon accepting his gift/my challenge, I rush to the kitchen to control the sequence of cookbook exposure. These things take time.
I started with two of the Pioneer Woman cookbooks because they're oriented for a beginner. We decided to select recipes based on accessible ingredients, increased leftover/freezability potential and techniques Ian had always wanted to learn, like breading meat, deep-frying and developing an instinct for balancing flavors.
After we blazed through those cookbooks and noted enticing recipes on our master list, I next presented him with some regional cookbooks. The young grasshopper demonstrated a high level of enthusiasm, and his persistence convinced me that it would be okay if I introduced him to the Barefoot Contessa. Ask forgiveness, not permission -- isn't that what they say? I had to wonder, as I was reading through "Back to Basics" and "Foolproof," if Ina and Jeffrey had ever gone through their own bout of dinner hording. I wondered if Ina ever resented Jeffrey for not participating in kitchenly duties. I wondered what it must be like to be Jeffrey, who I'm sure has many redeemable and useful qualities of his own.
By the end of the day, we had a full page, front and back, of recipes to add to Ian's repertoire. Recipes that we would make together. In my lab. With my tools. And my effortless, virtuous patience. And Ian's uncanny ability to learn and accept feedback without defending, taking things personally, or not following instructions even though they are written clearly and specifically in the recipe.
The next day, I taught Ian how to make a grocery list. He will claim that he already knew how to make a list and that he's not that helpless. I explained how to group items by category and, if he can, to select recipes that have similar ingredients so as to eliminate food waste. I taught him to check the fridge and pantry to see what we had and didn't have. And I took him to Publix, where I indulged in my favorite game of "How many items can I we get until it is inappropriate to ring them all up in the self-checkout line?" Because Ian has such remarkable visuospatial perception, I entrusted him to bag the groceries in a way that maximized brown bag square footage. I am not sure how much my dismay at his first attempt was evident on my face, but judging by my half-hearted attempt to hide my disdain in this sentence, I imagine it was quite obvious.
That night, we decided upon our first meal as a culinary team: beef taquitos with an avocado crema (aka dippin' SAUCE) over a salad with cilantro lime vinaigrette. I had no idea how much I would enjoy pushing this man's buttons.
Wait, but not every piece of lean ground beef is completely brown yet before we drain it, is that going to be okay?!
Oh no! We're supposed to add all these ingredients now that the sauce mixture is simmering, but we haven't cut the vegetables up or measured the spices yet!!
How are you rolling those taquitos without the stuffing falling out?
I know the recipe only calls for 8 ounces of ground beef but why can't we just throw in all 2.435 lbs.?!?!
It was really fun.
It was also not seamless, and because Ian got to see that, I no longer feel the need to continue the facade that my dinner hordery is seamless. We took shortcuts on the things we could take shortcuts on, and didn't take shortcuts on the things we shouldn't. The taquitos were delicious, and the meal contained the perfect balance of salt, fat, acid and heat. The best part? We had PLENTY of leftovers. With this realization came the crumbling of another facade. I no longer feel the need to make "reheating leftovers" sound more labor-intensive than it actually is, though it has been somewhat exhausting debating a reheat at 350 degrees for 30 minutes versus a reheat at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.
I realized, as we were enjoying our first culinary success, that I had unintentionally taught Ian another thing. Historically, if I make the determination that a meal I cook is anything less than a 9-10, I will be the first to point out its inconsistencies, affording a way for the person eating my creation (almost always Ian) to agree and offer their feedback in a safe way. I mean, sometimes it is safe. Other times, I pull a Regina George and am like, "Oh, so you think it could have used fresh garlic cloves instead of the pre-minced package?" I also have a tendency to deflect complements when I have hit my mark, and Ian started to pull my same antics at the table.
I probably could have rolled them tighter...they are bigger than they look in the recipe picture...
I'll probably go 3 minutes and 3 minutes instead of 5 minutes and 3 minutes in the hot oil like the book says...
And when I commend him on a job well done, he responds something along the lines of blah blah blah still don't understand why we couldn't add all the meat...they're just taquitos.
I don't know that I could fully capture my response to him, but the essence of it was that they were so much more than just taquitos. They represented a turning point in our relationship. A calling of the bluff. An "I'm your huckleberry" moment if I've ever experienced one. And to lump all the extra beef on top would smother the cheesiness of the moment I finally allowed someone into my inner sanctum. The moment I allowed someone to help. The help I never asked for, but should have, and could have, much earlier than Valentine's Day of 2021. And to commemorate this moment, I am going to preserve one of our taquitos in formalin and situate it next to our wedding portrait start writing about our adventures in partner cooking, the dismantling of my dinner hordery, and other revelations that will naturally occur in our lab.
To be totally transparent, one of my selfish reasons for cataloguing this journey is to build my writing portfolio. As a now self-employed freelancer, I am in the process of refining some signature offerings, and one of them centers upon food.
Food -- its growth, accessibility, availability and acceptability -- has implications across all realms of society. Food is an integral part of our health, our relationships, our communities, our government, our social institutions. It's scarcity or surplus, variety and accessibility are directly tied to power and money. It is difficult to think of a facet of life not influenced by thoughts and behaviors around food, and I'm excited to continue my own edification through cooking with my partner. Because food is hardly every just food. It's life-sustaining and transformative, if you allow it to be.