Till Dinner Do Us Part

My wife insisted on well-done meat. I wanted it rare. And we fought about it again and again and again

Illustration by Sandi Falconer
Illustration by Sandi Falconer

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?

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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 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 plate-painting 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 high-heat 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 European-minded 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.

Adam Gopnik
Adam Gopnik is a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 2011, he delivered the CBC Massey Lectures Winter: Five Windows on the Season.
Sandi Falconer
Sandi Falconer (sandifalconer.com) has appeared in Reader's Digest and Cottage Life. She runs Tough Luck, a stationary company.