Butter, eggs and the emulsification of two people.
My fingers gnaw at the frayed edges of a kitchen towel as lint snows all over my black pants and the familiar sick-pain of a migraine starts its inexorable advance from the nape of my neck to my temple.
My partner Rebecca holds the Eggs Benedict that I’ve finally been allowed to make in her lap, knife poised. Now, I wait for a verdict, treading hard in the kind of roiling emotional chop that can sink anxious souls like me.
She’s got the most staggeringly sensitive palate I’ve ever witnessed, even for a successful chef, which she is, even a bit famous. That palate is her Super Power, but it’s also her weakness.
Cooking since her early 20s, Rebecca has spent more time in professional kitchens than any other chef I know and yet, she seldom truly enjoys eating. Part war-time code breakers, part forensic specialists, her taste buds can taste ingredients that aren’t even in a dish just… dish-adjacent.
This is not hyperbole. One morning, half-asleep as I prepped scrambled eggs, I accidentally grabbed olive oil instead of butter. Since it was a drop smaller than the size of a dry lentil that fell, I wiped the pan with clean paper towel and continued.
During her first bite of the eggs, heavily laced with black truffles from fresh, expensive truffle butter, her brow furrowed. After the second, she stopped abruptly.
“Did you use olive oil in this?”
That is one bad-ass chemosensory system. I mean, you just don’t fuck with that.
By “the morning of the Eggs Benedict,” as it has come to be known, we had been together for three years, our relationship often teetering on the edge of that unspoken place where you both know it could just slip away. We loved one another deeply, seemingly from the moment we met, but were so different there always seemed to be more reasons to let go than continue.
At the beginning of our relationship, when she suggested what I should and, more importantly, should not cook for her, it seemed like one less thing to worry about so, I didn’t fight it.
As time passed, though, I really wanted to make her Eggs Benedict.
Unlike most people I know, Rebecca has a real and proper breakfast every morning—tea first, followed by eggs, breakfast meat, toast, and a cappuccino. When we would go out for breakfast on a rare Sunday morning, usually at the same venerable SoHo restaurant, her “treat” was Eggs Benedict. No matter how many disappointments she racked up, she always ordered it.
Invariably, the eggs were as hard and bulbous as paper weights and arrived in Canadian bacon so dried the edges did a hard curl forming little cups. The English muffin halves looked like those white, pock-marked, office ceiling tiles from the 1970s and the splonge of marigold-colored “sauce” on top, did nothing to improve, masque or soften any of it.
Garnished with the obligatory orange slice and strawberry “fan,” the whole mess offered itself up, resigned, like the cliché 1950s housewife under her husband in her twin, just waiting for it to be over.
For three years, Rebecca put herself through this unnecessarily because while Eggs Benedict has some tricky components—properly executed eggs are an art—I love making it and I’m damn good at it.
For one thing, I’m not a poaching pussy. I angry-poach. My yolks cascade generously from completely cooked egg whites that, with their lovely, lacy edges, look like a dress Ginger Rogers would have worn dancing with Fred Astaire just to upstage him.
I don’t cook what I don’t understand, and I don’t understand Canadian bacon—it fails as bacon and ham. Instead I buy ham sliced from the bone and I make sure I get good English muffins. Yes, I’ve made them but put making English muffins in the same category as making mozzarella. The “life is too fucking short,” category.
Benedict is all about the Hollandaise, though. Eating Hollandaise at a restaurant is the perfect metaphor for dating: most of your experiences will be lousy but you keep trying because occasionally it’s good and when it’s good, there is nothing better.
Hollandaise is simply the emulsification of butter and eggs, aided by an acid like lemon juice, except that emulsification is a kind of magic. Whisking clarified butter into egg yolks over a bain-marie until your carpel tunnel cripples your wrist, is the traditional method. Besides the pain, it’s a too-precious process that can easily go south, especially since you’re often cooking it on Sunday morning, which, as it’s preceded by Saturday night, often finds one in rather ragged shape.
Sometimes I do enjoy the traditional technique but my recipe—taken from one of my Mom’s oldest cookbooks and tweaked by me over the decades—is the perfect cheat recipe. Quicker, easier, it even tastes better probably because you don’t remove the milk solids.
The more I tried to entice Rebecca, though, the more she resisted. Didn’t want to “hurt” my feelings, she said. Now here I was, waiting, wondering why the Hell I hadn’t listened. What did I care if she wanted to keep self-inflicting crappy eggs benedict?
Well, I did care and a lot because, as with anything that becomes a cause for you, it’s about much more than the thing itself. This was deeply personal.
My womanly wiles being sparse, food has been my “game,” my best game, and since my teens, I have relied on baking and cooking to lure unsuspecting partners into my web of spun sugar.
Not that I’m complaining. On the contrary. Baking and cooking have proved extremely reliable tools of seduction. A simple butter cookie I make has been responsible for more sex in my life than alcohol, drugs and bad judgment combined.
Food lets you to play to a love interest’s desires without looking obsequious. Is theirs a savory palate or sweet? Do they prefer chocolate cake or peach pie? Inevitably, making what someone loves makes them swoon because they feel understood. Yes, I looked into your soul and found … crème brûlée.
And while men and women may get different things from the allure of food—men being receptive to the product and women the act—both are equally vulnerable to its inherent charm.
This insight, based on my extensive sexual flight of one man and about 15 women, is more anecdotal than scientific. Still, I can’t imagine the results would have been much different had I been more sexually prolific.
The only man I loved, a late-middle aged Dionysus reincarnated, had voracious appetites for food, wine, young men, and the occasional young woman. Cooking for him was usually an expedient aphrodisiac, except that sex and food were so inextricably entwined in his mind that he never knew which he wanted first.
Grinning impishly, he often quoted Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini to me over cocktails, “My favorite thing to eat is a woman who has just eaten but I also very much like soup.”
On those nights his preferred order was clear.
A woman may also love what you bake for her but what we really love, in my experience as pursuer and pursued, is that you did something for us. That’s as sexy as it gets. A friend told me that she slept with her husband on their second date because he showed up at her door with her dry cleaning.
If dry cleaning gets you laid, imagine the raw power of slow-cooked Bolognese beneath handmade pappardelle for him or pale pink, rose water macarons hand-crafted with homemade raspberry jam between the delicate, chewy layers for her.
Unless, you’re wooing a chef. Then all bets are off.
Dating a chef all but destroyed my game, such as it was. Rebecca, like many chefs, doesn’t enjoy people cooking for her and, even on a good day, tends toward the critical, prone to the vagina-clenching “next-time you’ll know” suggestion.
And despite cookies being her favorite snack, she hates my butter cookie. My siren’s song that exes and former colleagues still beg me to send them every Christmas. When she asks me to make her cookies, it’s a complicated almond cookie whose perfidious will of its own means it comes out well, or not, entirely independent of anything I might do.
This is the person I implored to let me make her Eggs Benedict. Now, here she sat, studying her food in a way that suggested it might contain Anthrax.
First, she pointed out that the ham was next to the eggs. I explained that blocking the Hollandaise and egg yolk from the English muffin never made sense to me. She nodded while at the same time noting that, well, it was ham, to which I replied that the rosy-smoked, Virginia ham proudly offering itself from a stand, shamed the gray, dried out log of Canadian Bacon.
Once the visible anomalies were out of the way, Rebecca poked the egg with the tip of her knife as I had seen her do so many times. Only this time she was rewarded with a lava flow of orange yolk, its tendrils reaching out into a surplus of butter-yellow Hollandaise.
Piling a bite of everything on her fork, she smiled at the dripping mess and after inhaling the first half, stopped to catch her breath. The pleasure I took was almost cruel.
“You mean, I could have been eating this all along?” she looked stricken.
I maintain there were tears in her eyes, which she denies, but the road I took was so high I needed a Sherpa to get up there.
After that breakfast, as silly as it sounds, there was a new level of trust between the two of us and between me and my instincts. When I wanted to cook something new for her I learned to just go for it. And Rebecca learned to let me.
Those changes carry over into other aspects of a relationship, too. At least they did in ours. Together 21 years now, I cook what I want, when I want. Rebecca says she’s just happy I’m doing it, grilled cheese, or Bolognese, it doesn’t matter. She says they both mean I love her.
Still hates the butter cookie, though.
Deborah DiClementi is a former television news Producer/Associate Producer for NBC, ABC and CBS. She is author of the memoir cookbook, Lobster Rolls & Blueberry Pie: Three Generations of Stories and Recipes from the Coast of Maine (2003). She’s been published in print with O, Marie Claire, More, Glamour, Mademoi