Imagine: Geneva, Switzerland, 1979. Me on my knees, with a ring that I had emptied my bank account to buy.
“Would you marry me?” I ask Val.
She can’t answer because her mouth is full. We’re at a McDonald’s and she’s eating a Big Mac. I had planned to make my marriage proposal at Les Ambassadeurs, in Paris, where we had eaten a few days earlier. I was enjoying my Sole Meunier and was getting ready to move when Val sent back his lobster, saying it was too salty, and there was a scene, and I held my fire. “Yeah,” Val said when she swallowed her food.
God knows, Val loves Big Macs. I sometimes think that instead of the food I cook for her, she would be happier if I just gave her a Big Mac. In fact, she said it several times.
“What’s so special about a Big Mac?” I asked once.
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She has a dreamy look in her eyes.
“The special sauce.”
“It’s nothing but ketchup and mayonnaise with pepper and garlic.”
“I highly doubt it,” Val said. “And anyway, that’s all I like.” “The meat is frozen! If you must eat McDonald’s burgers, take at least the quarter pound with cheese. It’s made with fresh beef.”
“I like the Big Mac.”
As for my kids, I wish I could feed them Big Macs, but I don’t –– they insist on me making hand-cooked meals, then they complain.
“Is it off the bone?” says my daughter, Mona, when I cook a whole chicken and serve her slices.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s the best way to keep meat juicy.”
“It’s a little too real.”
“Why don’t you ever make vegan dishes?” says my son, Jimmy, when I serve him bouillabaisse.
In fairness, Val has raved about many of my dishes. She is a fan of my beef bourguignon. She approves of my sea bream with wine sauce. And she gave my Wiener schnitzel a thumbs up. My fried chicken is another story. I once tried to make a batch from a reliable cooking website.
“The coating is like glue,” Val said, spitting it out. “It falls from the chicken.” “I followed the recipe to the letter.”
“You are forbidden to make fried chicken.”
“Give me another chance.”
“You are banned.”
“You’re just trying to avenge me for banishing you.”
Years ago, after burning too many dishes, I asked Val to return her plaque – literally: she had hung a plaque above the stove that read “Val’s Kitchen”.
In truth, I should have banished Val after the first meal she cooked for me. It was on our second date, at my studio on West 87th Street. Val arrived with a bag of jumbo shrimp and a bottle of olive oil. Now the shrimp has a special meaning for me. Growing up on Long Island, my parents sometimes took the family to splurge at the local Chinese restaurant. We didn’t have a lot of money and I knew not to ask for the most expensive dishes, to avoid my parents saying no. I was peeking at people at other tables, eating shrimp. The only fish I ever had was the flounder my father caught in his Bayliner in the Great South Bay, which my poor mother –– who hated fish –– had to clean and fillet. When people asked me what I wanted, I answered Chicken Chow Mein –– secretly swearing that if I ever had the money, I would buy shrimp. And that’s what I did. But I rarely bought jumbo prawns – it seemed extravagant. So when Val came over with the jumbo shrimp that night, I was doubly excited: first, by the sight of Val, and second, by the sight of the jumbo shrimp. I sat up on my Murphy bed and watched eagerly as Val prepared the meal.
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She served it to me and I took a bite.
“You don’t like that?” Val asked.
It was not good; it was very greasy. It turned out that Val hadn’t heated the oil and never brought it to the heat. As for the seasoning, she claimed to have salted it, but I didn’t smell any salt, let alone spice. To be polite, I forced four or five shrimp before a defeated Val threw the rest in the trash.
After Val’s ban, some cynicism about serious cooking occasionally surfaced. For example, a while back she served Celeste’s lasagna to my boss and his wife, passed it off as her own, and pretended to be vindicated because our guests claimed to like it.
In the end, I think Val is happy that I’m cooking. She knows how much it makes me happy to prepare a dish that she likes. I only wish I could please her last Valentine’s Day, when I made Crispy Orange Beef. I had never made this before and had lost sleep the night before, worrying about the best way to prepare it. I started early in the morning, using recipes from America’s Test Kitchen and Sun Lee’s Cookbook. In order to tenderize the meat (I used flank steak, which can be a bit tough), I followed Shun Lee direction to first coat the pieces in baking soda, then let them rest in the refrigerator for four hours, and finally, dredge them in flour. For the sauce, I used freshly squeezed orange juice, according to America’s Test Kitchen; and Grand Marnier, by Shun Lee.
The children had come for the occasion and, while they were watching TV in the family room, I was preparing the meal. We have an open floor plan so I could see others while I was cooking. Mona had brought her Chihuahua, Harry, with her and he was stationed nearby, for a better taste, if he could. I tossed him a piece and he ate it with relish. Now that I had Harry’s approval, I served Val, presenting the dish on a china plate and calling it Orange Beef Royale. Back in the kitchen, I watched Val take her first bite. Looking furtively at the children, she rolled her eyes and seemed to want to spit the food out.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
I could see her calculating how to spare my feelings.
“It’s a little rubbery,” she said.
I went and tasted a piece of meat. It was definitely not soft.
“It’s crispy,” I said, “just like it’s supposed to be.”
“And the sauce? I asked.
In fact, it was delicious. I was crushed. It was unfair. But if Jean-Georges could take Val’s criticism without complaining, so could I.
“I’m sorry you don’t like it.” I say bringing the plate back to the kitchen.
“It’s not bad,” Val said.
“I’ll pass,” Jimmy said.
“I’m in,” Mona said.
I prepared a plate for Mona.
“Mm,” she said. “The meat tastes like candied.”
She gave Harry a few pieces and he gulped them down.
Jimmy, who was hungry at the time, also tried the dish.
“It’s like chicharrónes,” he said.
I tasted a piece of beef from Jimmy. It was too crispy: I had overcooked it. I was going to do something else to him, but he had already cleaned his plate.
“I think I’ll take Harry for a spin,” I said.
“You’ve been working all morning,” Val said, now in full apology mode. “Take a rest.” “I could use some fresh air. I won’t be long.
I walked in no particular direction, arguing with Harry.
This meat was not tender, I told him. You have tasted it. Was it fluffy?
I thought it was good, but Val found it fluffyI imagined Harry answering. What does she know?
She knows what she likes.
She likes Big Macs, I laughed.
She was eating one when you offered it to her. She loves them.
It gives me pause.
It’s Valentine’s Day and your wife is hungry. What are you going to do?
I had to fix things. I walked towards Broadway. Back home, I slipped into the kitchen, hiding the bag I had brought. I quickly took the item out of the bag, unwrapped it, placed it on a plate, and served it to Val.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “Is it a –?”
“Eat it while it’s still warm.
She started eating her burger with relish — or, to be precise, with a special sauce.
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