"What do I want a salad for when we have this?"
As ever, I didn't know whether to be offended or smile at your brusqueness. I probably did both. Mouth full, pointing your fork at my lasagna, sneering good naturedly at the salad offered, which was, in truth, doused with too much balsamic that I later learnt you disliked, you were telling me in your own way not to worry, stop fussing. Relax!
I did anything but relax that day. It was the first meal I was to cook for you, the first time I fed you, our first date. My lasagna is an all day affair whose origins, I am loath to admit, are not completely true to my Neopolitan roots, but are the result of a combination of eating my godmother's egg and sausage laden version along with the memory of bumbling around in the kitchen of a university friend's flat, reading the instructions from the back of a packet of dried lasagne sheets. The recipe called for bechamel, which is of course unheard of in Italian circles, and we added insult to injury by using some godawful supermarket cheese that definitely was not mozzarella but whose brand name probably rhymed with Loon.
And so, my version of this dish, reserved for special occasions, and certainly not peasant food, is layered with a loose bolognaise sauce, three kinds of cheese, sliced boiled egg and cacciatore and bechamel in place of the traditional chopped egg and ricotta. Ridiculous, molten, heart attack in a casserole dish. I would never normally have made a salad. Salad with lasagna reminds me of Australian pubs that offer monstrous double carb "specials" like lasagna, chips and salad. NO. I was trying to impress you. I thought I should be a little more formal and salads are classy, right? You didn't care about the salad. You didn't care that I had no idea about dessert. We probably ate M&Ms while drinking the red wine and watching the Star Trek videos you brought over. I don't remember much except that we held hands for the longest time and that I gave you the key to my flat the very next day.
I learnt about your sweet tooth. You basically like sugar in all its forms. Toffee, caramel, butterscotch, brittle, fudge, and the rest. You like a caramel thick shake unless we go to the royal show and get a banana smoothie at the Dairy pavilion. You prefer pavlova over cheesecake, brullee over mousse, custard over yoghurt. My culinary opposite.
We are like Jack Spratt and his wife, only with bones and meat. While you hate casseroles and slow cooks with bones, you learned to abide my preference for cooking this way and we entered into some sort of compromise at the dinner table where I pull more meat off the bones for you, and you save me your bones to pick over at the end of the meal. Except I taught you too well, my Paduan. The bounty is rather scant nowadays!
You know I hate honey and sultanas. That I used to dislike fresh coriander but I have come around. I love orange flavoured chocolate, lemon and coconut. Steak is my favourite meal, served rare, and that I would have a cheese plate before dessert every time. I like bubbles and beer, whiskey and gin. You know that I don't really have a favourite mug but that I'm particular about my cutlery and how, when shopping for fruit and veg, the OCD in me must always choose an odd number. I know you love to tease me by bringing home six bananas or four potatoes if
you ever go to the shops.
When planning our wedding we didn't care about the flowers so much as the food. Our idea of an outing is to eat and drink somewhere. We share a bunch of entrees so we can experience the restaurant more fully, or we will each choose a dish and swap half way. If game is on the menu one of us will almost always order it. When our children arrived we swore we wouldn't change the way we eat and dine out and we didn't. They come along with us, they have learnt to be a balance of good diners and typical kids. We nod to the trusty "kids menu" when we must, but we offer them new flavours and sensations and know that they will be adventurous one day. We know that our favourite places will welcome us and our children back time and time again.
We sometimes just eat cheese for dinner and we love the occasions where we can give the children something simple so we can prepare or pick up something spicy for ourselves. I've taught you about chilli flakes on pasta, and we keep up a good supply of jalepenos and tabasco in the pantry. Vegemite and peanut butter absolutely belong in the fridge but I keep it out now and you're still in charge of cheese distribution over the nachos because you do it the best.
You were there through all my culinary education, explorations and obsessions. From my improvisation around a Maggi Chicken Chasseur sachet, a stab blender and a can of tomatoes, to my sandwich making pedantry. From my never ending Moroccan, North African and Middle Eastern cuisine infatuation to my annual children's birthday cake disasters. You went vegetarian with me for a whole year. You dutifully ate dozens of bowls of Beef Rendang before meekly asking me one day why I always made that same curry. I remember looking at you in shock. I had no idea I kept making the same one, though the thoroughly gravy stained page of that Charmaine Solomon Cookbook should have given me a clue that I had. I admitted that I just kept choosing the one with the most ingredients that looked the most fun to cook. You smiled at that, and I reckon you'd probably eat a dozen more Rendangs, but I haven't cooked it again.
Though I have always cooked for you, somewhere along the line I stopped feeding you. In doing so we both nearly starved. I put myself and others before you and kept you at arms length for too long. I'm sorry for all that time lost to us. That changes, now.
And so, it's your birthday. Today the world can slip away and I will feed you that same first dish again. It will be my lasagne love letter that comes with a promise to never again forget to feed you and our love. Happy Birthday my wonderful husband. I love you more.