When my boyfriend would make sous vide ribs and soufflé, I thought he was just showing off⁠. Now, in lockdown, I see it’s how he cares for me.

Kyle McCarthy at her home restaurant with barley risotto wine and cheese May 2020

Courtesy of Kyle McCarthy

“When this is over, when the spine has been made into stock, and the stock into soup and the soup consumed and forgotten, what will I remember?”

We’d been dating for four months, Dennis and I, when the virus hit the city. At once we had to decide: Flee to our families in distant states, or find refuge in each other? We chose cohabitation, the one-bedroom in Brooklyn, the suddenly shared life. It made me nervous. You’ll get bored of my cooking, I warned, meaning, of course: You’ll get bored of me.

Kyle McCarthy spatchcocked chicken for dinner at home May 2020

Courtesy of Kyle McCarthy

Horrified by the sound of “spatchcocking,” our author eventually succumbed to the delicious technique.

Before the plague he cooked me short ribs sous vide, a custardy flan with caramelized sauce, carrots so tender and velvety they bloomed in my mouth. A French omelette, a soufflé: cooking was a performance, a way to woo me. I was wooed, but cautious; I was way too scared to cook for him. 

So what would happen now that we were quarantined together, all our cooking shared? Would he judge my sloppy vegetarian stews, all the slop I made once a week and gulped down before going out? 

I started with my standbys, the barley risotto, the coconut soup. I asked him how to emulsify a sauce and deglaze a pan, studied his sourdough starter and chiffonade’d basil. When he spatchcocked a chicken I was aghast; when I tasted the tender breast meat, impressed. We saved the bloody spine for stock, along with our collection of bones sucked clean. Before this, I had never made stock: no time. Now there was nothing but time. Now there was nowhere to be. I started slowing down. When I cooked, the jalapeño and cilantro were finely chopped, the shallots and salt actually measured, the cheese cubed and resting in a ceramic bowl.

We can’t go to tiny dark restaurants anymore, sip cocktails of smoke and gin, stare into each other’s eyes, and so every night we make our own restaurant instead, our own cocktails and candlelight. Cooking, I think: I want to help make the restaurant. I want to help sustain him.

Mcarthy's partner, Dennis prepares dumplings at her kitchen table while in quarantine May 2020

Kyle McCarthy

The author’s boyfriend Dennis prepares dumplings

It came upon me slowly, over many nights of browning beef and cracking eggs: When he was making his fancy French dishes for me all fall and winter, they were never a performance. They were always a gift.

When this is over, when the spine has been made into stock, and the stock into soup and the soup consumed and forgotten, what will I remember? His slender strong hands pushing, the pop and crack of bone as he cuts out the poultry’s spine with the Fiskars. Later, the chicken laid out, butterflied on the baking sheet, stained with the oils of so many past meals. Doing it right, not to impress, but because he cares. Because later, over wine and asparagus, we’ll exclaim how tender it is.

Kyle McCarthy is the author of Everyone Knows How Much I Love You, forthcoming from Ballantine Books this June. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere.