When I met The Cuban, I was cooking for a full house. Three of my children still lived at home with me, and my mother had also moved in, so I was still preparing meals for five and it was becoming exhausting. The kids, my mom, and I had moved into a bungalow in a charming part of Springfield that I could only describe as “bookish” because there were a ton of university professors living there. The Cuban had moved here to be with me, and knew he wasn’t just dating me but my whole family. The children would have to get to know him and they were much older than he probably would have liked but, for a while, he and I dated in secret because I wasn’t ready to introduce my kids to a man I was dating.
My ex and I had split time with the children, so we usually spent time together when they were at their father’s house. That all ended after Mason got his driver’s license and stopped by the house one night and surprised me and found us on the couch (no, not like that) watching a movie after I had cooked for him. It was a simple date, the kind you have when you’re older and divorced and have realized that every date doesn’t need to be going out to an expensive restaurant.
Basically, we were busted and now I had to introduce him to the rest of the kids. So much for the best laid plans.
When we heard the key in the lock I peeked through the curtains and saw Mason’s car and turned to The Cuban and said, “Hey, do you want to meet my son right now? Because this is about to happen.” Mason was pleasant and in a good mood as he had a friend with him. They bounded through the door, as only teenagers can do, and Mason froze when he saw us sitting upright (we had previously been cuddling and holding hands) and said, “Oh! Hey! Hi.” After introductions were made and Mason pulled me to the den in the back of our little house to ask, “Uh. Are you on a date?”, they left and then The Cuban and I made plans to have all the children over for dinner. It was, clearly, time to Do This.
As luck would have it, it was a few weeks before Thanksgiving and we had discussed having our first holiday meal together but he wanted to warm up to them and make a meal that wasn’t so full of pressure. He made lamb shanks and wooed them with the most amazing mashed potatoes I’ve ever eaten. Right away, the children were impressed with his cooking and all declared that maybe I ought to retire from it and let him do it. You think I’d be crushed by this underhanded criticism, but I was relieved. Most of the cooking I did was perfunctory and boring. They liked his cooking and wondered where he got it from.
“My mother,” he told them, “she’s a minister’s wife who has cooked for church functions my whole life. She’s the best cook I know.”
It’s true. This son-of-a-preacher-man who took over the family television hour in my bungalow to watch cooking shows learned everything from his mother. Baked fish, macaroni and 5-cheese casseroles, and smothered pork chops were some of the first meals he made us. Soon, The Cuban was preparing every family meal and putting menus up on my refrigerator even though he lived in his own house 4 blocks away. He stopped stocking his own fridge and stocked mine instead. The children, if they were skeptical of their mother dating again, were won over with satisfied bellies and the savory dishes he prepared. While the children had their own activities and school functions going on and had busy teenage-and-beyond lives, they checked the weekly menus and, if they were enticed, would make sure they were home for dinner.
He threw in a dish, here and there, that his mother would be making for Thanksgiving, but we weren’t ready to meet his family just yet. We planned on having dinner at the bungalow and, for the first time in 20 years, I would not be cooking the big holiday meal.
In case you’re wondering, I was fine with all that.
Now, 5 years later, we’ve come to expect his homemade butterhorn rolls and the Cherry Cool Whip Salad that his mother made a staple for Thanksgiving. He allows me to make the stuffing to go with the turkey because no one makes stuffing like I do. (Doesn’t everyone say that?) It’s the only thing I make and I basically have one trick to it: don’t use water to soften the bread crumbs. Use chicken broth and plenty of it. Too many people have a dry stuffing but it’s important to get it to the point just before it’s too mushy and then it doesn’t dry out in the oven while baking. The Cuban also makes a date pudding that doesn’t sound like it would be good, but it is. This year, my family is traveling from Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with us and they will get to taste some of these dishes for the first time. They like all his other cooking when they’ve had it, but they’re in for a treat because he goes all out for this meal.
What we’ve learned isn’t so much that it’s the food that’s important. Sure, it’s what brings us all together, but cooking for sit-down meals for our family has become a non-negotiable in our home. When my children first met this new man in my life they had reservations about it and it wasn’t a personal critique of The Cuban. They just needed to figure out how we were going to expand our family to include him and his children and parents and his siblings. It was a widening of our circle that was made easier by using food to bring us together at the table. Once there, we could talk and share and get to know one another as well as our relationships.
Thanksgiving tops our family’s list as far as holidays go and the bonus is that I don’t have to do the cooking anymore. That makes me more thankful than you can ever know.