What I learned from Rice Dressing

When my husband Frank and I first set up house together 26 years ago I knew that we would have greater challenges to face than what to serve for dinner. I grew up in a large family where my mother miraculously prepared a well-balanced dinner for nine people every night. It wasn’t gourmet but it was predictably bland and coordinated with military precision. He came from a small, Italian family with a mother who would drive 25 miles just to get a single ingredient to make a new recipe and a father who had once been a cook in the Navy. His grandfather owned a little deli in Rhode Island, the kind where sausages and cheese hung from the ceiling and kids at school made fun of him because his sandwiches dripped through the foil (but they would eagerly trade him their baloney on white bread for his Italian cold cuts). Frank intuitively knew how to make every meal taste delicious. I had no repertoire and usually burned things.  So early in our marriage it was easy to defer to him on all things kitchen related. Except for one sacrosanct family recipe: rice dressing.

My family devoured this special Cajun side dish at every holiday meal growing up, either stuffed inside a turkey or served from an overflowing bowl that my brothers fought over. On our first wedding anniversary my mother gave Frank and me a simple, framed copy of her mother’s recipe, handwritten in Grandmère’s illegible script. “About 1 ½ pounds of ground meat… I cook it for about 1 hour with salt and pepper… add onions, green pepper and celery with red hot sauce… add cooked rice, stir up mixing well…” My grandmother died when I was very young, but I proudly carried on the Cajun tradition. Every holiday, I would cook the rice dressing days in advance so that I could be out of Frank’s way while he roasted the meat to perfection and created a gravy to die for. For years, I had that one dish to remind me that I was still competent at something in the kitchen.

When we first moved in together I tried to cook pasta his way, which of course was the only way.  You see, I married a perfectionist. We used to call it spaghetti or macaroni growing up. I didn’t know anything about cuts like ziti or rigatoni. He reminded me that his pasta was far superior to anything I made. And he was right. So I boiled the water and added salt, set the timer and sat down to grade papers. Invariably Frank would go into the kitchen and take over. The few times he didn’t intervene, the pasta would stick together because I’d forgotten to stir it. Or I’d mess up the al dente timing. My husband didn’t finish my sentences; he finished my projects. And not just in the kitchen. At first I really liked it. In fact, all my friends and family really liked it too. But they say that the things that attract you at the beginning of a relationship can sometimes repel you later. That was the case with me. This year I’ve finally come to grips with it.

I learned about Frank’s handiness early on. He’d been a forester in Maine – which of course was a big selling point while we were dating – but we were living in Manhattan at the time, and there weren’t too many trees to identify, or logging roads to manage. He liked to organize and fix things. He was very handy. But a Mr. Fix-It with no garage and no truck has to find an outlet. There was only so much you could do in a 600 square-foot apartment in New York City. Frank started to cook more regularly. He bought a Romertopf clay oven and made delicious Tandoori chicken. We got a pressure cooker that could give us a kid-friendly beef bourgignon in 15 minutes. We got a rice cooker and he started going to all the Asian stores and asking the salesladies for their advice: Jasmine rice from Thailand or short grain Japanese rice grown in California? I developed a gourmet pot belly.

Friends would invite us for dinner and express delight that Frank fixed things that they didn’t even know were broken – stovetop fans, pictures that were hung crookedly, chairs that squeaked.  “Can you believe she tries to slice meat with those dull knives?” he would exclaim as we left. He started to travel with a knife sharpener. His skills made me very popular in a new way with my old friends. I basked in his reflected glory.

But then his helpfulness started spilling into my domain. If I started laundry on a Sunday night and stepped away, he would put the clothes in the dryer then take them out and fold them all wrong. Neatly, though. I can’t say I look forward to doing laundry, but there is a certain satisfaction in finishing a job you start. Before I realized what was happening, he took over other chores as well. If I slacked off for a moment, he would be putting a second coat of polish on the shoes that I left out, or re-cleaning a stainless steel pot I’d washed because it wasn’t shiny enough. Who doesn’t like shiny pots? I didn’t complain. But it has made me kind of lazy. “You know that tea kettle you mentioned wanting to buy?” he said. “Well I went out and bought a better one.” He would produce the Number One rated item that Consumer Reports or Cooks Illustrated or America’s Test Kitchen agreed on. Don’t get me wrong – it was a great choice but I was deprived of the shopping experience.

“I wish my husband would do those things,” said my neighbor when I complained.

As the kids got older and I got busy with coaching and after-school projects, Frank started cooking regularly again. There’s nothing better than coming home to a hot meal after a 12-hour day spent almost entirely with teenagers. I was really appreciative that I didn’t have to make any decisions about food.

A few days before Thanksgiving this year, I asked him to pick up a green pepper and some ground beef. I had to work the Wednesday before and he didn’t. “I’m going to start the rice dressing tonight,” I said. He texted a few times from the supermarket. “The recipe calls for a mixture of ground beef and ground pork,” he said. “They have ground pork here already mixed with beef. Should I get some?” “Sure,” I texted back. It was annoying that he had checked Grandmère’s recipe – and knew it better than I did. I’d never followed it exactly, preferring my own version of the family specialty. Also because it called for “gizzards” which I think should be outlawed. “It calls for hot sauce,” he said. “Can I use Sriracha instead of Tabasco?” Noooo! That was just too much a departure from the Cajun roots and respect for my family tradition, as if he’d slapped me in the face.

When he arrived home, I’d cleared the accumulated junk mail off the kitchen counter, washed the special platters and serving utensils so they’d be ready for the next day. I’d made a cake. I’d arranged the flowers, found the right decorations, napkins and silverware. I’d just sat down, put my feet up and was enjoying my first sip of wine, when Frank walked in with bags of groceries.  “You look tired,” he said. “Do you want me to start the rice dressing?” What woman wouldn’t want to hear those words?

I considered for a moment. He had established dominance in the kitchen years earlier, he’d already taken away my autonomy in simple household maintenance, he’d usurped my domestic roles of laundry, dry cleaning and shoe repair. I didn’t mind giving up those chores. But my old-fashioned traditional rice dressing recipe? Could I relinquish my last vestige of kitchen competence? My self-esteem? All my fight was gone.

“That would be wonderful,” I said. Deep in my heart I knew that if he said ‘start,’ he would most likely finish it. Because he finishes all my projects. And he does them to perfection. So for the first time 26 years , I allowed myself to relax. My husband cooked my grandmother’s rice dressing recipe completely on his own without any pretense of checking with me. And guess what? It was delicious. I sulked a little when he got all the credit, but I had time to read a few chapters of my book and go for a walk in the woods. He’d one-upped me with the only meal I was confident I could make. And I didn’t care any more. In fact it was a relief.

When you are married for so many years, you learn to figure out your boundaries. It’s like doing a little dance forward and backwards without stepping on any toes. I had to step all the way back and relinquish control of my final family recipe to realize that my pride had just gotten in the way. What I learned from rice dressing is to truly appreciate that my husband’s competence has allowed me the freedom to pursue my own dreams.