Noe Valley Voice February 2007

Her Signature Dish

By Tessa White

Tara's boyfriend of four years, Joe, had lost interest in her signature dish. It was gradual, it came with time. He would miss dinner, and later she'd find Taco Bell wrappers on the floor of his car. Whenever Tara mentioned the dish, Joe feigned a stomach cramp and sent for chicken soup.

Tara was no careless chef. She had been cooking for 15 years, long before Joe came along, and she'd satisfied the taste buds of many men. After a decade and a half of practice and experimentation, Tara was in her prime. She had fine-tuned her pinches and dashes. Perfected each titillating flavor. She could stroke any man's tongue to a zesty climax.

The dish itself was nothing exotic. In fact, it was really quite basic. Almost a girl-next-door meal. Still, Tara didn't like to share the secrets of her signature dish. It was never cooked the same way twice. The one consistency? The meat was fish. Not just any fish, but the freshest, most perfect pick of what swims with fins: salmon. The salmon must be plucked from a wild river and have absolutely no color added. The shade of pink must be the hue of blushing flesh. The color alone should trigger the tiny glands of the mouth to water.

From there, Tara's dish blossomed at the slightest touch of her fingers. Her culinary twists and turns were endless and promised rich sauces and garnishes, from crème fraîche to tart Meyer lemons. She lovingly gave her creation a slow bake in the oven or a gentle sauté atop the stove, the fire beneath it, or above it, warming it to the exact temperature that turned the pink flesh a pure white.

Ironically for Tara, Joe was raised on a farm in Iowa, and quite predictably, he loved beef. Tara spent her childhood in Seattle, where fish was plucked out of the Pacific and served all the time--cooked or raw.

Tara and Joe converged in San Francisco, where there was an abundance of chefs churning out luscious meals. But on their first date, instead of dining out, Tara invited Joe over and served him her signature dish. After the final swallow, Tara watched as a single tear rolled down Joe's cheek. He moved in with her that weekend.

In those early days, Joe couldn't get enough of her special meal. He constantly craved it. He slid it into their daily conversations, begged for it in the middle of the afternoon, and even asked for it as he got out of bed in the early morning. Often, he surprised Tara with a pound of fresh salmon from the local fishmonger.

He became a crazed food addict, and Tara was more than happy to satiate his hunger. There was nothing more exciting than seeing him delight in her dish: his cheeks flushed, his eyes closed, his forehead damp with sweat. They were happy and, quite honestly, a little exhausted from all the eating.

But then, after the first year, Joe asked for the dish less and less. After two years, the spontaneity all but fizzled out completely. They ordered in Thai and pizza, and then couldn't remember the last time they'd gone to the grocery store. Tara and Joe's weekly special dinners turned into once a month, and then every other month, and then they lost track of the last time they'd eaten together.

By the third year, Tara began to feel a little depressed. She felt frumpy, and undesirable. Her best friend told her not to worry, that she too only occasionally prepared meals for her fiancé. That was just the way it went, she said. Tara sat in her dark kitchen filled with cold pots and pans. The pent-up frustration gnawed away at her. She refused to believe it. She just couldn't imagine living the rest of her life without that rush, without the thrill of this meal.

Tara resolved to revive her boyfriend's old enthusiasm. She decided to bring Joe back to his one-track mind, to revitalize her dish, to make it new again. Tara recorded cooking shows and practiced new techniques while Joe was at work. She bought new culinary tools. She sharpened her knives. Tara did everything she could to spice up the dish.

Then, on a Wednesday night, she made the meal. She prepared it secretly, and presented it at the table as a surprise. Joe eased the fork into the soft salmon, lifted it to his lips, and...there it was. The old spark. Joe's eyes filled with water, and his damp lips quivered. He devoured the meal with a hunger that made Tara's cheeks redden. That evening, the lovers discovered that once they'd made time for the meal and sat down together and tasted the food, they'd enjoyed it with the same relish they'd had in the beginning. The hard part had been the initiation, taking the first step. They agreed they would both make an effort now, and their joint goal would be to share Tara's signature dish at least once a week.

But there was another valuable lesson Tara had learned through all this. She learned to enjoy cooking for herself. Tara realized she could attain almost as much satisfaction by eating the dish alone. When Joe worked late or was out having beers with the guys, she now popped in a CD and lit a candle. She turned on the burner and warmed the pan. She marinated the salmon. Palmed the fish. Rubbed it with herbs. Sprinkled it with oil. Tara could hardly wait to take her first bite.

Tessa White has lived in Noe Valley for three years, and she and her husband are raising their 2-year-old son. White is also at work on an MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco.

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