Guilt. It’s like a comfortable sweatshirt I refuse to throw out even though it makes me look old and fat and feel very very bad about myself and my future, and it smells and gives me a rash. Thank god I’m not alone. Here this week to share how guilt has played a starring role in her life–specifically, her married life–is Jenny Rosenstrach, author of the only food blog you’ll ever need to read, Dinner a Love Story (and really it’s more than just food, but the recipes, like this pork ragu, are killer). Jenny is married to Andy Ward, who, full disclosure, edited our book, and apparently drinks a smoothie for breakfast every single day. They write a column together called The Providers for the new Bon Appetit. And I think they might read books and sleep in their spare time.
My husband and I have a lot in common – we come from families where both parents worked, we went to the same college (where we met), we work in the same business (what’s left of publishing) and we both love to end our days with a home-cooked meal (part of the reason we started a website devoted to family dinner). All of which helps a lot when it comes to, you know, liking each other. But if serious Spousonomicists took a look at our two-decade relationship to try to identify what single shared trait made it work, I have a pretty good sense of what they’d point to: our self-imposed Guilt Incentives.
Even though I’m not such a great Jew when it comes to most things – this Passover I was on vacation down South, which included a country ham sandwich on very leavened biscuits with Duke’s mayonnaise – I’m great when it comes to walking around at all times like I’ve done something wrong or I’m about to do something wrong. This isn’t as terrible as it sounds. It helps me get things done. The Guilt Incentive, in fact, has proven to be much more of a motivating factor for making family dinner happen than any of those studies saying my kids are going be serial killers if we skipped it in favor of takeout General Tso’s chicken in front of American Idol. (Though I’m not going to sit here and say that doesn’t happen every now and then.)
But even before we had kids, before I was adding up the hours at home and at work and trying to make the numbers come out even, I felt guilty about staying late at work and missing dinner. And so did my husband (whose guilt-wielding mother trained him well). If we made after-work plans that precluded eating together, the abandoner always asked the abandoned if it was OK. As in “Is it OK if I go out on Thursday with Brian who is flying in from Minneapolis for one night to see me?” or “Is it OK if my Dad wants to take me and my sister to David Bouley’s new restaurant?” or “Is it okay if I grab a beer with some coworkers tonight?” It is somewhat astounding to me to think about this so many years later – especially now that we have children and the whole idea of guilt has been ratcheted up to levels I couldn’t have grasped back in those quaint, pre-kid days – because of course the answer was always yes. Of course! What kind of marriage required spousal permission for a Gin and Tonic with a college friend who had flown in from 1,500 miles away? But asking the question wasn’t really about permission. It was about respect. Respect for each other, respect for the ritual, respect for the meatballs.
The food. That’s pretty important, too. Especially if you and your spouse haven’t been cultivating your own guilt complexes all these years. Because when it comes to incentives, a good pork ragu is probably going to be your best shot.