I work full-time as an editor and columnist in New York City. My partner goes to school full-time — watching our 3-year-old son during the day while I work, then taking classes in the evenings, when I’m home. We live in a small, two bedroom apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. We aren’t married. During the week we rarely see one another for longer than the five minutes spent passing off our child. I’m 31. He’s 35. We’ve been together for four years.
Our unforgiving schedules, the often-overwhelming responsibilities and frustrations associated with parenting, and, more often than that, finances, can and often do put a strain on our relationship. Gone are the days when we’d sleep in until noon on a Saturday, smelling of morning sex and alcohol. We can’t make dinners together every evening like we used to, either — dangerously close to burning the risotto because we’re too busy slow dancing in the kitchen. And we never have the time to sit across from one another at the back of a bar, drinking whiskey, eating bbq, talking until 2:00 a.m. and anticipating loud, sweaty, sex (which is exactly how things went down the first night we met).
Missing these things takes a toll. So when we feel a potentially detrimental strain start to tug at our relationship, my partner and I find the time to cook. More specifically, we make bbq baked ribs. Together. With a little bit of paprika, liquid smoke, and a rack of pork, we’re transported back to the location of our first date: Bitterroot BBQ in Seattle, WA.
This recipe is our affordable time machine — providing intimacy, nostalgia, and a delicious reminder that love, like ribs, can stick. You just have to work at it.
- 2 racks uncooked ribs
- 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
- 1 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 tb salt
- 1 1/2 tb peper
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1 bottle bbq sauce
- 1-2 tb liquid smoke
We begin by reminiscing about June 21, 2013. My partner starts by reminding me, ever-so-gently, that I was at least 20 minutes late to our blind date. I counter with the undeniable fact that I wasn’t late, I was just unable to find an adequate parking spot. Totally different. We both concur that it was kind of him to have a glass of whiskey waiting for me, regardless.
As we remove the ribs from their packaging and separate each rib with a chef knife, we discuss my initial reaction to his surprising height. He contacted me via Twitter after reading an article I had written for The Seattle Times about dating in the PNW. He was funny and handsome, with a beard and a few tattoos, a Navy veteran, and a heavy metal music lover — checking off some admittedly shallow boxes on my “dateable candidate” list.
I assumed there was a catch, and my mind immediately settled on his height. I had dated short men in the past, so it wasn’t a “deal breaker.” I value substance and personality, to be sure. But at my most superficial, I prefer a tall man. I had already envisioned a reality where he was handsome, funny, and smart, with an aptitude for loud music. But also short.
He wasn’t. He towered over the bar.
At home, I’m always taken by his 6’4’’ frame and how he effortlessly moves around the kitchen. Sometimes, usually early in the morning before our son wakes up and officially starts our day, I’ll watch him from a distance; his muscles pushing against the back of his favorite Wisconsin Badgers t-shirt as he reaches for the coffee grinds on the top shelf.
When we make our bbq ribs, I watch as he reaches for the brown sugar, paprika, salt, pepper, cayenne, garlic powder, and onion powder. I try to make myself look busy, usually by pre-heating the oven to 300F or finding the tin foil in the back of a drawer, leaving him the responsibility of mixing the dry ingredients into a bowl.
Back on that first date, when I walked to the back of the restaurant and bar we had mutually agreed to meet at, he was sitting on a stool holding a glass of whiskey as mine perspired in front of the empty stool beside him. Convinced he was 5’5’’ at best, I wore flip flops, for fear a pair of high heels would make me feel like the Empire State Building. But when I saw him, smiled, and walked in his direction, he stood up to offer me a hug and revealed his towering height.
Instead of opening with some line that would have established, without question, that I was effortlessly witty, all I could say was: “Holy shit, you’re tall.”
I still remember the way he laughed and looked at me after I stumbled over my words while I internally kicked myself for picking my worn-out flip-flops to wear, especially since the paint on my toenails was chipped. We still laugh when we recount that moment; one which I inevitably downplay and which he loves to tell people is the moment “she instantly fell head-over-heels in love with me.”
Back in the present, we start rubbing and pressing the combined dry ingredients on both sides of each individual rib, often tackling one rib at the same time so our hands can meet. Even now, four years later, touching his hands while we cook together makes me feel nervous and excited. It’s as if the constraints of our day-to-day lives create a mild separation between us that, when addressed, makes us both feel like we’re on that first date again. It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but we don’t have to spend days, weeks, or months away from one another, physically separated by state lines or time zones, to facilitate feeling like we’re meeting one another, again, for the very first time. We just need to be so busy that setting aside one night to cook together makes us feel as giddy as the day we met.
I start wrapping the ribs, individually, in aluminum foil while my partner prepares a 9 x 13 glass casserole dish. As this point we always lament about our small apartment; the tight quarters filled with three years worth of kids’ toys and necessities, our always-present pile of laundry, and the absence of a backyard that would make the ownership of a grill practical. I know he misses poking at sizzling meat as it spits and sputters over a charcoal fire, and I promise him that, one day, we will move slightly outside the city, with a backyard and a grill and even a small garden.
I always stop to admire how quickly we can dance forward and backward in time when we’re in the kitchen. One minute we’re recounting our first date, and the next we’re discussing the living room decorations for our future condo. Our relationship is suspended in time, and somehow transcends time, when we’re cooking together, and especially when it’s a meal we ate on the day we met.
We place the ribs in our wish-it-was-a-grill stove, and set the timer for two hours. And just like that, we’re no longer in the back of that restaurant bar in Seattle, WA. Now, we’re at home, playing with our son, discussing dinner for the following days of the week, and haphazardly looking over the stack of bills we’d much rather just ignore entirely.
But the smell. Oh, the smell. As the first 30 minutes, then the first hour, then the next 30 minutes tick by, the smell overcomes our small apartment and brings us back to the moment our food arrived on our first date. I ordered the pulled pork sandwich, he had the sliced beef brisket with collard greens and baked beans. We laughed at the bbq sauce we both wound up wearing, sipping on another round of whiskeys and talking about politics, his time in the Navy, the start of my writing career, and the past relationships that failed so miserably for the both of us.
Normally, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable eating a face-full of bbq in front of a potential love interest, but 30 minutes into our first date I already felt like it was number 30. He didn’t care that I was leaving fingerprints of bbq on the side of my whiskey glass. I didn’t care that he had some sauce trapped in his beard. He didn’t mind that I talked about the ex that cheated on me with our neighbor, because he had an ex that cheated on him, too.
As our home fills with the smell of bbq, I remember that — even on our first date — the bbq and the whiskey and his favorite cologne, Jean Paul Gaultier, made him smell like home.
After two hours we remove the ribs from the oven and unwrap them from their aluminum beds. We’re told to “discount the juices,” but my Puerto Rican heritage forbids it. Instead, we pour the juices into a bowl and mix the bbq sauce and the liquid smoke. I start to “paint” the ribs with the bbq sauce/liquid smoke/juice concoction, at which point our curious son always asks to “paint,” too.
Once covered in sauce, I set the oven to broil while he puts the ribs back in for another five minutes, or until they’re golden brown. I set out bowls and provide a generous amount of paper towels because, like our relationship at times, it’s going to get messy. The five minutes fly by, and sometimes it feels like the almost-five years of our relationship have flown by, too.
For a brief moment, and before my stomach starts to growl, I feel melancholy. Our trip down memory lane via our small kitchen is over, and I know that we can’t go back to the moment our lives together began. There will never be another first date for us. I will never kiss him again for the first time. I, for the most part, won’t ask him a question about his past I don’t already know the answer to.
But as we sit down to eat, proud of our collective efforts to create a meal that looks as good as it tastes, I’m thankful that we can’t go back in time. I’m glad we’re not starting this process — of cooking or of falling in love — all over again.
Because here we are, years later in a different city with a son we’re raising together, and our bellies are full. There’s a bottle of whiskey in the freezer that’s far less expensive than the $18-a-glass whiskey we consumed on our first date. There’s bound to be a few leftovers neither one of us will judge the other for eating straight out of the fridge, cold, and before we run off to our next obligation. I’m in sweatpants and a stained t-shirt sitting on the couch, laughing at the idea that for even a second, I felt sheepish about wearing flip flops in front of the man who could never care less about my clothes.
When we put in the time and effort, we can still manage an intimate relationship after four years, a child, career changes, full-time school, a cross-country move, alternative schedules, financial hardship, and everything else life has tossed our way. And through it all we can still make room for a side of bbq ribs, too.