I cooked my way through the shock of my husband walking out on me: They’d been married for 23 years and had three kids. Then suddenly he left. Here, food writer BEE WILSON describes how she found solace in her recipes..
- What if I had been paying attention to the wrong things? Food, mainly, says Bee
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All this food you cook, it means nothing to me,’ said my husband of 23 years, standing in my kitchen.
To make his point, he gestured at a pan of Sicilian meatballs with bay leaves and white wine simmering on the hob.
It was a couple of weeks since he had announced that he was leaving and we were trying to talk and figure out what had gone wrong.
It would be a couple more months before he dropped off the letter admitting that he had actually fallen in love with another woman. For now, the whole thing felt baffling; and like the biggest shock of my life. My mind scrolled back through a quarter of a century of shared meals and I thought I might be sick.
I honestly didn’t see the end of my marriage coming. Until the day he left in June 2020, he still brought me a cup of tea in bed every morning and all his text messages ended with five kisses. I thought we were OK, or as OK as you expect to be when you have three children and busy lives and have been together a long time. (I was 19 when we met, he was 26).
But what if, for years, I had been paying attention to the wrong things? Food, mainly.
Bee Wilson (pictured) was bereft when her marriage suddenly ended after 22 years. But solace came from meatballs, eggy bread and her most beloved meals
I am a food writer and from a young age, cooking for others has been one of the ways I express love.
During that first spring lockdown of 2020, like many people, I was cooking even more than usual for him and for our two younger children, aged 11 and 17. (Our eldest son, a 21-year-old student, was locked down in another town).
It was asparagus season – my husband’s favourite vegetable – and that spring, we ate it every which way: grilled and braised and tossed in a salad with large croutons and a bacon vinaigrette.
Only a month before he left, I made him an apricot tart (a Diana Henry recipe) that glowed like an orange sunset. Then again, maybe I was wrong to equate an apricot tart with love. To him, by now, this glorious fruity tart seemed to be just another piece of meaningless cooking.
Nora Ephron once wrote (in her novel Heartburn) about a marriage where at first, cooking was one way of saying ‘I love you’ but then it became the only way.
Much of that first year after we separated passed in a blur of tears and I often thought back to those words he had said in the kitchen.
In the rawness of separation, it was agony to think that my cooking had meant so little to him. My heart ached to recall all the birthday cakes I had made for him; all the stews and pies; all the soups and risottos; all the pasta dishes and salads; all the roast dinners and curries.
Bee’s recipe for healing heartbreak
Soft-boiled eggs will always be my first love for weekend breakfast but these are my second love.
There’s a cosy elegance to a soft-yolked egg in a little dish. I have Gayle Pirie and John Clark’s book to thank for these.
They taste and look luxurious and can be varied with any additions you like, such as a spoonful of cream at the beginning, plus Parmesan at the end, with or without a drop of truffle oil; a splash of soy sauce, a grating of ginger and snipped chives at the end instead of vinegar; a few flakes of smoked trout with creme fraiche and tarragon.
- 1 large slice of sourdough bread
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- Butter, for the ramekins
- 2 eggs
- 2 sprigs of fresh thyme or marjoram
- ½ tsp red wine vinegar
I like to make special pre-buttered soldiers to go with this.
Preheat the oven to 160c (320f) fan. Cut the bread lengthways into long finger shapes and place on a baking sheet.
Drizzle with the melted butter and bake until golden, about 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, boil a kettle and pour the contents into a saucepan on which you can fit a steamer.
Place the saucepan and steamer over a high heat.
Rub butter over the bottom of two ramekins.
Make sure you have a sturdy fish slice or palette knife to hand for lifting the ramekins out again at the end.
Crack an egg carefully into each ramekin.
Sprinkle over salt to taste and the leaves pulled from the sprigs of herbs.
Place in the steamer, cover with the lid and cook for 4 minutes. They will probably need a minute longer, maybe two. The second the whites look cooked, they are done.
Carefully lift the ramekins out of the steamer and on to a plate using the fish slice or palette knife.
Eat with the toast soldiers, adding a tiny sprinkle of vinegar to each egg before you plunge your toast into the creamy yellow yolk.
I thought back to our wedding cake, which I had baked myself in a giant heart-shaped tin. He said he loved fruitcake but couldn’t stand glacé cherries, so I used chopped dried apricots instead of the cherries.
I remembered some of the ambitious dinners I had cooked for him before we had children. I can see from notes I’ve left in cookbooks that the autumn after we got married, I made him ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and mascarpone; wild mushroom risotto; and linguini with crab.
And then I started to see his comment from another angle. Maybe my cooking really was meaningless to him. Although I had my doubts, especially after I heard that he was now using my recipe for crispy roast potatoes with polenta with his new fiancee! He had wasted no time in getting engaged after leaving me.
But cooking wasn’t meaningless to me. I increasingly felt it was what was keeping me going. So many other things I tried to comfort myself with, from alcohol to books to films, reminded me of him.
People often joke about ‘comfort food’ as if it’s just a childish kind of treat: the apple crumble and custard you eat because it reminds you of school dinners. To me, comfort cooking is something much deeper than this. It’s what you sometimes need to do to pull yourself back from the brink.
Before he left, I had already started work on a cookbook based on the idea that cooking could be a remedy to many of the problems of modern life, whether you are cooking alone or for a crowd. Now, I discovered that this was truer than I had ever realised.
At first, it was one of the many frustrations of separation to realise that I would now be the one who would have to do all of the cooking (and all the other household tasks).
Yet, to my surprise, I discovered that the kitchen was the one place where I felt better rather than worse. (It helped that my children started doing more of the washing up, which was just as well since my daughter developed a serious baking habit which generated untold numbers of dirty bowls, spoons and whisks).
The week after my husband left, I made meatballs from the Falastin cookbook by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley: meatballs sandwiched between slices of roasted aubergine and tomato in a rich tomatoey sauce. Torn basil leaves go on top after it comes out of the oven and I serve it with bulgur wheat or a rice pilaf.
It’s a slightly more tricky thing than I would usually make for a midweek dinner, but I found that doing something with my hands was exactly what I needed.
I was dreading telling my children that their dad had left. Knowing that I couldn’t fully protect them from the pain of it, I cooked the things they loved the most. When I scroll back through my photos from that time I see a lot of things like roast chicken and mashed potatoes and courgette and basil moussaka smothered in lemon bechamel.
Cooking, I found, can remind you of your own strength even when you can barely stand up straight.
Whether or not I had been crying the night before, I had to get up in the morning and make breakfast for my youngest son before he left for school. I often made him hazelnut waffles (a recipe I was constantly tweaking for the book) and to witness my own shaky hands taking eggs and flour and nuts and turning them into sweet golden waffles made me feel slightly less useless.
The added bonus was that no matter how little appetite I had, there were waffles on the table and so I ate.
Bee Wilson photographed enjoying a Crunch vegan burger at Doppleganger Burger restaurant in Cambridge, England
Through food, I started to find my way back to the person I was before I met my husband. I could revisit the flavours and textures of my childhood, making buttery steamed eggs with herbs and toast soldiers that reminded me of the baked eggs my mother had once made for me and my sister. Or I could make a spicy paneer jalfrezi, all in a roasting tin in the oven, which brought to mind the takeaways my father used to buy.
Cooking was also a way to make the meals I ate alone, when my children were at their dad’s, feel like a treat rather than a penance. I devised comforting meals for myself such as cauliflower cheese soufflé.
If anything deserves to be called self-care, surely it is cooking for yourself. On many days, I felt like a needy child who wanted someone to cook for me, except now this person would have to be me.
My own mother had dementia and was in a care home where I was no longer allowed to visit. If I wanted to eat the soothing vegetable soups she had once made for me, I would have to do it myself. It was a wondrous moment when I cracked a much lazier way to make soup by putting all the vegetables together in the pan without any sauteing required and simmering it away with water or stock and some seasonings. I call it ‘Mellow Soup for Frayed Nerves’.
I even found a recipe that helped me to resolve the problem of what to do with my wedding ring, which I had taken off my finger soon after my husband left. I put the ring in a bowl in my bedroom and for ages, it gave me a sad, shivery feeling whenever I walked past it.
My own mother had dementia and was in a care home where I was no longer allowed to visit. If I wanted to eat the soothing vegetable soups she had once made for me, I would have to do it myself (stock image)
But then I came across a recipe for lentils from Syria: Recipes From Home by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi. The recipe is called Burned Fingers because the lentils are so delicious that you are in danger of burning your fingers.
They are seasoned with pomegranate molasses plus copious amounts of fried onions and green coriander. On top of the lentils were crispy little croutons, cut out using a wedding ring. I had to try it. As I served the sour-sweet lentils and wedding ring croutons to a group of female friends, I suddenly realised I felt better. The ring was no longer a symbol of rejection. It had been transformed into a teeny-tiny pastry cutter.
In time, the children and I started to establish new food rituals which had no associations with my ex-husband at all and I no longer flinched when I looked at his empty place at the table. I discovered I loved having groups of friends round to test recipes from the book and my son assumed a new role as sommelier, opening bottles of wine and elderflower for the adults and trying to ply everyone with drinks.
Then I tentatively started dating in January 2022, a year and a half after he had left.
‘Just think of it as a cup of coffee,’ my sister told me. I wasn’t sure if I could love again, and the process of judging people based on a photo felt hideous. In the end, the dating apps were not for me. But just imagining myself in a different relationship gave me a new perspective. What if my ex-husband’s comment in the kitchen was a gift rather than a burden?
If he hadn’t left, I could have spent another 20 years cooking for a man who didn’t much care about food. Now, I had a chance – just maybe – of meeting someone for whom cooking meant as much as it did to me. It was worth a try.
n Bee Wilson is the author of The Secret Of Cooking: Recipes For An Easier Life In The Kitchen (Fourth Estate).
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