Ina Garten is a powerhouse.
When the Food Network train hit new heights of popularity in the mid-aughts, Garten reached a new level of celebrity status attained by only a few other chefs on the network. Her long-running series, “Barefoot Contessa,” has been on air since 2002, making it one of the longest running series on the network.
In each episode, Garten is effortlessly charming as she cooks a meal for a special guest — be it friends, a celebrity or her longtime husband, Jeffrey. Ina and Jeffrey’s relationship has reached an almost cult status, as the pair (who have been married since 1968) have a chemistry that would make any cynic a believer in true love. When so many marriages end in divorce these days, how can we not rally around a couple who has made it work for almost 50 years?
It was no surprise, then, that Garten’s 10th cookbook, released last month, is titled “Cooking for Jeffrey.” The glossy hardcover is two parts cookbook, one part love story. The introduction traces the history of Garten’s relationship with cooking and her relationship with Jeffrey. The two things are inextricably interconnected, Garten says. According to her, Jeffrey was the one who encouraged her to work in the food industry and pursue her dreams in the public sphere.
Jeffrey is no stranger to attaining lofty goals himself; he’s Dean Emeritus at the Yale School of Management, and has worked in several presidential administrations. Not to be outdone by her husband, Garten has an extremely impressive resume from before her venture into the food world. She worked in the White House during the Ford and Carter administrations writing policy papers on nuclear energy. In the words of Garten herself, “how great is that?”
On first glance, I joked to my friends that the title of the cookbook seemed bad for feminism. I never thought badly about Ina for it — Garten is old enough to be my grandmother, and I am well aware of how gender roles have shifted since she was in college. However, I was surprised to see her actually tackle the topic of feminism in her introduction: “I often say [Jeffrey] was the first feminist I ever knew; he believed that I could do anything I wanted to do.”
The couple’s mutually beneficial relationship is highlighted several times in “Cooking for Jeffrey.” It’s one thing to see their relationship on television, where Ina is queen of the kitchen and Jeffrey seems happy just to be on the receiving end of her production. It’s a completely different thing to read Garten’s heartfelt gratitude for finding a relationship that allows both people to follow their goals while loving each other deeply.
While flipping through “Cooking with Jeffrey,” I was fascinated that not only did every recipe sound delicious, but they all looked like something I, an amateur home cook, could whip up without too much trouble. One of the reasons Ina Garten has become a Food Network icon is her penchant for simple meals that require ingredients you probably have in your fridge. While there are recipes that require a thoughtfully planned grocery run (“Fried Oysters with Lemon Saffron Aioli,” for instance), most of the recipes are something you could easily make with a few hours notice. In Ina’s recount of her culinary history, she explains that she finds the best meals are often the simplest, coming from perfected classic recipes. This explains the prevalence of meals with humble names like “Roast Chicken with Radishes,” “Parmeasan Roasted Zucchini,” and “Roasted Italian Meatballs.”
For a television personality, Garten has done a wonderful job making her audience feel like they share an intimate connection with her. Skimming through the blurbs written at the top of each recipe, I found myself reading some of her iconic phrases in her voice, like I was watching the recipe unfold on her show (“How smart is that?”). It’s hard to tell if you want her to be your grandmother, or your mother, or your Hampton neighbor. But the overwhelming reaction is that her fans do want her in their life in some capacity because she seems like such a fun and friendly person. Her voice translates nicely from “Barefoot Contessa” to her cookbooks, a hard-to-achieve skill that has certainly been perfected from years in the business.
Sitting down with “Cooking for Jeffrey” is the reading equivalent of curling up in a blanket next to a fire — the warmth Ina has for her husband and her love for cooking radiates off every page. Even for the biggest skeptic, there is something beautiful about hearing how two people fell (and stayed) in love. “Cooking for Jeffrey” not only offers a glimpse into the first few years of Ina and Jeffrey’s relationship, but you can rest easy knowing the story has a happy ending almost five decades later.
As Garten reminds us in her “Planning a Party” chapter, food is no fun unless you’re sharing it with the people you love, be it friends, family or Jeffrey. Cooking for others is a selfless act that can be deeply personal, and the ritual of sharing a meal is only productive if we’re building on our relationship with that person through conversation and laughter. Though especially important in this political climate, this lesson is something that each and every one of us should hold deeply. Besides, if we learn anything about sustaining a marriage from Ina and Jeffrey’s relationship, it’s undeniable that sharing lots of delicious meals has only helped.