Cooking as marriage therapy

Therapist says working together in kitchen can help couples
Break Up the Boredom Bread Pudding came out fluffy, but, as a whole, the dish wasn’t very pretty. (LIGAYA FIGUERAS /

Break Up the Boredom Bread Pudding came out fluffy, but, as a whole, the dish wasn’t very pretty. (LIGAYA FIGUERAS /

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry aren't the only ones getting hitched of late.

This month, especially Memorial Day weekend, marks the start of high wedding season.

I’m a Memorial Day weekend bride myself. In fact, my husband and I have a hard time remembering the exact date of our anniversary. We just know we tied the knot that holiday weekend 23 years ago.

I could tell you it has been 23 years of wedded bliss, but even my husband would laugh at the “bliss” part. Oh, there have been highs — the early wonder years, new parenthood and all the firsts that come with babies and buying a home. But, it’s hardly been a cake walk, because there have been the early wonder years, babies and home buying.

The past few months, in particular, have been stressful, as we’ve geared up for graduations for both of our sons — one from college, the other from high school.

In the midst of such pomp and circumstance, I’ve shifted focus away from my better half. Yet, we’re about to become empty nesters. And, if my life partner and I don’t want to just stare blankly at each other in the days, months and years ahead, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are as a couple, and where we’re going.

As the nuptial gods would have it, a new cookbook of sorts recently crossed my desk. “Cook Your Marriage Happy” (CYH Press, $14.95) by clinical social worker and self-titled “sous therapist” Debra Borden, explores cooking as a vehicle for marital problem-solving.

Borden has been in practice since the mid-1990s, but it was about 10 years ago, while providing family therapy, that she stumbled upon what she since has dubbed “cooking therapy.” In order to get clients to open up, she played a lot of games, she explained. “One day, I was walking through a kitchen and saw Frosted Flakes, Cool Ranch Doritos and a loaf of Wonder white bread. I thought, maybe I could do something with nutrition. But, mainly, I needed an activity where someone would talk.”

Cooking, she said, “opens the portal, and they are more likely to share.” Cooking therapy, as a type of experiential therapy, works well with people who feel stuck, resistant or looking for clarity in a situation. “It can jump-start the honest self-reflection process,” she said.

Debra Borden, aka the Sous Therapist, is a licensed clinical social worker and the author of “Cook Your Marriage Happy.” (CONTRIBUTED)

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The difference between cooking and cooking therapy, according to Borden, is purpose. “You are purposely focusing and mining each task for metaphors.”

As far as focusing on married couples, Borden said that there are four main issues that bring couples to therapy: a stale marriage where the thrill is gone; a sexually out-of-sync marriage; a maybe-I-made-a-mistake marriage; and a financially frustrated marriage, “which has a lot to do with unrealized expectations or not really focusing on financial style before the couple got together.”

When I first flipped through the book, I was skeptical. The kitchen is not where my husband and I find perfect harmony. I’m the pots and pans person. He’s the electric saw and socket wrench guy. Neither of us is good about sharing these tools. It results in turf wars. For this couple therapy thing, would we need to cook together?

Turns out, no. I could do it on my own.

Here’s how it works: You pick a recipe from the book, then stay mindful through every step and ponder how they relate to your relationship.

It starts with gathering ingredients. “What are your ingredients? Are they a willingness to evolve? To make a healthy change? To be honest about what you might be bringing to the table (that) isn’t working in the dish?” Borden said.

Then comes process and procedure. As an example, she cited the recipe for Tune In and Talk to Me Tacos, which requires “looking at the raw mass” of beef, heating it up, draining the rendered fat (“What do you want to throw away from your marriage?”) and seasoning the meat.

Even a recipe that doesn’t turn out right is ripe for interpretation in Borden’s mind. “A bread that doesn’t rise: Is it pita, crackers or something you throw out?”

Debra Borden, author of “Cook Your Marriage Happy,” uses cooking therapy to help couples explore their relationships and work through discord in the privacy of their kitchens. (CONTRIBUTED)

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Recipe names also hold import in Borden’s method of cooking therapy. There is From Boiling to Bliss Cake, Life Is Sweet and Sour Meatballs, and Miss You Mucho Mini Muffins. “If I’m working with a couple on their stale marriage, a week after the session, it starts to dissipate, but she’ll remember Break Up the Boredom Bread Pudding. The recipe name cements the session after it’s over.”

It was time to put myself through some cooking therapy. I chose Break Up the Boredom Bread Pudding. The original recipe is credited to food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman.

How’d it go, you ask?

For one thing, the cooking exercise reminded me how bad I am at following rules.

The recipe called for leftover challah bread. I didn’t have any, so I bought a new loaf. If I attempt to read more deeply into it, I’ll just consider it a wife looking to keep her marriage fresh.

You’re supposed cut the bread into 2-inch cubes. During the step, Borden asks, “When you were slicing and dicing the bread, what did you think about?” D’oh. I didn’t slice and dice. I tore the bread. Ripped it, actually. Is that the sign of an angry wife?

“It’s fluffy,” said my eldest son, ever the optimist, as I pulled the finished dessert from the oven.

Yeah, the chunks were fluffy, but, as a whole, the dish wasn’t very pretty. Then again, the flavors were spot-on. And, everyone did eat it, even my husband, who is not a sweets guy.

I was tempted to ask him what he thought about the bread pudding. But, I stopped short of fishing for compliments as I recalled one of Borden’s many correlations between cooking and marriage. “There’s a great direction when making scallops,” she said. “‘Don’t harass the scallops.’ You have to trust them and leave them in there until it’s time to turn them. Just let them be.”

After 23 years of marriage, I’ve got a whole new perspective on scallops — and Bittman’s bread pudding.

Break Up the Boredom Bread Pudding

Published in “Cook Your Marriage Happy” by Debra Borden and based on an original recipe by Mark Bittman

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan

1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

½ leftover loaf sweet egg bread like challah or brioche, cut into 2-inch cubes (about 5 to 6 cups)

2 eggs, beaten

Please make sure you’ve read the ingredients before we begin. Have you noticed all the “2”s? 2 cups milk, 2 tablespoons butter, 2 eggs … this is important. Cooking therapy is about noticing everything! And a stale marriage is often one that’s no longer noticed. This is a good time to ask: Do I notice my partner? Remember, cooking therapy is mindful and purposeful. That’s the difference between a therapy and an activity. I want you to be mindful and conscious of every step and how it resonates in life.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Your marriage is not a refrigerator or no-bake cake! It needs you to turn it on. In a small saucepan over low heat warm the milk, butter, sugar, vanilla and salt. Notice you can’t just turn up the flame immediately. It’s a slow process that requires some attention.

Continue cooking just until the butter melts; cool. Again, this requires some thought. You don’t want to over- or underdo. And when you start changing your marital patterns you may have to step back after a few changes and let things cool down.

Meanwhile, butter a 4-to-6-cup baking dish and fill it with the cubed bread. When you were slicing and dicing the bread, what did you think about? In cooking therapy, everything has meaning. Perhaps the cubes represent some parts of your marriage that are currently in pieces, but at the same time, you can be hopeful that the pieces will come together again. Even buttering the dish should remind you that while we want the finished product to “come together,” we don’t need to stick to the old ways.

Add the eggs to the cooled milk mixture and whisk. Now this is fun! Finally, you can use some energy to improve your marriage. Whisk away the old and stale till they are merely memories! Adding fresh air to the mixture, your marriage, can only help.

Pour mixture over bread. As you pour, think about how much you care that your marriage improves. Pouring itself is a healing act. Notice how your efforts are soaking into everything and binding the components.

Let soak for an hour. In the recipe, this is an optional step, but I include it because I think everything improves in a relationship when changes are made slowly and people have time to “soak in” those changes.

Bake 30 to 45 minutes, or until custard is set but still a little wobbly and edges of bread have browned. I love this direction. A marriage isn’t changed in a day. Like bread pudding, some parts have to set, some will still be wobbly and sometimes the edges remain a bit hard.

Serve warm or at room temperature. At the risk of being redundant, what could be better than taking a dish from cold to warm? By now, you should be smiling.

6 Servings

Per serving: 272 calories (percent of calories from fat, 28), 8 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, 9 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 44 milligrams cholesterol, 326 milligrams sodium.