The Old-Fashioned, Modern Marriage of Ina and Jeffrey

The Barefoot Contessa’s latest cookbook doubles as an insight into the workings of “the most cherished celebrity couple in the world.”

Ina Garten and Jeffrey Garten attend the Time 100 Gala to celebrate the 100 most influential people in the world, at New York's Time Warner Center, in 2015. (Amy Sussman / Invision / AP)

There are some couples in pop culture who are more than simply couples. Barack and Michelle. Ellen and Portia. Beyoncé and Jay Z. They could always break up—romance is romantic in part because it is so fundamentally fragile—but the more urgent point is that nooooooooooonono they can’t break up, because their enduring togetherness suggests not just that contemporary coupledom can work, but also that a chaotic world can be made sensible, and the cruelties of entropy can be resisted, through that most unpredictable and yet stabilizing of things: love.

Ina and Jeffrey—Garten, officially, but they have also, at this point, transcended their shared surname—make up one of those couples. They are, in fact, according to one assessment, “the most cherished celebrity couple in the world.” The Gartens met in the ’60s, when he was a student at Dartmouth and she caught his eye as she was visiting her older brother there; they married when she was 20 and he was 22. And nearly five decades later, now that Ina is a culinary celebrity and Jeffrey is an occasional guest star on her popular Food Network show, they seem more in love than ever.

She talks about him all the time, occasionally in her best-selling cookbooks but mostly on Barefoot Contessa, invoking him on the show even when he isn’t there. And when Jeffrey does show up—usually at the end, after the work of the cooking has been done—he projects affability and impishness and the conviction that the crème brûlée that has been placed before him is, like the woman who’s torched it on his behalf, a sweet and glinty miracle. The pair’s defining coupledom seems somehow to have transcended the concerns that plague so many other duos who’ve joined the institution of marriage; it manages to be at once old-fashioned and uniquely modern.

And now there is Cooking for Jeffrey, the long-awaited tenth book in the Barefoot Contessa brand-canon. The new manual, out today from Clarkson Potter, is a beautifully produced cookbook: hefty and glossy and fit to be gifted by people who use “gift” as a verb. But Cooking for Jeffrey’s cookbookishness—its recipes, its lists of Contessa-recommended pantry items, its vaguely voyeuristic photographs of scattered radishes—is supplemented by bookishness of a more literary strain. Arranged among the recipes are brief interstitial essays in which the author discusses her entertaining philosophy; expounds on philosophy more generally (“it doesn't really matter what the occasion is … it’s the connections that we have with the people we love that nourish our souls”); reveals the formative moments in her culinary career; and in general makes implied arguments about feminism and Marxism and the merits of softly lit domesticity.

Mostly, though, the author makes arguments about Jeffrey. “Cooking is more gratifying and, frankly, more fun when I’m cooking for people I love—whether for two friends or a party of twelve,” Garten notes, in one of those mini-essays. “And for more than forty years my most constant and appreciative audience has been my sweet husband, Jeffrey.” Jeffrey, with this, has been promoted from his position of cameo-maker; in the book that bears his name, he is the star and the first mover. (Even the book’s dedication, its text set against the golden backdrop of Garten’s Vanilla Cream Cheese Pound Cake, reads: “For Jeffrey, who makes everything possible.”) Here, Garten’s most common catchphrase—“How easy is that?”—has been subsumed into her other one: “Jeffrey’s gonna love it!”

Jeffrey, for his part, never appears in the text, playing either himself or an extra-adorable version thereof; he is merely discussed with cheerful reverence, spectral both in his omnipresence and his absence. He exists, here, simply as a bundle of desires waiting to be fulfilled. In Garten’s introduction to her recipe for Sautéed Shredded Brussels Sprouts, she notes that “Jeffrey loves Brussels sprouts; not those mushy overboiled things our mothers used to make but rather sautéed or roasted Brussels sprouts that are flavorful and crispy.” Filet Mignon With Mustard & Mushrooms, similarly, is included in the book because, Garten explains, “When Jeffrey and I eat out in Paris, I love to order a classic fillet of beef with mustard sauce.” The bread pudding is included because it “is based on the Thanksgiving stuffing that I’ve been making for Jeffrey for decades.”

We learn, too, via asides in the recipes, that “Jeffrey adores zucchini with garlic and parmesan” and that “Jeffrey adores lamb,” so “I like to find new ways to cook it,” and that “Jeffrey loves when I make traditional Jewish dishes” and that, relatedly, “one of the first things I made for Jeffrey after we were married was Challah.” We also learn some of Jeffrey’s favorite samplings from previous Barefoot Contessa books: He is particularly partial to Perfect Roast Chicken, from the original Barefoot Contessa Cookbook; and to Scallops Provençal (Barefoot in Paris); and to Steakhouse Steaks With Roquefort Chive Butter (How Easy Is That?).

The author inhabits, with all this, a Jeffreycentric universe; it’s cashmere turtlenecks all the way down. “We don’t have any children,” Jeffrey explained this spring to Johns Hopkins Magazine. “I’m her family. And she is all about family cooking.” Indeed. At one point in Cooking for Jeffrey, Garten discusses her love of mastering a recipe, the sense of satisfaction she has felt when solving that little culinary puzzle. And then she adds: “Just as important to me, though, was that Jeffrey loved everything I cooked. His enthusiasm truly fueled the fire. I was making a home for us, which made me happy, and taking care of the love of my life.”

You could read Cooking for Jeffrey, in all that, as a kind of slow-roasted rebuke to the general arguments set forth in All the Single Ladies and Spinster and Lean In and Unfinished Business and The End of Men: The ultimate recipe the book shares, perhaps, is for a voluntary regression to the divided domesticities of bygone eras—a celebration of feminine servitude. You could cringe, a bit, when Garten tells interviewers, of her husband, “I love to cook for him. He doesn’t have to do anything and that’s my pleasure.” You could cringe as well when Jeffrey explains of that instant attraction to Ina, “She looked like she would take care of me.” You could look, overall, at the show and the books and the general Jeffreycentrism that permeates the Contessa empire and argue that, far from smashing the patriarchy, Garten has instead chosen to serve it some perfectly seasoned smashed potatoes.

But Garten’s feminism is more complicated than that—and it is complicated, in large part, by the presence and the person of Jeffrey. The male Garten may be the direct recipient of his wife’s labors, emotional and otherwise; he may well be, as she has suggested so many times before, the central force in her life. But fame is a tricky currency. And when it comes to Garten’s celebrity—if you set aside any Marxist readings of this self-styled American contessa—what becomes clear is that Jeffrey, Quintessential Husband, is, as a celebrity, playing the role of the wife.

He is the person in the pairing who is defined, in the public mind, by his domestic self. He is the one who is judged according to his looks. He is the one who is regularly referred to as “adorable.” He is the one who gets called “man candy” in Buzzfeed listicles and whose persona gets lovingly satirized on 30 Rock, when Matt Damon—as Liz’s boyfriend, Carol—collapses into tears as he is forced to admit, “I’m not like Jeffrey Garten! I’m not as strong as that guy!”

Jeffrey, in that sense, is, in public, the masculine answer to the Feminine Mystique. He is beloved in large part because he is widely seen to be beneath: Though Ina serves him—food, love, loyalty—he is also, according to the dynamics of fame, serving her. Barefoot Contessa may be an instructional cooking show, and one of the first Food Network programs to realize that a lifestyle is something that can be bought as well as lived; it is also, in its way, a rom-com. The food, in it, feeds the relationships, and Ina’s relationship with Jeffrey is the show’s narrative through line. (“Ina and Jeffrey: A Love Story” is an authorless essay featured on the Food Network’s site.) Jeffrey is, in his very modern way, princely. He shows up for Ina. He giggles when she talks. He thinks everything she does is amazing. In interviews, he talks about TSA agents recognizing him in security lines and chiding him: “My wife wants me to be just like you!”

Which is also to say that, watching his brief, beatific appearances on the Barefoot Contessa, you would have very little idea that Jeffrey Garten is also the dean emeritus of the Yale School of Management, or that he is a regular contributor to the national newspapers of record, or that he is, himself, the author of several books (in this case, about the global economy). That is in part because, in the Contessa cosmos, these things—“profession,” “labor,” “the world”—have very little place; the home, instead, cheery and white and color-popped with peonies, is a refuge from the messiness of life as most people experience it. But Jeffrey’s persona is one-dimensional, as well, because the romance the show is selling is in some sense myopic: In Contessaland, salt crunches and heated oil shimmers and marriage is predicated not just on mutual respect, but on mutual obsession. That is the fairy tale being sold—and the one also, one desperately hopes, being lived.

Last month, in the publicity tour running up to Cooking for Jeffrey, Garten answered Vanity Fair’s Proust questionnaire; seven (7!) of her responses to the quiz’s 21 questions contained a reference to her husband. “What is your greatest regret?” the questionnaire asked. “Not marrying Jeffrey sooner,” she replied. “What or who is the greatest love of your life?” it queried. “That’s easy—Jeffrey,” came the response. And then, finally: “How would you like to die?”

“I don’t care,” Garten answered, “as long as Jeffrey and I go together and we end up in a big suite with a view of the ocean.”

And, with that, Ina Garten answered not just Proust’s question, but many of the other ones that have buzzed around the Barefoot Contessa as she has built an empire based on the poetic pleasures of home-making. As long as Jeffrey and I go together. Garten had surveyed all the other things—Gloria Steinem and Martha Stewart and Karl Marx and basic cable and chocolate babka and first-wave feminism and choice feminism and the literary industrial complex and Hollywood and Paris and warm evenings and fresh flowers and the earthy aroma of Lamb Stew With Spring Vegetables—and come up with a response that would both fail to answer the questions and answer all of them at once: “Yes, but I love him.”