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Recipe for Romance

Oral matters - in love and food


Published March 20, 2007 at 7:05 p.m.

The first time I had dinner with my future husband, it was love at first bite. Even while we were still perusing the menu, at Burlington's Smokejacks, it became clear that we were jazzed about all the same dishes: an appetizer of nearly raw tuna atop cucumber "noodles," a smoked pork chop entrée, and soft, oozing cheeses. Given the similarity of our desires, he suggested we share: a swoon-worthy romantic tactic. As he forked up mouthfuls of mashed potato and I twirled tender pork through drizzles of sauce, I watched carefully to make sure he didn't try to sneak the bigger, juicier bits. He didn't. Plus, he moved fluidly from discussing the herbs and spices used in each dish - the apricots accompanying our cheese were soaked in clove syrup - to a conversation about Flaubert's Madame Bovary. As far as I'm concerned, the combination of food and intellectual conversation is as sexy as it gets - at least during the early phase of courtship.

By the end of the evening I was smitten. We meandered along the waterfront, reminiscing about other wonderful meals and showing off by reciting snippets of various poems we'd been forced to memorize in school. After reaching Battery Park, we sat down on the bench swing and looked out at the water. I got chilly and he put his arm around me. And then we enjoyed another benefit of sharing food - the inability to detect onions or garlic if you've been eating them yourself. A year and a half later, we sat on that same swing while a justice of the peace worked his magical marrying mojo. Our next stop was Smokejacks, where we shared our first meal as a legal unit.

But for me, the path to connubial cuisine was paved with a few significant others - and a slew of insignificant others - whose tastes differed from mine as much as the taste of ketchup differs from that of ripe tomato. I didn't understand it at the time, but just as some mystics can tell the future by reading tea leaves, the future of my relationships could have been predicted by looking at my partners' plates.

Seth was my high school sweetheart, and for the two years we were together I practically lived at his house. His parents were true American cooks, and after playing Dungeons and Dragons with our friends for 12 hours or watching movies on TV, we'd gorge on Dad's shepherd's pie, spaghetti and meatballs with sauce that had simmered all day, and gingerbread cake with whipped cream. The meals may have been more psychologically nourishing than they were nutritious, but at the time, the love that went into making the food was what fed me.

I enjoyed sharing home cooking with Seth and his family, but going out to eat was a different matter. Seth said he felt uncomfortable in restaurants that boasted accoutrements like multiple forks and real tablecloths. Each time we went to dinner, I ached to try something romantic, to show a pretense of sophistication or discover dishes with names I couldn't pronounce. But he refused to explore the few exotic options Essex Junction had to offer. Our trinity consisted of Friendly's, Wendy's and Ponderosa.

During that era, I became deeply acquainted with buffet-style dining and also with a slew of sandwiches constructed on foundations of American cheese, iceberg lettuce and rubbery bacon. After a while, I gave up suggesting other options. Desperate for haute, I had to settle for bloat: not-so-super "super melts," 430-cal chocolate Frostys, and stringy steaks accompanied by a staggering number of all-you-can-eat sides. If we'd stayed together, I'd probably now weigh 300 pounds and be wrist-deep in "Shake-n-Bake."

In college there was Ryan - the first tortured artist type I've ever hung out with, the guy who introduced me to "cinema." We spent weeks lying in his bed watching films by Truffaut, Hitchcock and Peckinpah. Ryan also introduced me to the world of severe stomach disorders. He was afflicted with bleeding ulcers - intense pain was the main reason we spent so much time lolling in front of his television.

But Ryan was a trouper: The amount of tobacco smoke that blew through his body in a day could have cured 10 hams, and I had the feeling that his beer intake actually impacted the price of malt and barley on the U.S. market. In addition, he tended to use food mainly as a vehicle for mayonnaise-based condiments. We noshed on frozen fish sticks with tartar sauce and chunks of iceberg lettuce floating in seas of ranch dressing and topped it all off with Choco-taco desserts. For Ryan, each meal was followed by a period of writhing, with an occasional trip to the ER.

I tried to convince him to give up the Hellman's and the booze, but to no avail. In my book, the standard lunch should bring joy, not anguish, but Ryan seemed to have a Dosteoevskian need to punish himself. Instead of psychological flagellation, he chose food-induced prostration. I was grossed out by the self-loathing he expressed through his food and beverage choices - and by the fact that I was eating the same junk he was. It didn't last.

I was in my mid-twenties, working at a gourmet-food store, when I started my cookbook collection. I didn't have insurance, but I subscribed to Food & Wine. I couldn't afford cable TV, but my fridge held seven different kinds of mustard. That's when I had an epiphany: I needed to turn my food obsession into a career.

Since I was single and living alone, I had plenty of time to imagine the kind of person I wanted to be with. For the first time, I realized that my ideal partner had to love food as much as I did. My fantasy man and I would travel the world, slurping kway teow noodles in Malaysia and sampling kleinur "doughnuts" in Iceland. At home, we'd dine at Café Shelburne and Christophe's on the Green. I was pretty sure I had it all figured out.

But even after realizing my desire for a partner who was a daring diner, I accidentally fell for a vegan. I was back in school as a non-traditional student, and Nathan was a young philosophy professor with blue eyes and a dashing tendency towards baldness. I'd designed a special degree in "Food Studies," and had roped him into working with me on a treatise about ethical eating. As a passionate defender of conscious carnivory, I found it tantalizing to work with a man so dispassionate about his food that for lunch he ate plain organic black beans, gleaming and slimy, straight from the can.

One day, after an invigorating wrangle over whether fish can experience psychological anguish, I found myself fantasizing about him. This was not a fantasy in which I ascended the narrow, curved staircase to his office dressed in thigh-high black leather boots and a trench coat; rather, it consisted of a complicated scenario in which I prepared roasted duck with a balsamic glaze and mesclun salad accompanied by a wedge of achingly aromatic sheep cheese drizzled with honey. Of course he couldn't refuse. He ate shreds of meat, whimpering gently, as, after years of abstinence, crisp golden duck fat caressed his tongue.

It didn't turn out that way. When I finally worked up the nerve to ask him out, after graduation, he gently explained that he had a girlfriend. That may have been the case, but nowadays, I'm pretty sure he could tell I wasn't the girl for him: I ate meat. I guess I should have paid more attention to a Gloria Estefan song that was popular when I was in high school: the pick-your-partner-based-on-his-dining-habits thing "cuts both ways."

Eighteen months into my marriage, I'm more convinced than ever that you can judge a date by his dining habits. My sweetie cooks for me and does the dishes.

Besides sleeping and watching TV, most people probably spend more time eating with their partners than just about anything else. So what better way to divine someone's qualities? Does she gobble her food without actually tasting it? Don't expect a lot of foreplay. Does he steal the last piece of cake from the fridge, even though you were saving it? Keep your eye on the bank account. In love with a super-picky eater? Don't expect her to get excited about new hobbies.

Forget what they say about the eyes being windows on the soul. For a true taste of someone's essence, pay attention to the taste buds.