“A MEAL IS A SHARED EXPERIENCE. FOR PROSPECTIVE COUPLES, IT’S ALSO A DANCE OF COURTSHIP AND A MEDIUM OF COMMUNICATION”
Though well known for coining the phrase, the late, great Julia Child can’t have been the first person to recognise that people who love to eat are always the best people. No sooner had I ‘discovered’ boys than I realised how and what they ate is one of the most reliable ways of sorting the wheat from the unnecessarily gluten-free. Slow eaters were out; ditto unethical consumers, caffeine eschewers and, I’m afraid to say, vegans. No disrespect to their principles, but I can’t love anyone who can’t share a bubbling vacherin mont d’Or with me on a winter’s evening. ‘In’ was, well, pretty much anyone with an appetite, an open mind and eating at Noma as a serious life goal.
Equally telling of course – for me, as much as for my date – is how I ate in front of them: whether I picked or tucked in with gusto. The first dinner date I ever went on I was 16 and, naturally, loathed every inch of myself. My date, meanwhile, was a rugby lad and a joker, popularly considered to be “a solid eight out of 10”. Inevitably, by the time I got to the restaurant, I felt sick with nerves. “Chicken caesar salad, please,” I whispered. “Without the, um, chicken. Or bread.”
“Is that even a thing?” my date asked, perplexed, ordering himself cheesy garlic bread, pizza and dough balls. Needless to say, a second date never occurred – and while I can’t be sure that my comprehensive rejection of sustenance was the reason, it probably didn’t help. “Just don’t order a salad. Ever,” my brothers advised me afterward – wisdom I have followed to this day.
Dating at university proved mostly foodless, the only edible measure of someone’s affection being cheesy chips and their capacity to share them. True love was giving someone first dibs on the hottest, cheesiest chip in the tray; true selfishness, to my mind, was smothering the entire pile in curry sauce. It was there, outside one-armed Jane’s chippy in Durham, that I started to develop my condiment theory: the idea that what a person added to their food could prove a reliable indicator of our compatibility. I wouldn’t go with curry sauce any more than I think chips do, but I would have mash with wholegrain mustard (preferably from Fitz Fine Foods) and Ginger Pig sausages.
Looking back over my disappointments in love, I see now that the warnings were written in the sauces: kisses thick with garlic mayo, coruscating obsessions with chilli and, worst of all, the man who couldn’t resist squeezing the jelly-ish mustard you get in those yellow bottles in insalubrious pubs directly onto his spoon.
Naturally, the headiest moments of my romantic life so far have had food at the heart of them. Pistachio gelato from an old Italian ice cream parlour on Eastbourne seafront; a BYO, blink-and-you’d-miss-it Thai place in Kentish town; a brown bag of pink, pert radishes from Elsey & Bent shared by the river. That any man could demonstrate an appreciation for something so small and honest as a fresh, seasonal radish blew my mind almost as much as the radish itself. Later, the same chap would make me gravadlax, fragrant with dill and blushing with beetroot: reader, I should have married him. Instead, I got cold feet and ended it a few weeks later for no good reason beyond his being a bit too perfect, and my own insecurity.
I spent the next five years trying to win him back. Gin, young goat’s cheese, ripe vine tomatoes, Bread Ahead focaccia, St Lucian chocolate: if you can find it in the Market, chances are I bought it in pursuit of his affection. But if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, his was on a diverted bus route. My caraway seed loaf fell on stony ground. My venison prosciutto was lost on him. “Once bitten, twice shy,” he explained, like he himself was an Alpine deer. That said, the experience did prove to me just how inextricably linked love is with the giving and receiving of food.
The more relationships I went through, the more I realised mealtimes were the fulcrum of my daily life – and by extension, any life I hoped to share with a partner. We need breakfast to plan our day, coffee to make it happen, tea and cake to chew our problems over, and wine to spin dreams out of. To not care deeply about those things, as has often been the case on dates, to me implied a blatant disregard for ‘us’ as a whole.
“It might be ‘just milk’ to you my friend,” I’d think furiously as an ex reached for the cheapest bottle in the supermarket, “but for me it’s commitment, trust, bovine welfare and the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture.” To care where and who your food comes from is to care not just for your wellbeing and that of those you love, it is to care for producers, traditional, ethical practices, and for the planet as a whole. The man who had eaten dog, whale and “wouldn’t say no to cat” was a write-off from the moment he said so, despite his good looks and intelligence. The man who waxed lyrical about the ecological benefits of biodynamic viticulture, however, had me at natural pest control.
This is not about pretension. It’s not even about luxury. Indeed, the worst date I ever had was in a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Venice. I couldn’t tell you what we ate, but I can recall in vivid detail every word my partner said as he coldly assassinated my character over successive plates of intricate food. As we left, I remember wondering that such a quality meal could prove so tasteless, purely on account of how I felt. No wonder one of the most common symptoms of sadness is lack of appetite.
A meal is above all else a shared experience, whether it’s a takeaway pizza or plates of pig cheeks and judión beans and pink fir potatoes with tarragon butter at Elliot’s. For prospective couples, it is also a dance of courtship – “Here, try some of this.” “Can I try yours?” “You have the last piece.” – and a medium of communication. To feed somebody, to buy and prepare food for them, is to express a universal and elemental urge.
You want them to live. You want them to live and to thrive because you love them, and feeding them is the best way to ensure this. You want to share your life with them in the same way you share a fresh loaf of sourdough and hot pumpkin soup ladled from a gleaming tureen. It didn’t work out with the pizza man, which on reflection I should have guessed – favourite condiment? salad cream – but I’m optimistic about the future.
However you feel about Valentine’s Day, do eat something delicious with your loved ones. And if you see any eligible bachelors lurking around the wholegrain mustards at Fitz Fine Foods, please send them my way.