by Eve Turow
“What’s for dinner tonight?” he wrote me.
It was the first question he asked. We’d met online and within two days had discussed our favorite restaurants in New York and engaged in a flirtatious exchange on the delicious versatility of cauliflower. Our romance blossomed over words like “lily root,” “pork belly,” and “fried oysters.”
I had arrived in New York City just six months earlier. After making my way through the dregs of post-college confusion, I was finally set on a new career path in a new city. But tethered to my evolving self-definition came my utter bewilderment in not only how to find, but also how to define, the right partner for me. As my friends paired off, I sat before a list of profiles, unsure who to click and who to pass on.
A newbie to the online dating world, I decided to play the field: an amuse-bouche tasting of New York singles. There was the investment banker– charming, witty, but ultimately too focused on the bottom line, the doctor with an intriguing past but persist awkward stare, and the ad guy, who, while attentive, was too saccharine to take seriously. I was growing pessimistic and tired of the nerve rattling anticipation of each date and the depleting disappointment thereafter.
Then, after months of scanning profiles and exchanging disheartening messages with men I never hoped to meet, I had quickly developed a charming gourmand banter with a guy who appeared, at least in his carefully selected profile photo, quite handsome. For our proposed first date, he promised to take me to a hidden restaurant on a small street, the most romantic suggestion I could think of.
Repeatedly clicking on his photos, I could see he was of medium build with a wide smile that made his eyes squint slightly on his round face. I could imagine myself with him.
Still, I decided to test this man before agreeing to meet in person. I picked one of his favorite restaurants, copied down the address and dined to discern what I could about him. The food was good. No, better than good, it was great. A piping bowl of Thai noodle soup seeped in palm sugar, soy sauce and coriander propelled me to the stalls lining the streets of Bangkok. I groaned in satisfaction as I placed my face deep in the bowl, steaming myself in the aromas of fish sauce and simmered chicken broth. I hoped no one was looking. How could they know that I was not just celebrating a find of authentic Thai cuisine in Manhattan, but a man with sagacious taste?
“This is something,” I told a friend.
“Have you met?” he questioned.
“Well, no, but it’s something,” I reassured him. In my persistent quest to define what kind of man I wanted to be with, I had uncovered a key connection: food.
He worked in the food industry and had left his finance job to complete a year in culinary school and join the gastronome world. I had learned the basics of home cooking not from a professor but Ina Garten’s perfectly manicured hands on Barefoot Contessa and Mark Bittman’s quirky Minimalist videos: how to chiffonade my herbs, roast a chicken, steam fish. I enjoy having friends over for dinner, feel no guilt spending an extra few dollars on truffle cheese, and often find myself marveling at the television as Anthony Bourdain splits open a steaming crab in Cambodia or the creative minds of Iron Chef America magically transform a fish into slippery noodles.
As it seems to be for most 25 year olds, food is only growing in importance. I have heard theories that food is my generation’s indie rock; while it was once cool to follow the Pixies or Nirvana, it’s now hip to eat Korean tacos out of a curbside truck and pickle your own (organic) veggies (such as beets, ramps and carrots, which, tip: can double as home decor). But, to me, food is more than a fad; perhaps I will stop Instagramming photos of my lunch as time progresses but I can’t help feeling food itself will maintain its position on the high-standing podium. As I spend my days typing in front of a computer from the moment I rise to when the sun tucks itself beneath the horizon, food has become a distinct means to connect and to integrate new sensations into a life that is otherwise occupied with clicks, tags and pokes. There’s nothing I look forward to more than sitting at dinner with friends, the smell of burgers filling the air and juice running down my chin as I bite into a perfectly medium-rare patty.
With all this in mind, I decided to give Mr. Culinary a shot. On a cool winter evening, I met him at a bar on the Lower East Side. Before I left my apartment I downed a glass of wine to still my nerves, and as the moment to meet grew closer, I convinced myself I had over-rated this yet mysterious man. But he greeted me with a smile even brighter and more endearing in person. Over four glasses of Malbec, flatbread with butternut squash, and shrimp and grits, I got to know Mr. Culinary. He ordered my wine and watched for when my glass neared empty, asked if I wanted the last bite on the plate and later, how soon he could see me again.
For our second date he sent me five options for brunch, listing each restaurant’s specialty dish. We wandered his neighborhood and he pointed out his favorite cheese shop and another restaurant we surely had to try for brunch another time. In the days that followed, we texted one another photos of our meals apart: half-conquered pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s deli, a tower of seafood at Balthazar, the various stages of a Christmas seafood pasta he was preparing for his family, my depressing bowl of stir-fry eaten on my lonely Jewish singleton couch. He gave me a liter of extra virgin olive oil for Christmas that he assured me was pressed in the hillsides of Italy just that week. He understands me, I thought.
And three weeks in, I felt the stirring sultry bloom fading.
“I don’t know if he can talk about anything other than food,” I confessed to my older brother.
“Have you asked him non-food-related questions?” he inquired with a sibling’s all-knowing tone.
The next day, sitting across from my dark haired, hazel-eyed date in the Meatball Shop in Williamsburg, I tested out my brother’s advice. As the conversation paused and puttered between our bites of meatballs atop salad and spaghetti, I pushed the conversation beyond our usual domain. Sure enough my online epicurean was well versed in politics, books, TV. But as he talked about the health care bill and Obama, subjects I would generally gladly converse about, my shoulders remained tense, feet tucked beneath my chair. The new topics didn’t stimulate the conversation the way chicken liver terrine and burrata had in weeks past.
A few days later Mr. Culinary suggested cooking dinner at his apartment: carbonara and roasted brussels sprouts. We traded stories about our days as he blended the honeybee yellow egg yolks into the silky cream and I tossed the sprouts, oil coating my hands, smiling and laughing with eagerness for the delectable meal. At points, he would gaze over, examining me, I thought, and I would quickly look away.
After the meal, Mr. Culinary pulled me toward him, his back against the granite kitchen counter top. His hands felt misplaced on my hips. I didn’t want to lean forward for a kiss. I could feel perspiration gather on my palms and as I looked into his eyes, my stomach began to churn.
“I have to go,” I said quickly. His hands dropped as his head tilted in confusion.
I picked up my things and left. Walking into the subway station, I couldn’t decide if my stomach flips were from the rich bacon and Parmesan carbonara or the remaining possibilities of the evening.
As I sat at home wondering how to explain my waning interest, an email arrived in my inbox: “I have really enjoyed getting to know you over the past few weeks,” he wrote. “We have so many interests in common but I know that it’s more about the intangibles when it comes to chemistry in a relationship.” And with that he clarified my own discomforts: it was the food talk that turned me on, not the man saying it.
Perhaps that was why I had been content sending and receiving twenty messages a day about cheese platters or cured meat tastings. It was only natural that I found back and forth messaging about meals of “short ribs with red wine Cab Franc from North Folk” exciting; providing details of our gastronomic ventures aroused the senses even from afar. And I was thrilled to find a man who could match my interests, who had wall art listing the ingredients in a Twinkie, who could teach me about the top producers of mascarpone or provide insight on the best homemade pasta in the city. The problem was, that was where the seduction ended.
How, I wondered, had I gotten to a place where I found food sexy enough to at least temporarily substitute for, well, sex? As much as I love the sensations of food and the intimacy of sharing a meal, no amount of food-talk can replace the other ingredients to romantic success. When did my liberal arts psychology mind turn to spice blends and Chez Panisse? And after all, I should have known sooner. He would prefer Momofuku’s $140 duck dinner, me: Vanessa’s Dumplings. Perhaps the titillation and excitement of it all blinded me to the most obvious realities, or maybe, in my discouraging and frustrating search for a compatible partner, a little sizzling, sautéing and simmering was just what I needed for a few weeks time.
Eve Turow is Deputy Editor of The Inquisitive Eater. She is completing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at The New School and currently works as Editorial & Executive Assistant to Mark Bittman. Her work has appeared in several publications including NPR’s “Kitchen Window,” The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic. You can read more about Eve at eveturow.com.