Why Food Is My Only Relationship Deal-Breaker

Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
When I think about the future, any boyfriend or husband is a question mark. I imagine settling down some day, but I don’t daydream about a type of guy. Instead, I imagine my wedding with a blurry face groom, kind of like the perps on Cops. I can easily see any number of men being suitable partners, which might be exactly the kind of dumb optimism it takes to be single and looking in the 21st century. I really only have one deal-breaker: food.
Though my dating calendar is rarely full, I’ve still managed a couple dozen first dates, meet-cutes, and dance floor make-outs. And more than once, I have felt a tentative first spark snuffed out over food. There was the time an older man, trying to impress my 22-year-old self at dinner, ordered a glass of Scotch…and a side of fried calamari. Or the guy who told me, after a night of sharing whiskey and wisecracks, that his favorite restaurant was a place he couldn’t even remember the name of. I’ve had friends tell me in hushed tones, over spears of octopus or bowls of beef tongue, that their boyfriends would never eat this. “He’d just eat spaghetti and meatballs for dinner every night if he could,” they whispered, as I marveled at their patience.
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I’m well aware this makes me sound like an insufferable foodie. Which is only partially the case. Sure, I’ve waited in my fair share of long lines for silly foods, but I don’t restrict my diet to the Instagrammable or artisanal. I’m just as likely to fork over 99 cents for a dollar slice as I am to camp out by the currently-most-hyped pie in Brooklyn. Besides, my love of Papa John’s has become one of my trademark office charms.
And while that has not stopped people from calling me a food snob in the past — apparently if you roll your eyes and say, “There’s no such thing as a ‘crustless quiche,’ it’s just called a frittata,” you’re asking for it — my desire to connect over a good dinner or craft beers goes much deeper than just wanting to keep up with the culinary Joneses.
Growing up, my weekends followed a predictable pattern that ebbed and flowed around the finding, cooking, and serving of food. On Saturdays, my dad took my sister and me with him to the grocery store to buy dinner supplies. Sometimes, it would just be for the four of us, other times we’d include grandparents, cousins, godparents, or family friends — often, all of them at once.

What my parents are really saying by opening their house to every cousin, aunt, and family friend in the tristate area is, “I love you,” over and over again.

“Do you think 15 lamb chops are enough for twelve people?” my dad would ask me, holding up a tray full of frozen meat, vacuum-sealed and still as tough as hockey pucks. Inevitably, he thawed or bought extra meat, in case someone wanted rack of lamb, too.
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My mother, meanwhile, handled the sides. We always had a shelf full of cookbooks, but I mostly remember my mom cooking from loose-leaf paper that otherwise spent its time as bookmarks in The Joy Of Cooking. Food-stained and wrinkled, a hand-written recipe for an aunt’s coleslaw, or a stained internet print-out for beans and rice were consulted. While we were on our on our way to the grocery store, and often (always) after leaving, mom called with addendums: “Can you get more mushrooms?” “Grab some ciabatta?” And always, “I think we’re running low on milk.”
Back at home the nervous energy continued to build. Tables were set, vegetables were chopped, Dad hemmed and hawed about the right time to light the grill. Once guests arrived, under the hugs and “nice you see you’s” was a similar freaked-out energy you might feel before skydiving or taking a final exam.
Then, it was time. We all sat down, and finally, we relaxed. Everyone loaded their plates up, and it turned out, there was plenty of everything. More than enough.
As a child, I was an audience member to the entire pageant. As an adult, visiting my parents, I get a small, supporting role. If it is Christmas, I will go to the supermarket every day that I’m home. There is always something missing, and something we need more of. I’ll accommodate my mother’s incredibly specific instructions for slicing potatoes when I help prep. Because now, I, too, feel the need to put into action the helpless, adoring feeling I get in my chest when I look at the people sitting around the table.
The entire day is made up of talking — small arguments, debates, requests, grocery lists whispered out loud. But we can never really put into words the brunt, inexpressible force of our love. That is what the food is for. That’s why there can never be too much of it. What my parents are really saying by opening their house to every cousin, aunt, and family friend in the tristate area is, “I love you,” over and over again.
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The reality of my inheritance didn’t sink in until I was in college and called my father to tell him about a party I was throwing. “I just ran out and got a few more beers, because you just never know,” I told him, even as the kitchen fridge was bursting forth with cans of Bud Lite.
“You just never know,” he agreed.
While I may be able to picture a future with just about anyone, I can’t imagine a future where food isn’t central to our daily lives. It’s how my family taught me to say “I love you.” I’m not sure I know how to say it any other way.
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