In September 2018, I met a lovely young man who spoke only about films, books, and politics. It was a generic date for anyone living in Calcutta –beer, dim lights, dubious onlookers, and middle-aged men all around in one of the once famous, now dying bars.
One hour into the conversation, we had to order food. Chicken wings it was. It is a no-brainer order in your early meetings when you don’t really want to shift focus from the other person. Mind you, I am a reluctant eater in public. But the one on the opposite end of the table wasn’t. He continued discussing a documentary which he had finished watching before the date. I was already distracted by the detailed shot divisions he went on narrating, and so I watched him eat instead. He chewed upon every soft and hard portion of the chicken pieces and licked his fingers clean after ravaging one.
He looked at my plate and complained-"You haven’t eaten at all" and, with a swift movement and a half-smile, he picked up a half-eaten piece from my plate.
Of the romances I remember, I mostly remember what we ate. Sometimes it is the memory of the kitchen. An induction cook top, two whiskey glasses, a few mismatched melamine serving wares, a non-stick pan that promises better meals, a bottle of liv-52 as an antidote to drinking habit, a microwave with dried chillies stacked on top of it, and money planted on the window sill in a used port wine bottle-images from different kitchens that I have collaged in my memory.
On other occasions, I recall the owner of these kitchens cooking. One intently bent over the kitchen platform, perfecting the creases of a Malabar parotta, teaching me the method of rolling it. Another showed off how he learnt the precise measure of milk in prawn in coconut milk curry from his mother and that he could in fact cook the dish without using coconut milk at all. And the one who denied having anything fried because it might affect his workout later.
Food is romantic and equally romantic is the process involved in making it. The juiciness of cherry tomatoes, the saltiness of handcrafted cheese, and the smokiness of single malt whiskey – is everything that lets us immerse our senses in the moment. The routine involved in making hand-rolled pasta on a hot afternoon or the sensation of hands massaging herbs into the meat. We entwine food with seduction, romance, and allure. We cook, we marinate, we roast, we feed, we nurture.
Remember when Moshumi invited Gogol to her apartment on their second date for lunch? Lunch never quite happens as planned, but love does. Probably, food as an initiator of romance is essential.
Of feeding and sharing
The Kama Sutra suggests that one shouldn’t have a heavy meal before making love. If one does, the body utilizes all its energy for digestion. And the food to be had after sex must include mutton soup, chicken broth kebabs, grilled food, vegetables, fragrant rice, walnuts, mangoes, candied oranges, and other sweets.
But most importantly, the food needed to be fed by the lover. In the Arts of Seduction by Seema Anand translated for us- "The lover was to pick up each item of food, bite into it first and then offer it to her, telling her ‘this one is sweet, this one is salty’. He must offer her a variety of juices and sherbets, holding the cup to her lips with his hands.”
Feeding the lover is a common practice in love. It is a boundary crossed with hesitation on the first occasion. We tend to start with the sweeter foods in the act of feeding- a nibble here, a bite there, mouths half open in shyness-and only later move to the savouries as the relationship gets older. Food sharing is an equally common practice in intimate relationships and our traditional sub-continental love advice isn’t quite wrong about it. There is an unspoken comfort in picking the last piece from the partner’s plate when they are disinterested in finishing their portion.
Of eating together and eating the same
The importance given to the lover’s preference in food is what makes food entrenched with love. In Essays in Love by Allain de Botton, the narrator breaks into an argument with his lover, Chloe, on their first breakfast together because there was no strawberry jam. He is adamant about his demand for strawberry jam. Mind you, there were five other pots of jam available on the table. But it was his first breakfast with his new lover and it is difficult to plug out of our neurotic needs. The narrator wants to go buy strawberry jam, leaving the breakfast cold. Chloe is hurt by his childish impulsiveness.
This was where he went wrong. In love, we adjust. And that is what Chloe expected of him. But it is also him who notices first when Chloe stops buying his preferred brand of breakfast cereal, and that was apparently one of the first signs that the relationship was falling apart. My mother still cooks meals as per my preference vs. my father’s, weighing out a 1:1 ratio. When the food is extraordinarily good, we know she must have been happy today. We show our repulsion towards our partners through food when words can not say I can not stand you anymore. I despise you translates into a bit too much salt in the dinner. I was thinking of a separation translates into a partially cooked and untimely sautéed meal. You suddenly notice the differences in your food choices and the time of the day when you feel hungry suddenly starts to lack the synchronicity of years.
A colleague once told me that, in the early years of her marriage, she used to be excited about having dinner with her husband, but now she can’t bear the thought of waiting for him till eleven until he is back. These days she has her meal alone, first thing when she reaches home after work at eight instead.
I might have fallen in love that evening, back in 2018, had we not ordered chicken wings. Had I not curiously watched him eat? He had shown me what I might have noticed three months into living with this man.
As much as I am sure he didn’t know why we stopped seeing each other, there is an equal proportion of people who stop seeing each other eventually as their food choices mismatch on the first few dates. Food choices are highly political and speak out loud about our background and upbringing. Just like I was never brought up to eat brown rice, my culinary compatibility scale dislikes people who prefer to eat expensive, tasteless alternatives to the ever mellow and fragrant white rice.
In hindsight, we all know that the dirty dishes are never in sight when you begin a romantic journey. The stench of garlic two hours after chopping it, or the disposal of food waste, and all that is anti-romantic, overpowers our senses with the grappling downfall of love. We begin to love through food, subtly but steadily. We stop loving, through the cessation of food and the sharing of it.
Aphrodisiacs or not, food has a lot to say about how we love.
Jahnabi Mitra is a psychologist and an independent researcher, currently residing in Guwahati, Assam. She is currently working as a faculty member of the Department of Psychology at Royal Global University. When not teaching, she dabbles in photography and writing. Her photographs have been represented in Through Her Lens- Reframing the Domestic and The Space Without by Zubaan Books Pvt. Ltd. in collaboration with The Sasakawa Peace Research Foundation, 0 print magazine, Angkor Photo Festival and long-listed for Toto Funds the Arts. Her writings have been published by Kitaab International, Café Dissensus, Agents of Ishq, GPlus, LiveWire and Serendipity Arts Foundation.