While I was visiting my family in Los Angeles over the winter holidays, we enjoyed a number of fabulous meals together. These meals ranged from home-cooked simplicity to gourmet restaurant affairs that lasted four hours.
During an instance of the latter–a deliciously decadent meal at Providence–I began reflecting on how the meals we eat with our families influence how we fall in love and how we express our love.
Home is where we learn what a meal consists of: is it mac ‘n’ cheese or a five-course meal? Pizza or grilled salmon with a spinach salad? The foods we eat at home reveal our ethnicity, class, religion, nationality, region, and other important elements of our identities.
Home-cooked foods might be the expression of an immigrant family’s not-yet-assimilated identity, or the communication of a family’s values, whether working-class or upper-class. Through home-cooked meals, we learn what it is to feel cared for, and we learn about comfort foods, the foods that make us feel especially loved. There’s a good chance that the foods you crave as an adult when having a bad day are similar to the foods you got as a treat when you were a kid: ice cream or jello when you were sick, perhaps, or cookies after school.
The expectations and habits we learn at the dinner table influence us for the rest of our lives, shaping our social and romantic interactions with others. I learned that my mom showed her love by cooking nutritious food for us, so I express my nurturing streak by feeding my friends and lovers. I learned that getting to dine out at nice restaurants is a special thing for the family to do together, so I like to go out to eat to mark special occasions, or to spend time with people I care about deeply.
Growing up with foodie parents in L.A. (my mom worked at a French restaurant for a while, and my parents once brought me and my sister on a pilgrimage to the French Laundry) has influenced how my food choices and relationships interact. My idea of “throwing together” dinner usually involves a homemade vinaigrette for a salad of local organic greens, a meat or veggie main dish concocted from fresh ingredients, a side dish (usually a whole grain or legume), wine, and some kind of dessert, since I also love to bake. This is “normal” to me. This is what I grew up with; it’s how I show that I care for someone. And if someone wines and dines me in that style, I feel special and happy because it makes me remember fondly the associations I have from home.
Other people have different associations, obviously. They cherish different foods–more or less gourmet or healthy than my family’s foods–or they have different relationships with their memories, less positive or more distant, perhaps. Someone’s “nice dinner out” might be another person’s “let’s just get take-out tonight.”
I relate to people through food, so I make it a priority to find out what people’s food preferences are, and I try to figure out how we can connect over a meal. Even if you’re not a cook, trying to surprise a partner or friend with an unexpected edible treat can be a real delight. Because so many of our first sensory associations are with food, food strikes a visceral reaction in most people. It’s one reason that chocolates are such a popular gift on Valentine’s Day, and so many wedding rituals are tied up with food: the cake, the champagne toast, and so on. Holidays and rites of passage are celebrated with food on the broadest cultural scales, but individuals and small groups also create meaningful food rituals. Ask any American family what they eat for Thanksgiving and you’ll find some common elements, but also some variations based on who that family is and where they came from.
Similarly, people in love develop food rituals, ranging from date night dinners to anniversary celebration meals. If somebody proposes, is it over a fancy dinner? Or at a road trip dive after a shared adventure? Does someone in the couple recount the story of their first date, their first meal together, or the first time So-and-so tried to make a fancy dessert and it was a disaster?
The old proverb “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is true for most people regardless of gender, I would argue. The eating habits we learn young tend to stick with us throughout life unless we make a conscious effort to change them. We are social animals, and both eating and loving are learned behaviors. Reflecting on both your eating patterns and how you dine with loved ones might be rewarding, stirring up an appetite for food, romance, or both!