For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to cook. And while I love cooking for myself, I especially love cooking for others. It’s one of the ways I feel most comfortable showing affection. Cooking brings out a nurturing side that, quite frankly, is just waiting to kick into high gear once I have a kid. Cooking makes me feel womanly and, by extension, cooking for a man makes me feel sexy. But cooking for men I’ve dated over the last few years, since I became single following the breakup of my engagement, hasn’t been as positive an experience as I would have hoped. In fact, it’s something that I now vow I won’t do until I feel a certain security with the man sitting across from me at the dinner table.
Though neither of my parents are what you would consider “foodies,” I believe I got my own love of food from them. Growing up, my parents didn’t make much money, so we very rarely ate out, one of them always cooked, and dinner was served at the dining table where they, my brother, and I discussed how our days had been. My parents each had their specialities. My mom made marinara sauce from scratch; we used to say that whichever of the four of us found the single bay leaf in her recipe on her plate got good luck. My dad made his own black beans in a crock pot every week and also taught me his mother’s recipe for what I call “poor man’s tacos” because potato is added to the meat to stretch it out. When I was 13, I got my parents an Italian cookbook for Christmas, but I was the one who started consulting its recipes and cooking for my family on special occasions. At one point, in my mid-twenties, I considered going to culinary school, but eventually resolved that cooking was a hobby that I never wanted to view as labor.
My first real, serious relationship was with the man who went on to become my fiance. A love for food was something we had in common and when we weren’t eating out, we were cooking elaborate meals at home. Pork tenderloin! Roast chicken! Filet mignon! Chicken cacciatore! When M. would cook, he would always put extra effort into plating, molding couscous into dome shapes with the aid of a cup and drizzling sauce like he’d seen the real chefs do on “Iron Chef.” The care he took with making me food was the first time since I was a kid that I was reminded that food could be an expression of love. On those occasions when he would cook for me, I felt extraordinarily adored.
When we broke up, I actually took a lot of solace in cooking for myself. I was living alone in the home that had been ours. I was cooking meals for one instead of two, and it was actually wonderfully empowering. I started writing my Random Single Gal Recipes then and my skills improved, especially because I was able to shape recipes exactly to my tastes. As I began dating again, I felt emboldened by my abilities in the kitchen and wanted to share my cooking with these men who, in my still reeling-from-heartbreak state, I wanted validation from. Validation that I was worthy of love. But while they each loved my cooking, it didn’t make them any closer to loving me.
For C. I made roasted Brussels sprouts and Hot Ass Chicken and while he cleaned his plate and talked about its yumminess for days, asking when I would cook again, it didn’t compel him to stick to plans we’d made or show an interest in growing our relationship. If anything, my having cooked for him seemed to bring out a laziness in the dating arena; instead of going to museums on the weekend, we were sitting on the couch, watching reruns of “The Office.” I couldn’t put it into words then, but my cooking for him was an expression of my willingness to be more open and intimate with him. And though I don’t think he realized he was doing it, cleaning his plate and asking for seconds, without offering anything in return (emotionally, I mean), felt like rejection. We stopped seeing each other soon after, but a few months later he IM’d me — asking for my chicken recipe.
One guy told me he thought it was hot that I cooked and then, in the same breath, said that his ex-wife never did. He compared me to her in both positive and negative ways far too often. While my cooking may have given me an edge over her, my fashion sense became a focal point of his subtle but cutting criticisms and I began to regret the day I dropped my guard and handed him a knife and fork.
The most recent man I cooked for was the poet I had a brief but intense relationship with this past spring. He was mildly autistic and one of the more noticeable signs was his relationship with food: he needed to smell everything before he could eat it and was extremely sensitive to texture and taste. It was interesting to be dating someone who did not share my love for food — he ate out of necessity, not enjoyment.
He once expressed a sadness that his issue would make it difficult for me to cook for him, something he knew I loved to do, but I vowed to find a way. One evening, I made a simple marinara sauce, asking him how much garlic, onion, etc. he liked. As I stirred and added more ingredients, I would give him tastes every few minutes and he would advise, based on his highly sensitive palate, what it needed more of. A couple hours and a ton of dried oregano later, the sauce was to his liking. The funny thing was that his sensitivity to taste meant that he would only eat a tiny bit of sauce with each bite of pasta — he would literally dip his fork in sauce before twirling it in bare spaghetti noodles and would be able to taste that sheer coating of flavor throughout the entire bite. But watching him eat, my heart literally almost exploded from my chest. I hadn’t said I love you, but I was communicating it loud and clear with each bite of food he took.
Two months later, we broke up. (You can read about that further detail in this essay.) I was heartbroken, but it was the final lesson in a series of similar experiences. I finally realized that I needed to change my approach with men, that I needed to move slower, to not be so quick to trust, to not force intimacy to move faster than it should. Because cooking for me is an intimate act, an expression of affection, that means I won’t be cooking for a man until I feel confident that our depth of feeling for the other is mutual. That we have the ingredients to be something truly worth the wait. Until then, I’m happy to cook for one.