For a long time, this was a tenet to which I adhered stringently. Not that any man besides one had ever made me breakfast. He had been the only one who mattered. He had made me breakfast once, on a frosty November morning two years previous, a morning now smudged with the warmth of memory like a dust-flecked camera lens.
There was french toast. And bacon – the thick-cut kind, the kind into which you tear with an almost spiritual abandon. And there was coffee – lots and lots of coffee, with velvety milk from a cold glass jug.
I had fallen for him before even realizing the danger, before understanding how potently food can flavor emotion, how it can heighten the heat of the moment or fold you into a false sense of comfort. How your heart can race simply at the tilt of an elbow poised over a pot of water as you watch salt scatter into the liquid below.
How you will remember exactly what he made for you two years after the fact, and taste it in the back of your throat like you just swallowed a bite.
I blamed it on that single breakfast, of course, and would joke with my friends that were it not for that morning, I would have opened myself up to many more men during my time at school. There were others, of course, in the meantime. The boy who turned out to be just that, the swaggering egotist who led me across the Brooklyn Bridge only to relate the story of the love that got away, the former flame who reignited briefly for one moment in a bar on a December evening I have since often tried to forget. But they did not – they could not – measure up. In the meantime I came to realize that even more important than this man to me was the urgent feeling I recognized which told me I must not lose myself in this, that I must dig in my heels and fashion for myself an existence that made sense even while my romantic life, in such a form as it had taken, became more of a puzzle.
I refused to make room for that poisonous combination of loneliness and melancholy that can hollow you if you let it, can gnaw at you in that soul-space deep in the pit of your stomach until you seek something to fill it, something less than what you were hoping. I would be filled other ways, I decided.
And so I turned to my cooking, to the melodies filling the kitchen I have called home for the past two and a half years. To the thwack of a knife slicing on hard wood, the hiss of vegetables tossed with abandon into a saute pan, the laughter of friends who came over to share meals with me, bottles of wine in hand, the gurgle of the drain as it released at the end of the evening. I read the work of food writers with abandon, finding myself in the words of luminaries like MFK Fisher, who wrote that “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” Through this, I came to recognize the deep-seated truth that I reveal more about myself through my cooking than anything else. I can publish volumes about myself here, and yet you will know me more through the way I craft simple grilled cheese sandwich, heavy with tart apples and sharp cheddar and caramelized onions, shared over a counter space with a crisp glass of white wine.
I cook for those for whom the well of feeling runs deep.
About a year ago, I found myself on the train with a woman who is my boss in multiple capacities but whom I consider to be a particularly close mentor of mine. She happened to ask me if there was anyone in my life, and I scoffed lightly. But I had lately been scrolling through a particular social network when I had found myself distracted by the profile of a friend who I had met nearly a year ago at school, a friend who worked with me at the theater on campus occasionally. He was a chef, and thus his life was utterly fascinating to me, an inverse and a parallel to my own. He pursued professionally a reality that I had only just adopted. He had turned up at work a week before for an event, told me he might be headed to California to do a trail at the French Laundry.
Each time he was at the theater, we spoke for chunks of time that seemed to pass in the space of a breath. But he was not mine to consider, at the time. I was in the throes of grappling with my own romantic life, and he with his. Life is infinitely more complicated than we bargain for.
And yet, I turned to Annie next to me and told her, “You know, there’s this guy. Sam. He works at Franny’s. He’s in a relationship but gawd, I really feel like if he were ever single, it would work between us.”
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them, and with them the acknowledgment that I had spied a chink in the isolated crawlspace of pent-up emotion in which I had found myself buried. But I did not give them much thought, even as Annie nudged me playfully and told me, “Make it happen, Costa!” before hopping off the train at 125th Street.
When he messaged me over a year later about the prospect of grabbing drinks and catching up, I had almost forgotten that particular exchange.
At the end of this past summer I sat in the car with the man I had dated for three years in high school, who turned to me imploringly, knuckles wrapped tensely around the leather of the steering wheel, and asked why we couldn’t just go back and do it all over again. Reverse the time and space between us, the years of sporadic contact and casual hookups bookended by my refusal to allow him to press for anything more than that. I paused, fingers on the door handle, before telling him that we couldn’t make each other happy anymore. That the happiness I had come to know was of a much different sort than when we were together.
The truth was actually this: That we had just had dinner together, and the food was impeccable, but I had finished my meal feeling more empty than when we started. He had barely been able to keep his eyes from the TV screen projecting the baseball game above the bar. I had barely been able to keep my feet bolted to the floor.
The meal had meant nothing to me, had only widened rifts I had long seen forming.
I refuse to live a life where food is a source of disconnect. And with that I knew that I could not continue what I finally realized was nothing more than a charade.
Chaucer wrote in The Franklin’s Tale that,
“Love will not be constrain’d by mastery.
When mast’ry comes, the god of love anon
Beateth his wings, and, farewell, he is gone.
Love is a thing as any spirit free.”
For awhile, now, I have considered this quote as foundational to me as any words of Fisher’s, as any meal I’ve created. You simply cannot choose the ones for whom you fall. But you can try to make sense of what you are feeling, and for me, this is what food – however it is shared, through whatever means you choose – has allowed me to do. And so it feels impossibly natural to me that this next chapter has unfolded through a series of shared meals, those we have cooked together and those we have shared across the space of a small table in restaurants speckled throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, my ankle pressed against his, knees knocking just-so. There has been little pressure to put into words feelings that have instead revealed themselves through food.
In the span of time since we reconnected, life has only become more complicated. There are some days when I wake up and it feels as if I do not take a breath until my head is on the pillow that evening. He has become part of the fabric of that complication; he makes it a little less overwhelming in a way that I have tried to communicate to him but for which I do not have the words. How do you explain to someone how powerful it is to have them rewrite the history of the past two years with a happy ending? How do you convey to them that they do not fill a space for you, but have proven that they are someone for whom it has become worth making room?
You don’t. I can’t. And so I have turned to food once again, to meals shared on mornings when I bounce back from the gym bubbling with energy, or evenings when I arrive with two bottles of wine in hand, remarking, “I don’t know why I always find it necessary to buy two. Do we ever drink two when we make dinner?”
The very fact that we may have an established pattern thrills me to pieces.
He asked me the other day, on a morning when I found myself standing over a skillet of eggs just beginning to come together in a cloudlike scramble, why I insisted on making breakfast.
I have learned, in the span of time that has passed since that fated breakfast two years ago, that it was not, in fact, so much about the meal itself as it was about the man who stood with a spatula in hand, intentions unclear to me but which I fashioned for myself in the months that followed. That he cooked for me was an act laden with meaning, and it wouldn’t have mattered if it were breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Food enabled me to decipher this man, but he did not want to be deciphered. He was not mine to parse.
I cook for Sam because I can think of no clearer way to show him how I feel. It is my way of conveying that I can be unraveled through something as honest as an egg yolk whisked lightly with a little bit of milk and folded in with some cheese when the time is right. We are new enough that this all sounds remarkably trite, but I don’t expect it to feel any less truthful in the future. And Lord knows, I do not know where the future might take us, but if we can continue finding a bit of solid ground in the kitchen, we will probably do just fine.
But that morning, I faced him, head cocked slightly and told him simply, “Because I want to.”