In the cult of coupledom that we know as Valentine’s Day, food is essential to the propaganda machine. Maxim and Mademoiselle may present it differently, but both offer the same basic strategy: get the object of your desire into the sack via the dinner table.
Now, as someone else’s better half, I am by no means immune to the blandishments of a lovingly cooked meal, and I can attest to the efficacy of food in general as a prop to set the scene, or even as the scene itself. (Side note: that food-fetish thing in the film “9 1/2 Weeks” is easy to re-enact on your own kitchen floor with ice cubes, sundae toppings, and a selection of well-chilled fruits. Also a mop.) But on the eve of this most heteronormative of holidays, I want to subvert the dominant paradigm by reminding my readers that cooking and sitting down to dinner with oneself is a valid sensual act, whether you do it every day or as an alternative to an otherwise partnered existence.
In some ways, solo cooking is the most satisfying cooking experience. It has gotten a bit of a bad rap with the advent of microwave meals and ramen noodles, but as a sensual practice, with real ingredients and time to spare, it has couple-cooking beat, and I’m sure Dr. Ruth and Dr. Jocelyn Elders would agree. For starters, cooking and eating alone means you get to do exactly what you want, how you want it. Miss Manners does not even acknowledge the existence of manners when there is nobody else around, so you can use your hands to coat the pasta with sauce and suck up your spaghetti from the edge of the plate, if that’s the way you like it.
Like anything that couples do together, cooking and food can become another issue around which participants have to hide their little irritations and disappointments so that no one gets any feelings hurt. Ever faked a yummy noise at your partner’s so-so cupcakes? You know what I’m talking about. He or she may ask for feedback, but for most people the question isn’t about the food, but about the love, and you can’t really say that the love needs more salt.
Inevitably, the kitchen becomes another arena for a battle of wills, especially in a couple who both care equally about the food. Now, some might argue that a little bit of tension is good for the relationship, diversity being the spice of life and all that. Some cooking schools even invite corporate groups to cooking classes for team-building exercises, so the next step—culinary couples counseling—isn’t so far-fetched. But I don’t need a shrink to know my own personal dynamic: Even with those I love, cooking brings out my not-so-inner professional dominatrix side. Stir that! Chop it small! No, smaller! (Want a little abuse as an appetizer? Come over to my place an hour before a dinner party and ask if you can help.)
When you’re cooking for yourself, you never have to worry about appearances. Cooking for someone else necessarily involves some self-consciousness, some sense of trying to impress. Admit it, when you’re cooking for a date, don’t you try to look more sophisticated and accomplished? Don’t you inevitably end up tossing the salad onto the floor, or forgetting to turn on the oven? And afterwards there’s always the embarrassing mess. The counters are littered with eggshells, the sink is full, and the cat is sitting there looking at you, which is about as erotic as a 4-year-old walking in and asking for a glass of water.
Oh, and then there’s the whole issue of distraction. The kitchen is full of potentially erotic places, from the running water in the sink, under which you can slowly rinse full, round tomatoes, to the long, hard-edged counters that suggest the vertical position to any couple dancing on the edge of lovemaking. Remember these areas for later, if you are determined to “inaugurate” your kitchen, but take my advice and wait at least until the food is in the oven. If your sweetie starts whispering sweet nothings in your ear or leaning half-naked against the counter while you’re actually working on a recipe, just see if you don’t end up adding an extra cup of salt or chopping off your finger.
The only real benefit that cooking together has over solo preparation is an extra pair of hands for food prep. Other than that, making food by yourself means you get to leave all the complicated interpersonal things out of the process. Maybe I’m a bit of a misanthrope, but I believe that cooking is full of moments that cannot be shared, that must be enjoyed in solitude to appreciate them fully. The musky scent of toasted cumin seed as you crush it in a pestle and lean down to smell the warm powder. The silky, firm warmth of bread dough under your persistent hands. The resistance of risotto, as you slowly press the kernels of rice into creamy compliance.
With anyone else in the kitchen, the question just hangs in the air: “Are you done yet?” By yourself, you can take your own sweet time.