Now, I'll be the first to admit that I can be a bit obsessive about the relative importance of food as symbol but, in recent cases of new acquaintances, I don't think I'm overstating the potential impact of our food differences. One person seemed promising enough: an enthusiastic talker with a laugh that knocks him back in his chair. The glitch occurred on our second or third coffee date, when we agreed to split a piece of cake. I extended my as yet uneaten-from fork toward the plate, and he flinched back as if I were leaning over to lick the cake clean of all its frosting. While he ran off to get another plate, I was left to wonder: What paranoias, what heartbreaks must dwell in the soul of a man who is emotionally unable to share his food from one plate? (One could also wonder the same thing about a woman who is hard-pressed to keep her fork out of other people's plates, but I digress.)
Of course, food differences do not doom a relationship. Not necessarily. With other friends I've managed to survive food allergies, intolerance of the smell of chicken, sudden-onset veganism, and inexplicable and unalterable aversions to Thai food.
To be fair, my friends and loved ones have also had to put up with my soup experiments, a short-lived but dramatic foray into cheese-free living, and an unabashed, even single-minded, pursuit of the perfectly roasted duck skin.
But what, you might ask, is the problem here? It's just food, and there is enough room in the world to accommodate our collective quirks. There are plenty of restaurants that don't serve Thai food. For all of my invasive sampling practices, my dining companions and I do keep separate plates (they are free to defend their own, and I for one can take a hint). Hell, if I can't figure out ways to eat together with friends and at the same time avoid gluten or animal products, then I'm not worthy of being called a foodie. The bigger question is, of all the time we spend with our friends and lovers, how much of that time is spent around food, anyway?
Go on. Add it up. It's a very enlightening question. The answer for me: lots of it, what with coffee dates, potlucks, dinner parties, picnics and movie popcorn (Oh, Lord, spare me another endless butter-vs.-none-of-that-grease argument). Top it all off with dinner at home (take-out or otherwise), happy-hour drinks, the occasional restaurant meal and lazy in-bed desserts, and I am easily looking at 80 percent of my interactions with others happening in the presence of food and/or drink.
The consumption of food, rather than being a meaningless little ripple on the edge of social encounters, is more like a quiet but constant ocean of information, about who we are, what we eat and how we negotiate it. Even when we don't notice, we're still soaking in it.
I envy those for whom this information is subliminal, if not to say seemingly irrelevant. I think about it too much, an occupational hazard, perhaps. And lately I've been doing my best to enjoy food for what it is. Less abstraction, more in-the-moment, here-it-is-in-my-mouth sensual delight.
Of course, turning off the analysis ain't like flipping a switch. I still felt a twinge of apprehension when I learned of another new friend's familiarity with the frozen-food aisle. I also discovered that he doesn't trust organic, and in fact would prefer an ultra-pasteurized orange-flavor facsimile over hand-squeezed organic juice, unless I squeezed it for him, and presumably could provide my own third-party certification that the fruit hadn't been rolled in bio-sludge beforehand.
This discovery triggered my radar, and force of habit led me to check out his kitchen on recent visits for supplementary data. The results so far have been seemingly contradictory. He keeps frozen dinners on hand and a full-tang Henckels knife in the drawer. He uses garlic powder in his curries, along with his own blend of garam masala. The cookbook selection is limited and in a remote location relative to his countertop, but the books therein are reassuringly spotted and warped with use.
The only thing clear in this jumble of impressions is that it's too soon to tell a damn thing. So rather than obsess about where my friend's psycho-emotional scars might be hiding, I'm making myself focus instead on the taste of this new relationship, which makes for much more enjoyable meditation. Why, just one evening at his place yielded a feast of flavors:
Tap water, cloudy and metallic. Perfumed mouthfuls of basmati rice, an object of peculiarly regional pride, cooked with a casual attention that was beautiful to see. Chicken curry, the onion sautéed into soft oblivion, green chilies added at the last, instead of at first, as I would have done. Marrow, a surprising and luxurious experience that came after a lesson of scraping, squeezing and sucking at the velvet heart of bones. And at the end of it all, mango ice cream, melting and mindless of the fact that we shared the same spoon. ©