By Valerie Andrews
In ancient Egypt, a couple had a trial marriage to determine whether they were well-suited. Called “a year of eating,” this test was based on a simple premise: Over the years, a man and woman spend more time at the table than they do at any other shared activity. If at the end of this time, their tastes proved too dissimilar,and the conversation wanting, the marriage could be dissolved. When I first came across this concept in a book by James and Kay Salter (A Food Lover’s Book of Days), I wondered, Is culinary compatibility a reliable measure of long-term happiness? The Egyptians had invented eye make-up, written language, the calendar, and brain surgery—maybe they were onto something. So I looked back at my main relationships, considering how “the year of eating” might apply.
My first beau, Peter, was a natural cook who made beef brasciole and lasagna from scratch, and introduced me to the joys of Italian cooking. We drew upon his family recipes to entertain our professors at NYU on a fold-out wicker table in my Greenwich Village studio. In the process, we developed a little two-step we called the kitchen dance. I’d tilt away from the chopping block as Peter bent down to retrieve a pot from a lower shelf, and then scuttle sideways so he could stir pasta on the stove. We worked seamlessly in a small space, anticipating one another’s moves.
This two-step was the basis for everything we did together—making love, making movies, jamming on the piano and the saxophone. Our year of eating was wonderfully successful, and we might have had a long-term marriage had we not begun the feast too soon. Having gone straight from his mother’s kitchen to mine, Peter longed for a taste of independence, so we agreed that for the year before our wedding he would rent an apartment of his own.
A month after he moved into his new place on West 13th Street, an attractive neighbor dropped by to borrow a cup of sugar. Peter also gave her an espresso and dollop of his Tiramisu. After sampling them, she decided this man was going to be the father of her children. When she latched on to Peter for good, I sat in my pajamas and cried for a week, as I worked my way through the last of his velvety fettuccine. For years, I longed to be this cared for and cosseted—to feel love handed to me at the end of a spoon.
After college, I married Paul, a publishing executive whose star was on the rise. Our spacious apartment had all the right accessories for business entertaining: a formal rosewood dining table, Wedgwood plates, antique silver, and a stunning view of the Hudson River. This was the era of the “power dinner.” Determined to make a good impression, I turned to Julia Child, tackling such time-consuming recipes as Coq au Vin and Cassoulet until cooking became as demanding as my day job at a weekly newsmagazine.
Among our guests were the “Mad Men,” ad execs who usually downed a couple martinis before starting on the Burgundy. By the main course, their taste buds had been obliterated and I despaired as they droned on about the next campaign for Crest or Charmin while paying scant attention to their wives. To shake things up, I traded my splattered copy of The Joy of Cooking for the Myra Breckinridge Cookbook, a collection of bawdy recipes put together by the sculptor Beverly Pepper who was feeding hungry artists on the fly. Hearty and well-spiced, these dishes roused my guests from their alcoholic stupor. “What do you call this?” asked the man to my right, as he lifted a forkful of chorizo to his mouth.
“Gang Bang Paella,” I said, explaining that the recipe was named after a memorable scene in an X-rated movie. That night, two couples grabbed their coats and left in a hurry, doubtless assuming that dinner was a prelude to an orgy. That had been the furthest thing from my mind. For me, this hearty down-home meal was a feminist manifesto. Thanks to Myra Breckinridge, I would no longer slave over five-course dinners for the Drunken Male Pontificator. After this year of eating, I bid a fond farewell to the rosewood table and packed up the paella pot.
When I moved to San Francisco, I fell in love with a debonaire (and much older) film director who, in his heyday, had worked with Ingrid Bergman, Joanne Woodward and Henry Fonda. But Fielder was now chopping onions and rolling pasta at Chez Panisse. What was the attraction? Cooking, he said, was fast, dangerous, and full of risk—just like live TV which he’d pioneered in the 1950s. Once, a knife thrower had failed to show up at NBC studios, so Fielder tossed a cleaver at his leading lady, missing her nose by half an inch. When I first knew him, he chopped so fast and furiously that his knife flew from his hands, and out the open window, narrowly missing two neighbors out for an evening stroll. For Fielder, cooking was a high-risk sport.
After a dinner party, Fielder’s kitchen resembled a crime scene: The oven looked like the site of a deadly explosion. The walls were splattered with flesh-colored mousse. Circles of dried blood lined the floor by the cutting block. Yet his presentation was flawless. Guests stood up and applauded as Fielder delivered his poached salmon wrapped in Savoy cabbage or Mocha Squares Petrossian on a silver tray. The dining room was a mini-stage set, with elegant Louis Quatorze chairs, gilt sconces, and walls painted the same soft pink as the restaurant at the London Ritz.
Being Fielder’s sous chef wasn’t easy (I felt like I was stuck in a bad fairy tale when he directed me to “grate those carrots the consistency of sand!”) but I absorbed a lot just by watching him work. Soon I began to improvise on the nights we dined alone. Raiding the refrigerator for leftovers, I’d come up with a meal that might have been on the menu at some trendy restaurant.
Sea bass covered in a cloud of mango soufflé. Peruvian potatoes with a halo of amber roe. Asparagus stalks braised in butter and tossed like pickup sticks.
“You’re fearless,” Fielder said, giving me his highest compliment. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up!” From him, I learned how to take a risk, in the kitchen, and in life. “Success,” said my long-time lover and culinary mentor, “is about learning how to fly without a net.”
Fielder was my muse and Kitchen God, and our year of eating earned a four-star rating. Yet it was hard keeping up with his culinary productions while running a non-profit and teaching film four nights week. We called off our engagement but remained devoted friends. A few years later, when he died of heart failure, I grieved the only way that I knew how—-by working my way through all his favorite recipes.
In cooking, we learn how to balance the bitter and the sweet. But when it comes to relationships, that balance can be more difficult to achieve. In mid-life, I married Darcy who earned this nickname for his dark good looks, his passion for Jane Austen, and his English tweeds. Our first date was at a romantic restaurant in Sonoma wine country. That night Darcy’s conversation was the feast: I don’t recall a thing I ate, but I learned a good deal about Greek drama, Shakespeare folios, and Darcy’s adventures in the rare book trade. The next week, he brought me a book of Elizabethan love songs and I responded with a full seduction dinner. After consuming every bite, Darcy curled up on my couch and purred like a contented cat.
Only later did I learn about his finicky digestion. In our first “year of eating,” Darcy deleted many items from the menu. First, there would be no more shellfish, then no milk, cream, or cheese (adieu, Coquilles Saint Jacques). Then I was asked to eliminate all condiments and cruciferous vegetables (goodbye to wok-braised cauliflower with hot mustard). This was followed by another decree: No more bulbs of any kind (miso without scallions, sauces without shallots), no salmon and no lobster—until our diet consisted of perfectly dismal English food. Forget Gordon Ramsay; think 19th-century recipes for kedgeree and boiled beef. While I was preparing dishes that might have tempted Uriah Heep, all the romance left my kitchen. How I longed for the old culinary two-step and a stolen kiss between the counter and the stove!
It wasn’t Darcy’s fault—he was genuinely suffering. His food allergies could leave him mildly dyspeptic or curled up in a ball for hours. But all this paring down had a sad, and unexpected, side-effect. Over time, our separate diets led to separate beds. This
year of eating” stretched into ten, and by the end of it, we were both emotionally starving.
When we finally parted ways, I started cooking with a vengeance, working my way through back issues of Gourmet that I’d stashed away in the back of the closet like a cache of culinary porn. But re-entry wasn’t as smooth as I’d hoped. When I’d married Darcy, I’d given up my favorite dishes like a monk renouncing worldly pleasures. It would take several years to re-awaken my desires for romance and for food.
In The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher writes about these cycles of deprivation and abundance at the dinner table and in our intimate relationships. “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others,” she says, “So it happens that, when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.”
After all these “years of eating,” I believe the Egyptians got it right: We divine a good deal about compatibility from the meals we share—and the lengthy process of learning how to honor one another’s appetites. And we also understand the many ways we move from feast to famine in matters of the heart.
Dear Reader, at long last, I have been blessed with yet another “year of eating.” My new companion is an omnivore in the kitchen and the bedroom. We have come together at an age when the operative word is savor—and the goal, as Derek Walcott put it, is to “feast on your life.” For the last four years, sitting down to a well-appointed table has been a treasured ritual and a way of coming home.
Valerie Andrews is the founder and chief storyteller of Reinventing Home.