“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”
— François de La Rochefoucauld
A few months ago I was in Cape Town with a Slovenian girl I adored, and we were talking about old relationships over sushi. The one she missed the most, she confided, had been more of a mutual boredom arrangement. He was fresh out of a relationship, and she was looking for something to distract her from family drama.
“So I said to him one day, I’m lovely, you’re lovely. Wanna get pancakes?”
“That’s basically an arranged marriage,” I laughed.
In countries where arranged marriages are still common, both parties negotiate what they will bring to the (figurative) table. I told her I admired how specific, and literal, their relationship had been.
“We didn’t even have sex, just breakfast!”
“Even more like a marriage.”
A few years ago I was meeting with my friend J to brainstorm a book project over coffee. He and I were wrapping up when mutual friends of ours, a married couple, came in. We decided to share a meal, and I watched something I’ll never forget unfold at the table.
While J and I deliberated between the restaurant’s famous pancakes and the healthier options on the menu, I heard B and H, the married couple sitting across from us, tag-team their order.
“Do you want to get the pancakes and I’ll get the Cobb?” B said.
H nodded and put their menus off to the side.
Meanwhile, J and I each ordered pancakes, because, well, fuck it.
When the food arrived, something became crystal clear to me. Those of us who’d been competing in the individual event had not only overshot the mark portion-wise, we’d both denied ourselves something we wanted. I didn’t say anything, because we were in the middle of an unrelated discussion, but I observed as my friends ate, and a theory was born.
The server put the salad in front of B and the pancakes in front of H. He cut his pancakes in half and made a half-moon stack. B tossed her Cobb and scooped some of it onto H’s half-empty plate, then took half a pancake.
I remember that our discussion was animated and energizing, but I don’t remember a word of it. What I remember is watching B & H trade butter and salad dressing. I remember she ate the salad first, but he ate the pancakes while they were hot. I also remember that as a diabetic coma began to wash over me I eyeballed the protein and greens H saved for last. I was in awe of their symbiosis. If restauranting were an Olympic sport, the individual event never stood a chance against the team event.
“That’s what I miss most about being in a relationship, I think,” I said to B as the lunch was winding down and H slid another piece of pancake onto her plate.
“Pancakes?” she laughed.
“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.”
It’s true there are a lot of other things to miss about being in a relationship, but the revelation I had that day went far beyond longing for a food partner. What struck me was the deep significance of everything that happened at the table between them — how different it was from my eating experience. I’d over-indulged in carbs and sugar while they’d had a nutritionally well-rounded meal. I didn’t have enough food left on my plate for a meal later, but between the two of them it was worth bringing home leftovers so that one of them could have a meal.
I’d been unhappy with my order, and knew I would have longed for pancakes if I’d ordered a salad. They’d both known that what was lacking in their meal would be made up for by what their partner had ordered.
In my late twenties I was in a relationship with possibly the best eater I’ve ever known. He was adventurous like me, a lover of spicy and ethnic food, an explorer of menus and flavor combinations. One of our favorite things to do was eat.
A typical day off together involved a drive across town to a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place one of us had read about. We’d order three things and share them all. We liked the same level of spice, agreed when something needed a squirt of lime, or when the place was overrated. We hit Korean restaurants, taco stands, BBQ joints and greasy spoons. Sometimes I’d be training for a race and determined to eat something healthy but also have a bite of bacon. Eating with him gave me the best of so many worlds.
I’ve tried to develop platonic food friendships. Most aren’t regular enough to fill the void. Some have been outright disastrous. A few years ago some girlfriends and I decided to start a tradition: on the first Thursday of each month we’d go to a nice restaurant together and try it out. I got first pick, and my choice was a well-known Thai street-food restaurant in Los Angeles. One of the girls was gluten and dairy-free, one didn’t like too much spice, the other just wanted to eat already. Someone suggested we name our club and someone else rolled her eyes.
By the time the food arrived you could taste the tension. “I can’t eat that,” one said. “Well I’m not paying for that if I can’t eat it,” said another. We never made it to episode 2 of Restaurant Club, though it did get named.
It’s a little-mentioned side-effect of being single, the lack of a true partner-in-eating. Scientists have shown that the longer couples have been together, the more similar their tastes in food are. Having a person who shares most of your likes and dislikes, and is comparably adventurous when ordering off a menu, opens culinary doors. And walking through all those doors together strengthens the bond even further: one hand washes the other.
Though I love doing things alone, and relish solo dining at times, there will always be something lacking in the experience. Singles who want variety are relegated to the half-soup half-sandwich combo of every restaurant in the world, as if that’s the only variety us losers are entitled to. Either restaurants need to amp up their tasting menus, or I need to find a partner-in-dine.
Perhaps it’s time to re-write my Tinder profile: I’m lovely, you’re lovely, wanna get pancakes?