The editors at Bon Appetit didn’t get the memo that it’s breakup season.
There’s something about that chilled pause between Valentine’s Day and spring. Couples who’ve been waiting, struggling, fighting to make it through the holidays, through the grays and whites and blues of winter, finally reach the breaking point. Maybe it’s cabin fever, maybe spring fever, maybe lack of any fever at all; whatever it is, I’ve always noticed that breakups happen in spades in February and March.
Eleven people that I currently know are suffering breakups, myself included. I may have been the outbreak monkey; mine was at the end of January. For the first time in ten years I requested Valentine’s Day off. No amount of busy restaurant tip money would’ve been worth faking smiles at happy couples. I picked up smoking again, started drinking a French press of coffee each morning and would sometimes eat a small square of dark chocolate and nothing else.
Food was sawdust to me. Favorite restaurants were like estranged family. I attended a food event I’d been coveting and could only eat half a buttered baguette point with locally foraged nettle pesto made by Renee Erickson, a favorite local chef and my top female role model. I left the event early, tucked into a bar, ordered a whiskey neat, and cried.
We celebrate with food at parties, weddings, family gatherings and holidays, but we also use food – and its absence – to grieve. Our hearts break, our minds stress out, and our bodies churn out extra adrenaline in response, according to this Huffington Post article. Our appetite decreases and our digestive systems crash and burn. Or food abstinence can be comforting, as with shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning that typically lasts seven days. Families bind together, stay low to the ground, and avoid things like doing laundry and preparing food, relying on the surrounding community to provide nourishment. The small scraps of energy left in the body during mourning are reserved for emotional healing, not wasted on the petty banalities of taking care of oneself.
That was how I felt, those weeks after the breakup, each time I went into my kitchen and saw dishes in the sink, empty pots on the stove. I couldn’t summon the energy to care enough about myself that I could prepare a meal. The groceries I’d purchased the day before the split found themselves in the compost bin a week later. My dishes stayed dirty. Pots empty.
The return of my appetite was my first inkling that I was beginning to heal. Like many before me, I found my salvation at the core – literally – of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. The ice cream itself was fine but it was the “core” that had me hooked, a dark chocolate cookie crumble, buttery and smooth, mellow, melting. For the first time in months, I found pleasure in food. In minutes I heard the dull, hollow scrape of my spoon hitting cardboard, the bottom of the pint. I felt proud at this sound instead of guilty. I’d regained the ability to put away a pint of ice cream by myself, and it was indeed a victory.
Months later, I’m still watching my friends go through this process like slow-motion food-averse dominos. Coworkers who normally put away a steak each night are now eating a couple oysters per shift; the girls in my building spend money on plants instead of groceries. I still haven’t quit smoking, but I’ve started to exercise. I’m on the upswing, the healthy side of the breakup where I can comfort my friends instead of cry along with them, can get out of bed without a whole pot of coffee, can enjoy a meal if not always lose myself in familiar indulgence, can almost begin to consider dating again.
Except that first dates usually involve dinner, coffee, drinks, anything that involves the mouth, warming it up for potential exertion as dessert. I might be ready for boys but am not totally ready to recombine romance and food. Even without breakup dietary habits, for the food obsessed, a first date is tricky. We might not want to disclose our food love too soon; it’s a delicate thing, sharing your favorite sushi spot with someone who may order the teriyaki chicken. I can love a man who doesn’t love food but his disinterest in food better not be the first thing I learn about him. Every opinion after will be colored by his distaste.
My last guy proclaimed his adoration for food on our first date, though he was more of a burger connoisseur than an all-around food lover. He ordered burgers everywhere we went, which I could still respect because he ordered them med-rare, ordered the ones with weird toppings, ordered them with whiskey, neat. But when we were done with our honeymoon phase, the burgers stopped. He reverted to basic meals at home, meals meant for the body, not the soul: baked chicken, steamed broccoli, brown rice. Dash of salt. Lotts of tuna. Some kind of shake in the mornings with three kinds of powders that did God knows what. Our lust faded somewhere between the raw spinach and the rice cakes. We stopped going on dates, stayed in, watched TV, talked less. Our mouths lost their fever, grew cold, gave up.
Now Bon Appetit is stalking the casualties of break-up season with wedding advice. A croquembouche cake, a buffet of oysters and cheese – all the foods that are meant to be shared with a lover, a soulmate, a lifelong friend. A meal meant to be planned with a partner. Flipping through a food magazine is usually a safe bet for me not counting the Valentine’s issue, which Food & Wine gloriously skipped entirely this year in lieu of the break-up friendly “Health Food Edition” (I bet someone there has been stung by an ill-timed V-day food issue before). But this month, I have to skip reading about important food trends because the editors of BA don’t have enough single friends.
Although, those couples who didn’t break up this season seem to have gotten stronger; a few of my friends who are still coupled are newly engaged, and have earned the right to have a huge party with weird cakes and peanut butter and jelly bonbons if they so desire. And of course, when the time comes, I will stuff my face accordingly to help my friends celebrate the beginning of their new lives. I just wish BA had waited another month or so before encouraging them.