Looking back through old photos a few weeks ago, I found a screenshot of a message dated 16th September 2017 – a Saturday afternoon two and a half years ago. It read: ‘I’m being cooked dinner (!!!) by Al so I’ll be back by 10:30 if that’s ok (three red heart emojis)’. It ended more than a year ago, but I still remember that day in our relationship, like I remember so many others, for the food we shared – the croissant brought to me in bed on my 18th birthday, the nachos which we made with scientific precision on a summer night, the last bowl of chicken curry. Food, eaten and enjoyed together, kept us going through petty arguments and bone-crushing school days, and across the seasons. It was like a reassurance that everything was really ok, and that we had a closeness and an ability to make things up as we went along which would keep us ticking over together.
In my first foray into the world of relationships, there was something wrong – and the food was telling me to watch out. I felt slightly uncomfortable eating in front of him, or, more to the point, showing an appetite. We sat on the mezzanine of a South Kensington café, and while he dived into a bowl of pasta, I picked at a Caprese salad. The first meal I cooked for him (and indeed for anyone romantically) was a claggy mushroom risotto, trying to get him involved by grating cheese (not even Parmesan; I think it was a soapy-tasting hard goat’s cheese). The start of a relationship can certainly be awkward and anxiety-inducing, but there should be a chemistry which makes the promise of the next day in their company feel right. I felt that rightness when I sat, on a cold spring day five months later, in a Pizza Express in Richmond, opposite the boy who would cook for me on that Saturday in September.
We both came from cooking families, but I was the one who had cooked every day after school since I was fourteen – I took charge in the kitchen, as I probably sought to do in all aspects of our relationship. Yet the real magic came from the rhythm, the routine, the unspoken arrangement to meet under the stone arch of at the school boundary to buy sandwiches for lunch, frothy cappuccinos at break-time. Often, after Saturday school had ended at one, there was macaroni cheese from Tesco – heat for four minutes, let sit for one, heat again for three. I bought him ‘The Silver Spoon’ for his eighteenth birthday, lugging it in a tote bag with a bottle of Prosecco in a black chiller sleeve, a bunch of white roses from the garden, and a plastic box with two red velvet cupcakes, melting gently in the heat of the Jubilee line train.
Our culinary adventures together were not always perfect – I distinctly recall a December afternoon when I ended up alone, making mousse for his parents’ 25th wedding anniversary in the kitchen of their flat, whisking egg whites and melting chocolate, while he had a nap. Admittedly, he made the roast potatoes (the best in the world, he’d say, and they were good), but when dealing with the possibility of a scrambled dessert, you need moral support. But then there were embarrassingly picture-perfect evenings – there was Chinese food eaten in a Dorset town after a seven-hour walk through wheat fields and, at one point, grouse farms. We sat by the bend of a river in the August evening sunshine, our muddy trainers forgotten, gorging ourselves on prawn crackers – the first food we’d had to eat since cider and cereal bars at ten o’clock that morning. There was steak and M&S bearnaise sauce, chips and mayonnaise, and too much red wine on Valentine’s Day. There was ravioli (only Tesco’s will do), with rocket, Parma ham, balsamic vinegar and plenty of parmesan – we made it twice, once while house-sitting in Bath, and again after a long walk through Hyde Park.
The night before he left for France – for three months which stretched out like a waste land – and two weeks before the relationship ended, I woke up early and went to the shops. That afternoon I chopped onions, made stock and poured cream into a Le Creuset casserole dish. We had chicken and ginger curry, and more chocolate mousse, in little Japanese bowls. I’m so glad we didn’t go out to eat. I think I had about £2.50 in all the world, but even if I’d been rich as Croesus, there was something in my steamed-up blue kitchen on that January evening which seemed to say ‘we exist, we are happy, here in this moment, perhaps not for long, but that is immaterial’.
One night this term, when I felt very tired and all I had left to eat was instant coffee and Marmite, a friend made me fusilli, with tomato sauce, anchovy, olives and chilli flakes. Though my legs were uncomfortably concertina-ed beneath me, and the belt of my jeans felt like it was slicing my small intestine in two, I was sitting on that grubby beige carpet with friends. In that top-floor corridor the romantic meals I’d shared with that sloping, unkempt-haired, confusing boy came into an almost musical perspective. Here was the unifying, transformative power of shared food, shared affection. I hope everyone can have such an evening.