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I hadn’t seen my boyfriend all day. Something about him having an essay due Monday, or maybe lunch with a friend. Whatever it was, it had gotten him out of my bed early that morning and out the door. I'd made him an espresso and given him a banana for the subway ride.
A few hours and a text or two later, we decided to meet for dinner. "Meeting for dinner," in our parlance, meant I prepared a meal for the two of us at one of our apartments. The son of a restaurateur and chef, I’m partial to the kind of home cooking I grew up on. In fact, I spend most of our nights together preparing our evening meal. Occasionally, he helps. Or rather, occasionally I let him help.
Ours is a relationship in which we both assert our individuality: he prefers horror flicks, me something a bit lighter. He'll choose the subway, me a slow stroll. There's comfort in keeping these boundaries intact. But when it comes to cooking, I blur that line. I enter the kitchen—his, mine, and even that of his childhood home—with confidence.
Holding a wooden spoon and a bunch of chard (which he once told me he hated—not for long, pal!), I dance across his taste buds. I prepare dishes as I see fit, over-salting and under-saucing with little consideration for his input. If he tells me he doesn’t like something, I prepare it for him in a way he hasn’t yet tried. This is how things should taste: pasta should have a little bite, eggs don't always need ketchup, fish really isn't that bad. Of course, being his bedfellow grants me considerable leeway. (His mom once asked me, baffled, how I had finally gotten him to eat mayonnaise.)
When he cooks, which isn’t often, I watch anxiously from across the room. I feign distraction and bite my tongue as I watch him slice carrots too thick or burn onions. When I cook, I banish him to the couch with a kiss and a glass of wine.
I refuse help in the kitchen: It’s my sanctuary and my stage, my studio. And while I don’t brag much, it’s in the kitchen where I become my best self. I approach cooking and feeding my partner from the most affectionate place. I find food to be the purest incarnation of intimacy, a crystallization of those feelings we conveniently deem love. Besides, what better way to prevent a boy from straying than feeding him a pasta sauce that rivals his grandmother’s?
This is all, of course, learned behavior. My dad, an Italian immigrant from the island of Sardinia, is a man of few words. Not for lack of them, but for lack of desire to use them. He is introspective and reserved, expressing love not through talk but through taste. Though a non-practicing Catholic, he continues to ascribe a certain sacred significance to his Sundays. On the seventh day of the week, he abstains from work at his restaurant, turns off his phone, and does not leave the house, save for a trip to the Korean supermarket to pick up fresh fish.
On those days, I awake to poached eggs, laid soft on rounds of crispy flatbread rendered pliable by a spread of bright tomato sauce. In the afternoon, we watch a game of soccer and he brings me paper-thin slices of salsiccia and wedges of pecorino. My sister, my mom, and I go to bed at night, stomachs swollen with pasta and spring artichokes, lamb stewed in fennel broth, sea bream scorched in the oven under a thick crust of salt. My dad's cooking is an ode to home and to love, however nebulous and malleable those notions may be. He cooks for the family and the island he left behind, and he cooks for the family and the island he created on a quiet suburban street in Texas.
Learning to love on my own, outside my childhood home, I find myself returning to the pantry, turning on the stove. And while I have yet to introduce my partner to my family, I introduce myself with the recipes of my childhood, the tastes of my father’s kitchen on a sweet, slow Sunday. I cut slices of persimmons copped from a Chinatown street vendor as a tender offering of my appreciation, or spoon an extra clove of garlic onto my boyfriend's plate. After a few days of particularly nice behavior, I prepare him a hearty carbonara because I know he loves bacon.
We all hope to imprint ourselves onto those we deem worthy. I had a previous boyfriend who tried to shape my taste in music. He made me listen to hours of garage and lo-fi rock. We traveled the coast of California without leaving his dorm room, listening to the sounds of his West Coast adolescence. My current partner prefers to recommend me books. He leaves James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room on my bedside table or a Jennifer Egan article in my backpack, cultivating within me thoughts I might not otherwise have had. Often I think he’s sending me implicit messages: this character reminds me of you, doesn’t this scene make you think of that time? Other times I think he just wants me to be more well-read.
We all try to shape the tastes of our lovers, conform them to a vision of a lifestyle we think we have—or want to have. We mold together and ease each other into new places. To introduce and expose is a partner’s duty; to carve and construct is, for many, a tacit desire. A far as tastes go, the taste I wish to share is taste itself.
I entered his apartment that night after a day apart, closing the front door on a late-autumn gust. I needed a culinary reminder that summer nights once existed, so I planned to cook a pasta dish my uncle used to make at the end of each July. It was spaghetti with onions, tomatoes, garlic, and Italian sausage. I knew my boyfriend didn’t like Italian sausage (he said it reminded him of all the Italian-American picnics his family forced him to on Long Island) and that it was the one food he wouldn’t budge on.
But I made it anyway.
I made it because I needed the challenge, and because he hadn’t seen me all day, and because he had never tasted my uncle’s pasta. I made it because I wanted to share that taste with him, and I wanted to be responsible for some type of cognitive shift that would rewire his memory to like Italian sausage because maybe, just maybe, if I made it he could learn to like it.
He sat in the other room while I cooked. He read something for class; I chopped the onions and peeled the garlic. I stewed the tomatoes in their own juices and let them bubble the smallest bit. In a separate pan I cooked the sausage that I had crumbled between my fingers. I dropped the spaghetti into rolling water and then combined the meat with the tomatoes to let them sit in each other’s oils, to absorb each other’s flavors.
As we sat to eat, I took a bite and let out an exaggerated mmmm, a vocalization of approval that I hoped he wouldn’t counteract. He took one taste, dropped his fork, and looked right at me. I pretended not to notice, carrying on about how much this tasted just like Zio Giulio’s.
“I told you I don’t like Italian sausage. You know that’s the one thing I don’t like.” He was hangry and I had kept him waiting.
“I know, I know,” I stammered, looking for footing. “But I just thought, maybe, you would like it like this, like the way I make it.” Weak argument.
He sensed my hopefulness. I sensed his frustration. I'd ventured into territory that he'd warned me not to enter, inserting myself where I shouldn’t have. It was just a plate of pasta, a $10 home-cooked meal for two, but he could tell what I was playing at. I wanted to be the one to rescue him from his sausage aversion. I had taken it upon myself to deliver him from distaste and promise him a future laden with foods he had otherwise disavowed. And he would be all the better for it. He would thank me.
But his tastebuds are his own, and regardless of how intensely I meddle, I cannot control how he understands flavor. Maybe he’s not there yet, maybe he never will be. It’s not for me to will.
We sat in silence. Before I could look up to apologize he slid his bowl in my direction, completely empty...save for a pile of Italian sausage sitting at the bottom.