Long Reads

The Spaghetti My Boyfriend Didn't Want Me to Make

April 10, 2018

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.

Photo by Paige Mehrer

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.)

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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.

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“Is there a recipe that you'd like to share of your uncle's pasta, because your description of it is making my mouth water (and I promise, my family will eat that sausage). ”
— Ann S.

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.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


Carlos C. July 5, 2018
I definitely empathize with your frustration. I am convinced that once my partner and I go to Peru, he will see how delicious fish can be....although I have the feeling that he might have the same reaction to a bowl of ceviche aa your boyfriend had to your pasta.
Angela June 2, 2018
Beautifully written essay!
Suzanne B. June 1, 2018
I once made chicken piccata for dinner which my husband refused to eat. He grew up with meat, rice and beans and frou-frou dinners were not for him. The kids liked it though!
Winness May 9, 2018
I married a man who stated that he ate to live, not lived to eat. As a first generation Italian American and only 19 years old (this was 1966), I could not comprehend his appreciation of his mother's version of tomato sauce (Campbell's tomato soup, doctored; I kid you not), Franco American spaghetti and meatballs out of the can, unheated, plus the myriad ways to he enjoyed cut-up hot dogs in casseroles. I was submissive initially until I threw up after one of his "favorite" meals. So I put my cooking skills to use, my way. I grew up in a Triestina-Neapolitan home, so my north-south Italian food sensitivities made for some interesting combinations. The first time I made breaded veal cutlets with a butter pan sauce and a squeeze of lemon, his jaw dropped. He never looked back. I still laugh about that experience.
A.S. April 15, 2018
Angela M- It is ironic that your comment about the author's "aggressive" tactics is so, well, aggressive. Sometimes the things we say really do reflect who we are.

I enjoyed reading this because every relationship is different, and one method of behavior between some people will not work for others! But that is where interest lies, otherwise life would be droll.
Angela M. April 15, 2018
Well, that was partially intentional. She chose to ignore her partner's clearly stated boundary--why would someone assume that normal, civilized words would make an impact? I chose to react in words to the story the same way I would have felt had this been done to me (and likely how her partner felt in the moment). I do personally despise Italian sausage (and Lima beans for that matter), and if my partner intentionally made me dinner featuring Italian sausage after a long day when I'm famished, I would be... well, just as angry as I was when I read this story. Incidentally, he did do something similar with Lima beans, but unintentionally. So while I was angry and annoyed in the moment, that was a learning experience for the both of us. Similarly, I know not to make him fire noodles or egg drop soup with peas anymore. Unlike those stories, this was not an accidental mishap--this was deliberate. The problem I had with this article is the very antithesis of what your comment led to, "one method of behavior between some people will not work for others".

The author clearly stated, "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. "

I vehemently disagree. I enjoy sharing my culture with my partner, nd learning about his, but we do so above board, without manipulation or trying to pull a fast one on him. I enjoy introducing him to new things, but I would never condescend to trying to "mold him" or "conform him". We grow together, and we grow independently. I respect the things we disagree on as much as I respect what we have in common. I do not try to mold him or conform him, as I love and respect who he is, not who I want to change him to be. A droll life would be one where your supposed loved ones all fell into line of what you deemed was worthy, without any autonomy whatsoever.
A.S. April 17, 2018
I think you may be taking the "molding and shaping" thing a bit too far. I read it as molding a life, together, with each other and in that, molding each other to fit an entirety that belongs to both. But I didn't write the article, so hey, to each their own.
Maggie H. April 15, 2018
Ha, I keep trying the same thing with my husband and onion. (Who doesn’t like onions.!?!)
beejay45 April 15, 2018
I spent a summer holiday with an Italian family. The mom couldn't believe that I would pick the onions out of my salad, something I always did at family dinners at home. She was determined to teach me to love onions! Her method was to butter two slices of bread an put the bits of onions between them in a sandwich. Cruelty to children? ;) But, I have to say, it worked. Taking the bite out of them that way made me realize that here was something that might actually be edible. Didn't make an onion fanatic out of me, but it got me off on a new path. My Dad's relatives did the same thing with bacon -- another thing I rejected categorically (I know, can you believe it?), minus the butter. That worked, too, damped down the saltiness, smokiness and grease factor. In this case, I eventually became as much of a bacon lover as the rest of the world seems to be.
Maggie H. April 15, 2018
I love it! Thanks for the tip!
Angela M. April 13, 2018
Italian sausage is disgusting. For all the flowery prose, you chose to disrespect your partner by ignoring what you knew about him and tried to make it seem like a cute story because he ate the pasta part and shoved the inedible crap back towards you. You didn't respect him enough to tell him, "Hey, this pasta dish is important to me, and I'd like you to give it a chance". You sprung it on him without notice because your memories are more important than his autonomy. I've tried many things that my partner grew up eating that I was pretty sure I'd hate, for the sake of his memories (spoiler alert: they were always every bit as disgusting as I assumed. Watergate salad and processed turkey loaf? yuck). But I went into that willingly, and he respects my desire to not ever eat them again. He's had Italian sausage--he knew he hated it, and you chose to disregard that.

Relationship fail.
lori April 15, 2018
"Are you channeling your best self with this comment?" Hmm...
beejay45 April 15, 2018
In all fairness, it was the association to the sausage that he hated. Giving him a newer, better association maybe moved him along the way to giving up bad memories. Lighten up.
Angela M. April 15, 2018
In all fairness, I was demonstrating the visceral reaction people who don't like such a polarizing ingredient have. You don't change a bad memory association by springing it on someone without their knowledge and prior approval. Now he has two bad associations----his childhood and a reminder his partner doesn't respect his feelings and opinions.

Also, No amount of contrived sentimentality makes it ok to sneak unwanted things into people's food, period. It's not ok to sneak alcohol to a teetotaler, it's not ok to sneak peanut butter to a child whose parents are allergic. You never know what the consequences will be when you sneak unwanted things in someone's food. This time may have only been an unsatisfying meal, but that's a dangerous game to play.

I think rather than "lightening up", I'll continue to be an honest person and respect the people in my life.
Angela M. April 15, 2018
The absolute only important part of this piece is:

"it was the one food he wouldn’t budge on.

But I made it anyway."
Author Comment
Valerio F. April 15, 2018
Angela, you're totally on to something. Forcing people into situations without a forewarning or without their consent is never a cool thing to do. Lessons are for learning and that's definitely why this experience of mine warranted an essay. We all hope to be better siblings, children, friends, coworkers, partners. It's a complex and multifaceted recipe, but more often than not includes a good deal of empathy and a whole lot of communication. You're so right to point out that communication, in this scenario, was flawed—and that's why I wrote about it!
A.S. April 15, 2018
Maybe you are not being honest with yourself that people are very, very different. More so, it seems your honesty let's you believe that you deserve the ability to disrespect and walk all over other people that are not directly in your life. The other "examples" you provided are really tangential to the narrative told here. Love is push and pull, but if a mean, straight line works for you, then it works for you.
Angela M. April 15, 2018
Maybe you are not reading the words I wrote. People ARE very, very different. And to assume somoene will just "get over" something they've disliked all their lives just because you like it, is the embodiment of disrespect. I've clearly disrespected a food item that I find disgusting, but I've not "walked all over other people". I am merely defending my position, which is literally to respect each other and to "push and pull" openly and honestly, not sneaking items into peoples' food without their consent. I am known both professionally and personally as the person who people trust to introduce them to new foods (tofu, vegetables, things they can't pronounce). I do that by creating trust and respect in our relationships, and by being open and honest with what I am hoping they will try.

Those examples are NOT tangential; this is actually a very serious subject to respect others peoples' food choices. I would not insult Italian sausage to someone clearly enjoying their own meal, unless of course they try to force or guilt me into also eating it. There are masses of horror stories from people who "didn't take it seriously", or "thought they could surprise them", "figured they didn't mean it", "they are overreacting", etc. Perhaps I've read too many of these stories related to my line of work, which often result in death or hospitalization. But there is a hard line that should never be crossed, and that is, BELIEVE PEOPLE WHEN THEY TELL YOU ABOUT FOOD BOUNDARIES. Even if I don't believe that girl eating a donut is allergic to wheat and absolutely has to have gluten free chicken tenders, I will absolutely act as though I do. You just don't mess with peoples' food boundaries. Hard Stop.
Kate K. April 11, 2018
Thank you for the lovely essay (with the recipe written into it as narrative). Your story reminds me of the first several times I insisted on feeding fish to my love and how I used to have to sit on my hands to keep from interfering whenever he was in the kitchen (Both have resolved -- I eat fish on my own, and he's become an adventurous, sensible cook).
Kate K. April 11, 2018
Thank you for the lovely essay (with the recipe written into it as narrative). Your story reminds me of the first several times I insisted on feeding fish to my love and how I used to have to sit on my hands to keep from interfering whenever he was in the kitchen (Both have resolved -- I eat fish on my own, and he's become an adventurous, sensible cook).
aargersi April 11, 2018
Second the ask for the recipe. Also I need an invite to your dad’s dinner. Also sometimes eggs just need ketchup:-)
Author Comment
Valerio F. April 12, 2018
I agree! To each their own.... I've adopted (or tried to adopt) a more laissez-faire approach to eating with others.
aargersi April 11, 2018
Second the ask for the recipe. Also I need an invite to your dad’s dinner. Also sometimes eggs just need ketchup:-)
Nadia April 10, 2018
Lovely, honest, and beautiful. And #truth
Annada R. April 10, 2018
Bravo Valerio! You've captured the intimate emotions of the push and pull in a relationship beautifully.
Ann S. April 10, 2018
Is there a recipe that you'd like to share of your uncle's pasta, because your description of it is making my mouth water (and I promise, my family will eat that sausage).
Author Comment
Valerio F. April 12, 2018
To be honest, the recipe was a bit off the cuff (and a college student's watered down version of an Amatriciana—sausage is much, much more affordable than a good guanciale). Emiko's pasta recipe is the closest approximation! I've attached it here:

Ann S. April 12, 2018
Thanks! Sometimes it's hard to find a good guanciale, even when money isn't an issue. Sausage speaks to me though...