Whether it’s a first date or 47th anniversary, it’s hard to separate romance from food. In With Love & Red Sauce, we’re exploring the ways these two interact—from newlyweds learning to compromise over dinner to celebrating your longest relationship (with noodles!).
Whenever people ask how my boyfriend J. and I met, we always exchange sly glances. One of us says, “Do you want the chronological version or the more dramatic version?” (to coax the listener into picking the latter). It’s our most dramatic story to tell, and—it’s important to say here—we both live to tell a dramatic tale. I use pregnant pauses and strong segues to full effect, as if narrating a Lifetime movie, of which our union could be adapted. It goes like this...
I had just moved from an apartment on Newtown Avenue and 30th Street, “across the tracks” from the yellow subway line (as they say in that neighborhood), all the way...to a room on a stretch of 35th Street. As soon as I set up my bed and unpacked all of my things, I did what any gay man would do when moving to a brand new neighborhood and opened up my dating app to see who was on offer. One of the first guys I came upon was, truly, the most beautiful boy I had ever seen, wearing thick black frames and a goofy smile. I sent him a message first: “Nice glasses :)”
Apparently, my super-smooth pickup line worked. We started chatting away and made plans to meet up the next night at Sissy McGinty’s, the local Irish pub that had a gay night on Wednesdays. We sat at the bar, drank beers, and talked for over six hours. By the end of those six hours, we had chatted about our families (estranged-ish) and views on religion (the two are connected). When we left the bar that night and gave each other a kiss good night, I thought to myself, “Yep, he’s the one.”
Six and a half weeks later, we broke up.
The specific reasons for the breakup I can’t quite remember myself, but it ended up having a lot to do with our differing approaches to punctuality, and timing. Months later, I moved to San Francisco, half because I was frustrated with my job and half because I had reached that point which a lot of 26-year-olds in New York City come to: when you think there’s no one left to date of the 8 million inhabitants in the city.
A month after I settled on the West Coast, I texted J. a picture of pumpkin cream cheese (I had remembered he liked “seasonally specific” foods and “the more basic, the better”). He “liked” the picture and texted me back. The cream cheese plan had worked. Afterward, we started texting every day, which eventually led to a phone call a month later where he confessed that he had regretted breaking up with me (I thought to myself, “Rightly so, I’m a catch!”).
Then, in an attempt to win me back, he pulled an ace out of his back pocket to tell me a story about how, four months before I initially messaged him on the dating app, he had been seated across from me on a Manhattan-bound N train, going into the city. It was New Year’s Eve, so I had a bottle of champagne between my legs and was dressed nicer than my usual T-shirt and jeans. He snapped a picture of me. For weeks after, he tried to upload the picture to SubwayCrush.com, a sort of “missed connections” for our older-Millennial age group in New York. The picture never successfully uploaded, so he gave up. He half-jokingly told his roommate then that the guy in the picture was whom he’d marry one day.
That’s why when I messaged him, he freaked out and ran to his roommate to compare his picture with my profile pic, confirming that I was indeed the mystery man. Apparently, he pointed to the gold signet ring studded with diamonds and rubies that I was wearing in his picture and told his roommate, “It looks like the type of ring a grandfather would wear, so when we meet up I’m going to ask him about the ring and if he tells me it’s his grandfather’s, I’ll know it’s him.” Of course, his hunch was correct. My heart sunk. He somehow knew that the drama of the revelation would hook me, and it worked like a charm.
We eventually got back together and, after months of long-distance dating, J. decided to join me where I now was in West Oakland. I had been living in a renovated tool shed in the backyard of two friends of friends who were graciously fine with taking in two wayward gays, one Schnauzer mutt, and a tabby cat. Because there was no kitchen in the shanty, we ate a lot of microwaveable meals from Trader Joe’s. We were both working with a lean budget (J.’s job didn’t pay well and I was recently unemployed), so those Trader Joe’s meals were cheaper than fast food and considerably healthier. They also, in a weird way, offered a sort of retreat from the dramatic happenings of our life so far, and especially in that tiny shed, which more or less embodied the entire dramatic start to our relationship. There was always too much going on in our lives to think about cooking, so we often found relief in unboxing a frozen dinner, piercing the plastic with a knife, and setting the timer to six minutes.
After three months, we moved into a spacious one-bedroom apartment above the dance floor of the White Horse Tavern, then the only remaining gay bar in that part of Oakland. It took us a solid seven days to get used to the bass-thumping up from the floor below enough to sleep through it. The entire place was carpeted with matted-drown grey carpeting that always smelled a little like mildew. (We vacuumed every. Single. Day.) It seemed, against our best wishes, the drama had followed us to another living space.
Though J. had gotten a job so that we could apply for apartments, his commute took him an hour each way and was comprised of a bike ride to commuter rail to a bus. Being the stay-at-home half of the couple, I was in charge of making dinner each night, a domestic task I took to with glee. In our new apartment, we had a big kitchen with ample space but were still on the same lean budget, so we carried over our tradition of eating frozen Trader Joe’s meals. Albeit in a very unglamorous way, it was a habit that reminded us of our first weeks and months together. Having both been given a second chance at our relationship, these beginning memories were even more precious, no matter if they were in the form of fancy meals out at restaurants for date nights or frozen blocks of chicken and sauce for meals eaten in on the couch. When life was too much—when we were too much—we had those convenient TJ’s meals.
One of the staples of those meals, once we graduated from microwave to conventional oven, was Trader Joe’s bag of frozen orange chicken. It was always quick to throw together: The chicken would go on a baking sheet in the oven and, while it was baking, I could cook a small pot of white rice and steam some peas. The bags of sauce just needed a quick thaw in warm water, and then I’d toss it on the hot chicken, the heat of the meat sending the vinegar in the sauce straight to my nostrils and burning them so much that I’d wince and have to tilt my head back. It was the perfect meal because it gives you the kind of glee-tinged relief from not having to cook, which takeout delivers, but some of the homey satisfaction of having...well, “cooked” some of the meal—and, of course, the reward of getting to stay in to eat.
I cooked other meals too, of course, and most all of them weren’t from a bag. But J. was never an adventurous eater, especially in the beginning, nor did he take pleasure in my attempts to make him one. I made several dinners to appease his tastes, but they were met with his constructive criticisms that weren't always welcome to my tired and self-satisfied ears. But the orange chicken never got a negative reaction, and rather virtually always turned his post-work mood around and made him happier. It became our go-to meal, both for ease and for a salve during growing-pain nights when you don’t particularly want to be around the person you love in that moment but have to. It then became “our dish,” a meal we looked forward to on a Monday after work when we wanted something quick and satisfying and easy.
The dramatics of our relationship never receded, but instead, intensified. After six years together, there’s still a new plot twist that always keeps us from ever fully relaxing into a regular life. But through it all, the orange chicken has always been the meal we turn to after a trying time, to bring back a sense of reassurance and to bring us back into a “normal” existence, if only for half an hour.
To this day, whenever I’m in a Trader Joe’s, no matter if I’m buying a banana or an entire cart of groceries, I always pick up a bag. And then, inevitably, when we’re both at home, stressed out from the drama of the day and hangry as hell, one of us will remember what’s in the freezer, look at the other with a sly glance, and say, “Orange chicken?”