Illustration by Lila Volkas
The baguette, the goat and sheep’s milk cheese, the olive assortment, the wine, all neatly arranged, both wooed me and sent me into a panic. I nibbled a few olives, accepted tastes from the cheese plate, and forced myself to drink the wine slowly. As a cool breeze rustled the vertical blinds on Joe’s sliding glass door, I fixed my gaze on him, on his artwork, anything but this assortment of enemies that Joe had set between us in his sunny Oakland kitchen.
We started dating as I was recovering from an eating disorder. He knew this about me but didn’t realize my anxiety over calories and weight would ebb and flow as often as the tides. Choosing a man who loves food—good food—helped me overcome some of my fat fears, but it also made for some tense mealtime moments. When we were together I couldn’t avoid eating. I couldn’t eat half a can of tuna and be done with it. At Chez Joe, the menu consisted of a balanced, healthy meal—no cans, no fat-free products. I had to pretend that I was a “normal” eater and hope for the best.
Sitting at his kitchen table, we would talk for hours, or we could read together in comfortable silence. But when I stood at the counter and sliced tomatoes for dinner (one of my few cooking skills), my chest tightened as I watched him pour generous amounts of olive oil into a skillet. He always had fresh bread from La Farine, Strauss organic whole milk for coffee and cereal, and a stash of Green & Black’s dark chocolate for dessert. Sometimes he paired the chocolate with Strauss organic ice cream. All of these items were on a mental forbidden list I had created years before. But in his home, I broke my rules. I ate what he served and wallowed in guilt the next day.
Months passed. I did not turn into a hippo as originally feared. Over time I learned to savor a square of dark chocolate instead of fear it or scarf down the whole bar. Every once in a while I cooked for Joe, making blueberry pancakes and scrambled eggs for breakfast, salmon, rice, and a salad for dinner: Nothing as fancy as his wild mushroom soup, lamb stew, or cassoulet, but dishes that I felt confident I would not ruin. Using an oven stretched me far out of my comfort zone.
Even though I overcooked the salmon and couldn’t flip a pancake to save my life, Joe seemed to appreciate every unexciting bite. It was worth suffering through the stress of cooking to see him happy. It was like I had hugged him with a pancake.
More months passed. I started to explore the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market near my apartment. I didn’t buy much, but I liked to look at the bounty of fresh greens, root vegetables, and fresh fruit. For my birthday, Joe gave me Alice Waters’s seminal The Art of Simple Food. With Alice’s help, I learned how to sauté kale and chard. Who knew it was so easy?
I learned to embrace food—with one arm tied behind my back. Weeknights caused problems. Joe liked to eat after 8pm, and I struggled to relax my no-food-after-six rule. I occasionally suffered setbacks during recovery that clouded my better judgment. “Have you eaten dinner,” he would ask when I would visit him after work. I said yes, whether I’d eaten anything or not. “I’ll just put something together quick then,” he’d say with a disgruntled sigh. I’d sip a glass of merlot while he ate roasted chicken, rice, and a salad of mixed greens all by himself.
Four years into our relationship, we discussed whether to stay together. I wanted to get married; he wasn’t sure. When we sat at that same Formica kitchen table and shared our needs in the relationship, it became clear that food played a much different role in his life than mine. His Croatian grandparents grew much of their vegetables and olives. They made wonderful dinners sourced from the garden. My childhood food memories revolved around Shake’N Bake pork chops and Hamburger Helper. In college I spent most of my weekends in bars, while Joe and his roommates cooked elaborate meals that took all day to plan.
Joe connected with people through food and expressed his affection with food. I gave food the cold shoulder. As a child it was a reward, as in Oreos after school or ice cream after an orthodontist visit. It was a 6pm obligation with the parents. As an adult it was something to analyze and fear. Joe opened up his cabinets when he had guests: always a bowl of almonds, a plate of hummus and bread, or a baguette and cheese. I did well to remember to offer a glass of water. Both of us learned from our families.
Our different ideas around commitment led to our split, but our divide over food certainly created a wedge. After we separated I continued to sauté greens and improved my timing with the salmon. I didn’t have to cook for him but wanted to create healthful meals for myself. I actually bought a few things at the farmers’ market. I learned to make excellent polenta. I baked squash and figured out what to do with a bag of dry black beans. I acquired a crockpot and made pumpkin chili and a tangy lamb stew with root vegetables. I stopped rationing my almond consumption.
When a relationship ends the best we can do is heal, assess what we did right, and learn from what went wrong so that we can go into the next one with more awareness and sensitivity. Joe taught me much more than how to use a French press and mince garlic. He taught me that to share a meal is to share your heart.
Find Heather R. Johnson at heatherraejohnson.com
Illustrator and artist Lila Volkas combines her love for art and sustainable food in many ways. Her work has been featured on KQED’s Bay Area Bites and on posters, t-shirts and zines. She also leads monthly kombucha brewing workshops. Find her at lilavolkas.com.