Valentine’s Day is over. You’re sitting in your pyjamas, Bridget Jones-like, scooping out the last remains of a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, singing All by Myself for the 25th time this year (yes, it’s only February). Your Rag Blind date was a flop. More a case of cardiac arrest than heart stopping allure. Indeed, the rest of Lent Term looks dismal, as the closest thing resembling a relationship over the next few months will be that between you and a jumbo pack of Curly Wurlys.
Despair not! For I have the answer, and, as is always almost the case, it is food. There is much literature on the links between food, love, and sex; there is something in all three which appeals to our most basic primal needs. Perhaps it is the sensuality of food that lends itself to all things corporeal: in loving, as in eating, we rely on the use of all five senses. I know it is far too easy to get bogged down in food-based innuendos here (I’m sure it’s part of my Northern DNA to fashion myself slightly after Sid James), however, I believe that we can learn a lot about both food and love if we set them down side by side.
I recently reintroduced myself to Laura Esquivel’s stellar novel: Like Water for Chocolate. Published in 1989, the narrative follows the story of a young girl named Tita, who longs for her lover, Pedro, but cannot be with him because of her mother’s upholding of the family tradition: the youngest daughter cannot marry, but instead must take care of her mother until she dies. Her position means that Tita is only able to express herself when she cooks. Tita learns that she and Pedro can communicate sexually through food. A climactic scene is the dinner party at which the family eats Tita’s quail in rose petal sauce. Pedro consumes every bite in a state of growing ecstasy, even to the point of shouting ‘This is a pleasure of the gods.’ Here Pedro emphasises the altogether mystical powers of the dish: the rose petal sauce is supposedly pre-Hispanic, thereby alluding to the Aztec goddess of sexuality, Xochiquetzal, whose name means ‘flower.’ The roses become sexually symbolic, a force seen to awaken Tita and Pedro’s sexualities.
The orgasmic response to Tita’s food signals the distinct bond between food and love – to cook food is to engage in an act of love, and the warmth (in this case, extreme warmth) experienced by someone’s act of cooking for you is enough to summon feelings of affection that words cannot express. What is more, for Tita, food is a way of cementing love through memory; indeed, food triggers many of the memories recounted in the novel. Apricots remind Tita of the feeling she had upon Pedro first seeing her bare legs, the smell of tamales (think steamed corn-based Cornish pasties?) and atole (a traditional aromatic Mesoamerican beverage) conjure up memories of her mother-figure Nacha, and a chorizo in her hands conjures up moments of the first time she touched Pedro’s body. Esquivel reflects upon the power of food to capture moments in our lives and to bring them involuntarily back in a split second.
Now I am not suggesting that you roast a quail (a notoriously difficult little bird to cook with a tendency towards sub-Saharan dryness) and festoon it with an elaborate perfumed sauce. I am also not suggesting that the next time you make pesto pasta for someone they’ll be overcome with intense libidinous desire. What I do hope to put across, however, is how cooking is a way of sealing bonds between people. What could be more romantic than a dinner for two? What suggests that you love somebody more than a well-planned, simple yet delicious meal à deux? Cook for someone and you win their heart forever. And this is not restricted to the realm of romance. If Valentine’s Day has left you friend-zoned, for instance, a well-cooked meal is the ultimate platonic display of affection.
The 14th of February can leave you feeling like a pineapple upside-down cake in a window display of French pâtisserie. Embrace it. Love yourself. Then cook. Whatever you make, whether it is quail in rose petal sauce or the simplest of stir-frys, it will taste all the more sublime if you put a little bit of you into it; indeed, you could make yourself a new friend or a love interest. Whatever the case, if you put a bit more love into the food you cook, you will be putting more love into the world, and God knows that, with state the world is in today, it sure as hell needs it.