It’s strange to date seriously in college. To emotionally commit yourself to another person — or just to spend so much of your time with them — seems risky, almost inadvisable in such a formative moment in your life. It follows, then, that it’s even stranger to break up.
It’s daunting to allow so much of yourself to become so intertwined with another person such that, as you and your partner grow individually, discovering, questioning and often fighting who you are, a third entity made up of pieces of each person comes to be both between and above you. It fluctuates in size and shape, constantly evolving over the course of a few months, or, in my case, a few years. Then, one day, the thing that holds that amorphous medley of two people together dissolves, and it becomes time to decide what remnants you want to take home.
I’m realizing in the months following a breakup that I learned food largely as a language of love toward my partner. Sure, it was an important part of my life from when I was a baby — I recall most of my earliest memories based on the food that was at the center of them, just as many others do. But it wasn’t until this relationship that I became truly obsessed, when food started to feel like an essential part of me. And I think much of that came from sharing it with her.
It started with grilled cheese, grew to hearty lunches, and ended with elaborate dinners with her family and obsessing over the perfect venue for each anniversary dinner. Our relationship even developed some of its own signature dishes — like the pan-Asian pantry noodles that became her most popular request — which I compiled into a cookbook for her last birthday before we broke up.
Food became my favorite way to say, “I love you.” It was also the most reliable, for even in the toughest moments of our time together, we were always hungry.
I loved to cook, she loved to eat, and I knew no better feeling than warming her up with a plate of one of her favorite pastas or irresponsibly treating her to a celebratory dinner at a highly-rated restaurant. I’ll never forget — nor do I ever want to — the look on her face when she arrived at my door to discover that, after a particularly rough week for both of us, I’d spent hours making chicken soup from scratch to clear her runny nose and, as if I hadn’t enough lately, said, “I love you.”
But in the weeks following our breakup, I couldn’t draw any similar feelings from a dinner for one. A carefully executed plate of pasta with some simple vegetables or a pan-roasted chicken breast was nutritious for sure, but was it healthy? It would be dramatic to call it painful, but it felt at least uncomfortable to cook myself something that would really bring me joy. And it took a while for me to realize that I didn’t want to work hard rolling out a sheet of fresh pasta or reducing a rich stew mostly because I couldn’t share it with her.
Cooking for friends helped, but that was still primarily about someone else. It made me happy to spend a Sunday surveilling a simmering ragù, careful that it didn’t scald on the bottom, all for the reward of starting a friend’s week off right. But for whatever reason, I still had trouble doing something like that for myself. That piece of me that had come to be through her, and us, felt out of reach, as if it couldn’t really be mine.
I wish I could tell you what changed, or how you can clear a similar hurdle in your next breakup, but I’m not sure if anything did at all. Maybe it’s just time, for it’s been a couple months now. But last week, I fixed up my favorite chicken and sausage gumbo under the pretense of time-saving, Instagram-friendly meal prep.
But if you know anything about gumbo, you know that standing over a dutch oven and whisking equal parts fat and flour until your wrist cramps up and you’ve achieved the perfectly chocolatey shade of dark roux is hardly an efficient use of time. So why was I cooking? Could it be just because I wanted it? That I felt I deserved a properly spicy Cajun stew to get me through the week?
Maybe I’d finally found a way to convert food to a language of self-love as well. One gumbo might not be much, but it feels like a good start to me. I’m still a long way from homemade pasta, but I’m proud that I’ve found a way to pick out a piece of us that I cherished so much and make it a part of me.