Contrary Thoughts for Valentine’s Day

“Why did you send in ‘Notes on Food and Love I and II’ so far ahead of Valentine’s Day?” asked my editor.

Because (I did not answer) I did not want to do the obvious, and write about aphrodisiacs for Valentine’s Day. Just as we iconoclasts wear our red dresses on other days, send vegetables to loved ones instead of flowers, and funny clippings instead of cards, and stay home with home-cooked meals instead of crowding the restaurant and adding to the traffic jams, I did not want to do the usual, the expected. I felt justified when, one year, friends who own restaurants reported that their business had dropped—because people who had made reservations could not get to their tables because traffic was gridlocked in Makati—because everyone felt they had to eat out on Valentine’s Day. No parking for the customers, therefore no customers for the restaurants, who could not accept walk-ins because their tables had been reserved for Valentine couples. As a result: frayed nerves all around, rather than the mood of love.

My advice: next year, stay home on Valentine’s Day. What better place to be with your loved one than the home in which you consecrated your love? Or in your apartment, or your family home or his family home—or any place that you enjoy—rather than a car in choked traffic, or a crowded restaurant, or an overpriced ballroom dripping with red balloons and artificial emotion?

Express your love in alternative and imaginative ways. Send a letter instead of a store-bought card, a home-made card instead of a telegram with a message picked out of a book. Send the flowers of your thoughts instead of driving florists mad by ordering flowers that have to be delivered by a certain time on the town’s most traffic-mad day. In fact, forget about Valentine’s Day, that borrowed and commercial feast—and tell the god of your idolatry of your love on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday—of the ordinary weeks of every month, on any day except February 14.

There! I finally had the courage to write an anti-Valentine column.

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But is food (or a food column) connected with love? Of course! Remember the movie Tom Jones, in which man and woman savored their joints of beef (or was it mutton? or chicken?) while their eyes devoured each other? The food was only a metaphor, and a prelude.

Of course food is inevitably connected with love. The food a wife or mother cooks from day to day—think of all the meals prepared and dishes washed and rewashed in one child’s childhood or a couple’s married life—is certainly an expression of love generous and unending. And meals shared are often the most concrete manifestations of lovers’ regard for each other.

In olden times, when boys and girls (and men and women) worried about what was proper to give each other, food was almost always proper—candy, chocolates, a home-baked cake, one’s grandmother’s pastillas, puto from one’s hometown. Admittedly, one did not usually give a leg of ham, or a kilo of fish, or a bunch of carrots—unless the gifted had a sense of humor, a generous imagination, and a sense of fantasy.

A good friend of mine expresses his love not only in food but in a total menu-performance. For a special loved one it was a special pasta recipe, for which he shipped to her hometown the makings of pasta and sauce; the wine, the aperitif, the salad and the dessert. And a poem written and declaimed for the occasion. On another occasion it was thin-sliced beef and vegetables and chopsticks for sukiyaki—cooked and served at the table the Japanese way. For still another day, Hainanese chicken rice with its sauces and soup; and smoked tanguingue with dill sauce and blueberry cheesecake.

Yet food, for some, is itself the object of love, or better than love, as in Eric Chilman’s poem, “A Gourmet’s Love-Song”:

Do I recall the night we met,
With both of our hearts en feu?
As if I could ever forget,
Dear Cordon Bleu!

A lover’s moon was in the sky
We dined alone, we twain.
Sole Veronique was partnered by
A still Champagne.

You wore a bandeau on your hair,
And with the Coq au Vin
Produced a magnum old and rare
Of Chambertin.

Chateau d’Yquem, a last surprise
Was climax, crown and seal.
I might forget your lovely eyes,
But not that meal.

~ excerpted from “Contrary Thoughts for Valentine’s Day,” originally published in Mr. & Ms., 18 February 1992

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