Hello and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, my ongoing series of essays on facets of food culture. I am, and have been for at least five years now, Jon O’Guin. Today, we’re going to talk about a topic that I’m certain everyone wanted to discuss with a single, bearded basement-dweller: Romance. (I’d argue that I’m also a poet and artist, but really, very few people want to discuss romance with THOSE figures, for basically the exact opposite reason, so really, I’ve got it coming and going.)
As you hopefully noticed, assuming you’re in a relationship, Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, perhaps the least reflected-upon holiday in the American calendar that isn’t Arbor Day. As such, no doubt all of you received gifts, or had fancy dinners, or otherwise shared time with your significant others. I spent my day with Youtube videos and steak, so I know I did.
By the law of probabilities, however, some of you likely also screwed something up. You bought the flowers they DON’T like, or forgot a food allergy, or something went wrong at work, so one of you was just not in the right mood. I can’t help you with that, because, well, it was two days ago, and my Time Machine is still pissed that I confused the Time Machine it hates at work with the one it gossips with at work. (In my defense, calling one of them “that naughty bitch” and the other “that HAUGHTY bitch” was always going to lead to confusion, letting alone the fact that apparently Time Machines have jobs and personalities.) But in an effort to refine your efforts for next time, I wanted to spend today discussing what makes a food Romantic.
Now, no matter what any of my exes, roommates, or psychiatric counselors says, I’m not solely an analytical robot of sarcasm and self-deprecation. I know that, to many, the very act of analyzing and considering something as purely emotional as romance kills the magic of it faster than a Killing Curse from Carl Sagan.
Shown here menacing a reporter with his invisible wand of Science
But hey, I can’t make you care more. Your heart is your own, to give, share, and manage in your own way. I’m just going to talk about what historically makes food romantic , and thankfully, that’s pretty easy to divide: there’s the biological roots, the sensible, the impressionable, and the most important of all: the emotional. So let’s get started!
Don’t know Much about History, Don’t Know Much Biology
I have to have referenced that Sam Cooke song, right? I don’t know, but if I haven’t, man, What a Wonderful World. Nice, double up.
Anywho, let’s get the main bad news out of the way: there is no food that is a universal and universally efficacious aphrodisiac. In Jamaica, they say goat-testicle soup (called “Mannish Water”) will always get your engine revving. Some people claim oysters and lobster will, despite the fact that both were considered garbage poor-people foods for centuries.
Pictured: your average 1850's oyster eater.
BUT, the good news: There are specific minerals and vitamins that are notable in improving various aspects of one’s romantic endeavors. B Vitamins, for instance, make you more energetic. Zinc and Magnesium improve joint health, as well as testosterone/semen production. Vitamin E helps blood flow, and A and C help with regulating hormone levels. Caffeine and Capsacin I’ll touch on in the next section.
So what foods are rich in these things? Well…that’s where the easiest part of this comes from: if you want a good source of Zinc: try Oysters, Lobster, or Goat-testicle. Or Pumpkin seeds. Dark Chocolate. Beef. Spinach. Yeah, it turns out the reason those foods were picked out by cultures is that they DO work, just not, you know, at a magic Viagra level.
In fact, let me give you this template: a rich protein source, a cooked green veggie like asparagus or Brussels sprouts, a spinach salad with walnuts and sunflower seeds, and a dessert of custard and fruit will cover LITERALLY every point of the romantic Vitamin consortium. You may note it’s basically a “Default fancy dinner” menu as well. And that’s because when we find a formula that works, humanity sticks with it.
Is it Sensible? Non, sensical!
Now that we’ve left literal biological fact, things are going to get very arguable very quickly, so I’d like to take a moment to point out that the next three categories will have overlap, and arguable points, and these distinctions remain solely the distinctions of my research and synthesis.
“Sensibly” romantic foods are a very narrow field, that’s also very broad. See, I’m using sensible in the classic sense: able to be perceived. So I’m talking the LOOK, or other sensory inputs. This will REALLY overlap with Impressionable, but the point here is the idea of the physical sensations. Things like the fact that people connect the color red to romance, so Red foods are naturally considered more romantic. It can be the shape of the food: see the oft-referenced in jokes banana/cucumber, or, for the ladies, oysters/papaya.
Black seeds are distressing against that bright orange background.
It can be the texture, (tenderness reigns here), or the Smell: As I’ve noted before, studies have actually been done on the most arousing scent combinations. Women prefer fennel-cucumber, Men like lavender and pumpkin. But I really want to touch on two ‘cheat foods’ in this category, since they use their sensory inputs to abuse the biological and impressionable categories: Coffee and Hot Peppers.
Yes, Coffee is, many times humorously, connected with romance. There’s a reason people get “invited in for coffee”, or “meet up for coffee”. It’s an innocent cover story, but it has a chemical explanation: see, Caffeine is a straight shot of excitement for parts of your brain. As such, flirting with someone who’s drinking coffee is a little more likely to work, because they’re already feeling good. Capsacin, from the hot peppers, works in a similar way: it makes you sweat, your pupils dilate, you get endorphins. You might recognize those as the same symptoms of becoming aroused. Both foods give the impression of the levels of excitement you’re trying to achieve through chemical means. Speaking of impressions!
That’s the Impression that I Get
If you look at a list of MEALS that are considered romantic, you’re going to find a common thread: they take either a fair bit of time, or a fair bit of money. Red Wine will show up a lot, as will chocolate. Large pieces of meat, hours of cooking time, or complicated preparation.
There’s an easy reason for this: You have value. And while it’s true, I’m not referring to that nebulous sense of “every human life has value” philosophical crap. I’m talking RAW value. The market value for my work 2 years ago was $15 an hour. That’s how much my time was worth, according to market valuation. As such, if I spent 4 hours making someone dinner, that’s $60 of effort, on TOP of whatever the ingredients cost.
This container of beef fat took me 3 hours. Fifty bucks.
This is, of course, too literal an interpretation. ( for one thing, I really only did about 40 minutes of work on that beef fat, so it's at most $10.) But it has a real and genuine foundation: Your time and effort has a value, and it’s the act of dedicating your time and attention, or just your resources, that makes things romantic. It’s an expression of how much you care.
This is why the idea of a “romantic” dinner is often tied to an expensive one: there is an implicit correlation between your valuation of the meal and your valuation of the relationship. But luckily, the last category trumps the Impressionable one, and it can turn an otherwise inexpensive meal into a heartfelt gesture.
It’s the E-Motion in the Ocean
This is the subtlest category, the one I REALLY can’t help you on, because, well…
Look, I’m going to quote a book about this, because that’s what I do when I have nothing to add. The book in question is The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s the second book in his Kingkiller series, which I am a fan of, because Rothfuss write great prose. His characters can be irritating at times, but the words he uses to describe them, their thoughts, and their world are effortlessly beautiful. Here's one of his characters talking about trying to talk about the first feelings of love you get when you meet someone:
“Even if you are clever and have a way with words, you are doomed in this. Because while your mouths may speak the same language, your hearts do not. […]The Second path is more careful. You talk of small things. The weather. A familiar play. You spend time in company. You hold hands. In doing so you slowly learn the secret meanings of each other’s words. This way, when the time comes you may speak with subtle meaning underneath your words, so that there is understanding.”
In short, I do not speak your language. I speak mine. And with a hundred people, whether friends, brothers, lovers, or simply associates, there are nuances, phrases, and ideas that I share only with them. Because no one speaks the exact same language, because their language is shared in the emotional bonds they have forged, the history they have shared.
This image actually means something to me and my brother.
In a recent magazine, an author explained how she loves miso-roasted Salmon heads, because she had one on the first date with her partner. She watched the pleasure he took in eating it, he offered her a fat slice of the cheek, they shared it together, and now it’s their dish. Fish Heads are, to many, literal garbage. But to this couple , they’re a cheap meal they love, and love to share.
THIS is the emotional component: the foods that are romantic not in some abstract, chemical and clinical way, but the ones that remind you of the good times, the shared love, and the endured hardships. The remembered joy of when they had that perfect tiramisu, or a recreation of their mother’s recipe for scalloped potatoes can be so strongly significant to render every other option meaningless in the face of your simple attention, remembrance, and care.
Because, to steal a phrase from a television chef, it’s not the recipes that make food romantic, it’s the people. Speak from your heart to theirs, as clearly as you can, and you can’t go wrong.
Unless you’re dumb enough to forget their allergies, in which case, buy some goddamn note cards or something.
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NEXT TIME: JON WORKS WITH HIS MEAT. GET IT? BECAUSE HE’S ALONE? FUCK THIS POST, AND FUCK HAPPINESS. ONLY THE INTERNET LOVES ME.