My husband Will told me that he once stood at the kitchen sink to eat a pig’s foot. He had followed a recipe from his favorite cookbook, simmering a blend of sticky soy and orange and molasses and pig parts. For hours, the feet bobbed in the inky sauce alongside slices of pork belly. And when they were tender, he rolled up his sleeves and plucked a foot from the pot and took a bite, sauce dripping down his chin and into the bottom of the sink. Plink. Plink. He finished the whole thing.
I wasn’t there for the pig foot, but the image blooms in my mind. This is a man who hungers, who tastes, who can spend hours getting the sauce just so but, once it is, cannot wait for a plate.
Will is always eating, often very strange things in very strange ways. Scarfing down pickled eggs straight from the jar with the fridge door still open, his face and bare arms bathed in eerie blue green light. Standing at the threshold of the kitchen, cradling a slice of pumpkin pie in the palm of his hand, the buttery crust greasing his skin. Smearing a cracker with creamy feta and topping that with a cube of cheddar and then a wedge of quince paste. Peeling open a cold cooked lobster and pulling the flesh from the shell with his fingers. He is trying, he is tasting, always, always.
We tend to think of passionate eaters as greedy, but that’s never been true in my experience, and especially not with Will. The first time I visited him in his home city of Halifax, he took me for poutine at a college bar and I felt the curds squeak between my molars, lubricated by unctuous gravy. He drove me to Peggy’s Cove, a beautiful historic fishing community outside of Halifax. Once we arrived, he insisted that I try herring with sour cream on a cracker and I winced with anticipatory disgust. The combination of cold pickled fish and cream was… not for me. When we got back to his apartment, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder in his tiny galley kitchen and he showed me how to break down a whole duck, snipping up the spine with kitchen shears. It made me feel confident, like a proper cook. We let the duck marinate in orange juice studded with whole cloves and star anise while we made basil simple syrup on the stove for daiquiris.
Will and I were just friends for more than ten years, often in relationships with other people. We met working at a summer camp, our fingers perpetually covered in the sticky remnants of toasted marshmallows. Before Will and I were married, I mostly dated men who didn’t care much for elaborate meals or obsessing over food. I always felt deficient in relationships because I hungered too much. I wanted to go to that new wine bar across the street, I wanted to buy that whipped honey at the farmers’ market, I wanted to stop for a waffle at the food cart parked outside the grocery store. “I could eat the same thing every day,” one of my exes would often say, pride in his voice. It sounded like a statement of his moral steadfastness that stood in contrast with my wicked appetite.
I tried to make those relationships work and to suppress my desire to try new things. But I would inevitably end up on a food blog or paging through a cookbook at Kitchen Arts and Letters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and I would start to salivate. So I would take out my phone and text Will, because Will got it. Food became the safe place for us to explore our unspoken love and desire for one another. When we were apart, we would post links on one another’s Facebook walls, recipes for s’mores martinis and satirical articles about kale. And when we were together, we were always eating.
Of course, it was foolish to think we could connect over food and keep things platonic. Food is the least safe place when it comes to love and desire. To share a meal with someone is to share an experience of intense intimacy. What is on the plate becomes part of you, literally part of you, feeding your cells to fuel breath, heartbeat, senses. I would think about that when I ate with Will. Sitting across from him at a table brought into focus the edges of my body, the feel of my tongue in my mouth, my corporeality. I felt full–of food and of drink, and even though I had not yet admitted it to myself, of love.
Will would visit me about once a year when I was living in New York City and we would plan elaborate food adventures, trying to taste as much as possible before he would have to go back home to Halifax. On one visit, we couldn’t decide where to have dinner, so he suggested that we make reservations at two different places. We started the evening at The NoMad, an elegant restaurant with exquisite food, sipping cocktails and sharing tagliatelle with Meyer lemon and king crab. We were seated at a small table in the center of the room and every time one of their famous roast chickens came out of the kitchen, we were four blue eyes tracking it across the floor.
We had time to kill before our reservation at the French bistro Les Halles, so we stopped at an Italian market. We wandered around without a basket and I watched him fill his arms with packets of bresaola and prosciutto cotto and containers of olives and wedges of ricotta salata. He stacked them one on top of the other and I felt so giddy to know him. It was one of the best dates of my life, except for the small detail that we weren’t dating.
On another of his visits to New York, we went to Le Bernardin, the legendary four-star French restaurant. We could only get a reservation for nearly eleven o’clock at night, but we dressed for prime time, Will in a beautiful jacket and tie and me in an embroidered dress and heels I could barely walk in. He ordered the tuna with foie gras and put his fork down after he took the first bite, his eyes filling with tears of joy because of what he had just tasted. Watching his vulnerable reaction felt so intimate. I placed my hand on his arm and smiled at him and we both knew that the staff believed we were a couple. We didn’t correct them.
When we finally admitted our feelings for one another, it was two nights later at a hip Mexican restaurant with tin trays and paper napkins. We ate fish tacos with cabbage and cilantro and chipotle aioli. We were emboldened to speak by the margaritas we sipped out of mason jars, the heady tequila and the bitter lime, bitter as a life without one another would be. “I love you,” he said, aioli greasing his lips, “And I always will.” I looked at him across the table and years of denied appetite suddenly came roaring through. There was no question we would be together.
Since then, we have stopped at a small pushcart in Maine to slurp oysters while standing on the sidewalk, throwing the shells into a bucket. We have seared foie gras for dinner at home and served it with a smear of peanut butter and tangy cranberry jelly on brioche. We have sat on stools at Little Oak Bar, our favorite bar in Halifax, with our knees touching and our hands wrapped around Negronis and ordered absolutely every bar snack on the menu.
We have stopped for coffee, and I have watched as he brings my iced coffee to the milk bar, no lid, almost overflowing. I have watched as he placed his lips to the brim and slurped until there’s enough room in the cup. I have watched as he pours in cream, so much cream, probably too much cream, until it’s just how I like it, and watched as he brings me the cup, an everyday act of extraordinary love.
After our wedding, we went out for lunch with our families at a quiet diner by the sea near my hometown in Massachusetts. We put my bouquet in a plastic mug on the table, a makeshift centerpiece for our little wedding reception. We poured hot butter over the lobster rolls until they glistened, shared eggplant fries, snuck fried clams off of my mom’s plate. We were a tangle of arms and forks braiding into one another, angling to try all the different types of pie that we ordered. It was perfect.
Later that day, we drove to New York for our honeymoon, and we made reservations in advance to go back to The NoMad and Le Bernardin. Again, the food was remarkable, but it was even better to hold hands with him on top of the table.
Image: “Finger-licking” by Quinn Dombrowski, licensed under CC 2.0.