Grazing: Food love

A Valentine's Day reflection on eating and loving

Over the years, I've heard a lot of clients in my psychology and coaching practice complain about being unable to find love. "It's OK," I always tell them, "falling in love is a mental illness. Have something rich to eat instead."

Don't dismiss the joke altogether. Let's talk about the lunatic experience of new love itself, before getting to food. Consider that St. Valentine, the third-century priest who inspires us to get all amorous on Feb. 14, was beaten and beheaded by the unchristian Roman emperor for ignoring a demand that he not perform marriage ceremonies. The pagan Romans' own goddess of love and beauty, Venus, was insanely jealous, given to making humans miserable. Her son Cupid caused obsessive desire by inflicting cardiac trauma with a phallic arrow.

Things haven't changed. Love still conquers common sense and always hurts so good. Neuroscience explains that any pleasurable activity, including love, floods the brain with addictive dopamine. In love, our norepinephrine, an energizing neurotransmitter, squirts profusely at the same time, along with phenylethylamine (PEA), another stimulant. It gets scarier. Our serotonin, which might have a calming effect, also happens to dry up. Thus, and I'm over-simplifying, you become stupidly blissful and flibbertigibbety — a speed-freak zombie for Cupid.

Here, we make our first observation about food and love: This maddening state of new love — think of it as speed — typically lowers appetite. That in turn causes the frequent weight loss of new lovebirds. Fat chance it will last.

Eventually the hyper-anxiety subsides and another chemical, oxytocin, comes into play. It encourages attachment, trust, and the loving gaze. Predictably, that scares the hell out of some and many get bored.

But wait! Certain foods — especially those combining fat and sugar, like milk chocolate — stimulate and reinforce those love-dovey feelings of wellbeing. Hypothetically, that explains the common weight gain of the newly married. The problem is that many end up addicted and keep on eating.

Whatever the chemistry, there's no denying that an explicit connection between the heart and gut has existed throughout human history. Wedding banquets, Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, funeral meals, and dinners with friends, including the Last Supper, all celebrate the joining of human hearts. The tradition is so powerful that we suspend our differences long enough to surround the table. (Then we run for our lives.)

It would be pointless to list establishments that particularly accommodate the heart's flourishing come Valentine's Day. Every publication and website in town will inventory restaurants offering candlelit multicourse meals. It's the love you take to the restaurant that matters most and, naturally, couples will go to their favorite places.

But what of the rest of us, those without romance? The day before Thanksgiving, my partner announced that our relationship of 21 years was "definitely" over. It wasn't a surprise and, as he said, there is "no good day to tell someone this." But for me the day mattered.

When our drama started a few months earlier, I quit dining with him. For me, eating with someone is obviously an intimate experience and had become about all we did together. So, deciding to rejoin him at the table with his mother in our longtime Thanksgiving tradition was a big deal. It meant suspending hurt feelings long enough to connect.

Long story short, I spent Thanksgiving alone while he and his mother shared the day with friends. As it happens, research indicates that even the anticipation and appearance of good food causes the dopamine to start pumping, just as looking at the beloved does. Think aphrodisiacs and "food porn." So, the sudden rupture of a long tradition only reinforced my misery.

Fortunately, broken heart or not, I'm a person who has always enjoyed dining alone. I like carrying a book to restaurants or sitting at a bar, sometimes chatting with strangers. I've surprised myself by resuming the cooking I used to love and regarded as therapeutic. I do nothing complicated or pricey, but I've certainly noticed how much my heart's moods affect the choice and proportion of ingredients. Bitterness of turnips and arugula mingles with the sweetness of fatty, caramelized meats. I constantly crave tear-provoking hot peppers and Sriracha. Sugar. Sweet relief. I crave it so much I allow myself only fruit. I avoid foods and restaurants that we often shared, another effect of tradition's end.

Not surprising, dining out with others is more difficult but also more desirable. A few weeks back, a friend and I dined at the bar at BoccaLupo, whose chef Bruce Logue has been one of my favorites in town for years. It certainly wasn't romance, but my friend is one of the most pleasant people I know and pasta is legendarily comforting.

At my right was a young woman who was reading The Naked Civil Servant, a 1968 memoir by Quentin Crisp. She asked me what I had most gotten from the autobigraphy. I explained that it was among the first books around written by an openly gay man. It had been a revelation to me.

And her?

"I've read it before," she said. "I identify. I'm alone in the city, like he was. I think the main thing is that he says it's OK to be different."

Then it crossed my mind that I was sitting at the bar of the space where Ria Pell had operated Sauced. Ria, who died Nov. 24, was gay and well-known for celebrating "difference," like few people in this city. She radiated love that could not be contained. Love is necessary for the appreciation of difference.

For the ensuing time, I felt at peace. I savored Logue's magical, hearty food, and realized at meal's end that my hand was upon my heart.

To all of you with broken hearts (especially the newly broken), I urge you to taste your tears but nurture yourself. Don't hide. And, shattered as you are, let your difference inspire you. Your creativity is stirring. The dopamine and mental illness will be back soon — sooner than you want, in all likelihood!

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