I love food, I love to eat, and food is an important part of my social interactions. When I ventured back into the world of dating after many years of marriage, I realized how people’s perspectives on food can interfere with dating relationships. Of course, much else had changed in the dating world as well; for instance, my age and the manner in which people met (yeah…the whole online dating thing makes me long for the good old bar hookups of the 1990s). But back to food: I’m not a glutton and I eat quite healthy, but I really enjoy eating with others. I find that how people approach eating affects how comfortable I am in their company. How people approach food, particularly food consumption with others, can be influenced by deep-seated cultural norms or individual preferences. Whatever the source, it is a determinant of the dynamic we have with others. And I use the term “approach to eating” much more broadly than specific culinary preferences or dietary orientations.
Let me use an an example from my family life as an illustration of cultural norms regarding eating before I turn to stories from dating experiences. My spouse’s parents were from the Midwest and, let’s just say, Fargo did a much better job of describing them than I could. (This Thrillist article is interesting: https://www.thrillist.com/lifestyle/nation/my-life-living-midwestern-nice). During early visits to their home, I quickly learned that the notion of “Midwestern nice” does not include warmth and hospitality. Even though we had traveled to visit them, a meal was prepared only if one was promised in advance. The first time we got to their home in the morning, I nearly exploded when I realized that there was no breakfast; not even coffee. Of course, on subsequent mornings, we hit a diner in the morning, and headed out for most meals. We were told at the beginning of the trip that a Christmas meal would be served; I didn’t realize that meant that it would be the only meal served. One might ask why I was not warned about this lack of hospitality by my spouse; well, I think that sort of candor also goes against the grain of that culture. During their first visit to my home, of course, I carefully planned each meal (resplendent with my nice dishes and silverware). Before each meal, they invariably commented that they were not hungry and then proceeded to clean their plates without one comment or compliment. I was perplexed. Then my spouse privately indicated to me that I was making them uncomfortable with my elaborate meals and that a better strategy might be to simply ask them what they would like for dinner. So I asked them that night. They said that they were not hungry and didn’t want anything; I said fine no dinner. Their son urgently rushed me to a private spot and said “So you are not making them dinner? They don’t mean it that they are not hungry; we have to fix dinner.” What??? I was lost! It would never occur to me to say I’m not hungry if I am. But I would also compliment a host on the food they prepare for me. These were cultural norms that a Jewish girl just did not understand. We cook, we eat. We have guests, we eat. We go somewhere, we eat. No, food doesn’t define us. But it doesn’t make us uncomfortable either. (Just an aside, a Georgetown linguist, Deborah Tannen has done some interesting research on cultural variations in communication styles within the United States; e.g.: https://momentmag.com/a-jewish-life/).
But I promised dating stories, so here they come. Middle-aged online dating has many challenges and food is a minor one, but I did find myself paying attention to how men approached food and eating (I say men because of the demographic to which my observations were limited). Well, most are pretty normal actually. The ones mentioned here struck me as odd, or just not very comfortable to be around.
Some don’t believe in dinner on the first date. They ask you to meet them for a drink at 7:00 pm, sit at a bar drinking until 8:00 pm, and then ask if you would like another drink. I eat dinner, and I eat it early. I’m a small person. I need to not drink very much on empty stomach. Apparently, to some people a “dinner” date carries some significance that they are not willing to attribute to that outing. Dude, I just want to eat! One such man I ended up having two subsequent dates with, both at his lovely home. Both evenings, he had prepared a gorgeous array of food which we never ate. Yeah strange. Let’s have some wine. Let’s sit on the patio. Let me show you the garden. Then it’s 10:00 pm and I say good night and leave; the topic of the dinner on the table never comes up. That one I truly can’t figure out. I decided it was just weird enough to steer clear of.
Then there are the vegans. I’m totally respectful of their lifestyle and culinary choices; I just don’t know what to do with them. Can’t make them food, can’t pick a restaurant; it just gets frustrating. If you are not a vegan, you don’t even think of all the infractions in any food you might offer them. I don’t even try; can’t win that one. During my last interaction with such a person, he very nicely said “let’s just take food out of the equation; we can do this without food.” Well, I didn’t know how.
The men who keep strict kosher. Again, I am very respectful of their lifestyle. In fact, I claim to keep kosher myself, but you know, the reform version of kosher (avoiding pork and shellfish). The first thing I learned about real kosher-keepers: you can’t really go out to restaurants. I enjoy eating out too much to give that up. But it’s not just that; they can’t eat at your home either because your kitchen is not kosher. One time, when expecting a guest with those dietary restrictions, I was told by him to not worry about cooking anything and just get some fruit. I understood, and said I will make a fruit salad. No…my knives couldn’t touch the fruit; it had to remain whole and unpeeled. Of course! And my dishes won’t work either. Yeah…sorry. Can’t do it.
On the other extreme are those who look at you strangely (even roll their eyes) if you rule out menu items at a restaurant because they contain shellfish or if you ask them to hold the cheese on a burger. Then they proceed to ask why we do this and try to explain that there is no health risk associated with those foods. Oh, and the best comment: you are missing out, this pork chop is so good! I really don’t want to have a conversation about rabbinic law; nor am I an apologist for any cultural / religious practices. I just don’t want to eat bacon; can we get past that? I won’t judge the other person for ordering whatever they want, but if they decide to order very unkosher stuff, then perhaps it’s not a good idea to reach over with their fork to try something off my plate.
It sounds rather shallow to say that you can’t have a relationship with someone who doesn’t eat what you do. No, it’s not about eating *what* you like, it’s about eating *how* you like. Food and eating is an integral part of most cultures, and sharing meals with loved ones is so very important for bonding. I say that as someone who spent four years of her life obsessed with body-building, counting/writing down every calorie consumed, and not sharing meals with her family. Yes, there was pretending to eat sometimes. Yes, there was eating “the right stuff” before going out to a dinner and then ordering a salad. Yes, there was avoidance of social events and holiday gatherings. I have to say, a chiseled body feels really darn good. And it looks really good when you look at yourself in the mirror before getting in the shower. But sharing those meals with loved ones would have felt better.