This week, I find myself cooking out of habit, then eating nothing or just picking around the perimeter of each nicely plated meal before packing the remains in plastic tubs. I have no appetite but am fixing delicious things, increasingly complex productions that fill my dollhouse-size apartment with perfect smells. In an effort to rationalize this situation, I shift from stewing over heartbreak to focus on science. While earning a nutrition degree, I learned we crave fatty things for their esters – compounds that carry smell and impart taste. From smell and taste, we derive pleasure and comfort, and from fats we derive fuel. The stuff that keeps our mechanical bodies going also plumps our hearts like pillows, in the figurative as well as literal sense. Fats are comforting and clogging. I also learned we crave sugar when there is a lack of sweetness in daily life. All I can stomach right now are Pink Lady apples and endless cups of honeyed hot milk. This indulgence and dependence is risky – artificial sweetness is inevitably succeeded by a bigger crash


This week, my heart requires plumping and sweetening, deflated as it has become. And, as the temperature drops outside my house, cold bleeds through the bricks and insulation, pouring down the walls and pooling on the floor. All this cooking serves a secondary purpose, heating my rooms when the radiator will crank no higher. Standing at the sink to rinse a stock pot midway through a recipe that builds through six finicky steps, my knees and thighs felt cold. I looked down, but instead of pants soaked by soapy water, I discovered a stiff wind blasting between the cupboard doors, cold tonguing between plates and bowls and glasses to reach the warmer kitchen air.

Last week, I was in love, and believed someone was in love with me, too. This week, half of that equation has changed. Meals were central to our courtship, and it makes sense that in response to our rupture, eating seems like a traitorous chore. When we were still strangers, we bravely prepared home-cooked dinners, exposing taste, appetite, and personal space, and gradually learned to please each other’s bellies. I discovered his particular affection for five-spice chicken, which he didn’t know he liked until I served it the first time. He discovered I like sitting side-by-side at the table, instead of distantly across. I liked to crook my legs and tuck my toes beneath his right thigh while we ate. We rarely went for dessert, opting instead for dwindling conversation then went to bed together, laughing that if we twisted into some languid position or other, we’d avoid crushing supper while we got it on. Afterward, we always struggled to resist curling up for the rest of the evening. Dinner deserved at least a chance at digestion and it was unfair to expect chicken and broccoli to triumph over gravity while we lounged horizontally.

I have lived alone most of my adult life, or shared houses with friends who didn’t share my diet. At dinnertime, even those crowded spaces felt solitary. For years I was vegan, and communal kitchens were like forks on a production line, with my supper and everyone else’s moving together through chopping carrots and steaming rice before branching off; beef to the left, tempeh to the right. Eventually, I invited meat back into my life, and while relearning how to cook with animals in the picture, I hit my stride in front of the stove. Until then, I’d believed I was a utilitarian cook at best, perhaps because my vegan life was fraught with a feeling that things just weren’t right. Many dishes were delicious, my budget was easily balanced, and my ethics were sound, but I was troubled by food-based isolation, a sense of calculated walling off, and an inability to fully share. It felt like the substances meant to sustain me were somehow letting me down.  

Once I returned to an omnivorous life, I felt closer to myself, but the more earnestly I cooked, the more evident it became which piece remained absent despite the return of meat and cheese. I examined my kitchen tableau like a table laid for entertaining. Hands on hips, apron still guarding my hostess dress, index finger tapping my bottom lip while I took stock: wine glasses, water goblets, napkins squared, forks lined up and knife blades angled toward the plate. What have I forgotten? Ah, yes. A guest. Cooking for, and with, someone changed everything; a second stomach at the table made the place setting complete. A solid division of labor had him bringing favored ingredients and me transforming them into awesome meals. Oh my gosh, we ate some pretty sweet things. I believed those meals, infused with my affection, were feeding my partner’s heart.

Our apartments are tiny, and we never really learned to move in concert through cramped kitchen space, but there was a charm to reaching under and over, bending to retrieve a pan from the drawer just behind his calf and drumming his leg with my fingers like, “shift a little, please, so I don’t get you with the corner.” It seemed curious that after he enjoyed hundreds of meals at my table and insisted upon washing up after each one, he still searched my entire kitchen before locating the soap bottle beneath the sink. Every time. And, it was bizarre the way he stacked clean dishes to dry in the adjacent sink, wine glasses cup-side up collecting dirty water, followed by upright carving knives then cast-iron frying pan on top. The prissy, orderly me wondered how we would fare living together someday, and if our affair would end with him finally losing his shit over the way I position the pepper shaker just so, or me bolting from the tiger-pit of knives and broken glass assembled nightly in our sink. But, I loved that in exchange for cutlery-based incompatibility, the second portion of the meals I prepared went someplace more rewarding than a container for tomorrow’s lunch.

I’ve thought, and written, a lot about food and the ways I use it to gauge relationships and plot their intricacies. I belong to a cohort of women who jettisoned Home Ec. and took pride in not knowing our way around the kitchen. Our mothers typically learned to cook to keep husbands happy and kids well-fed. Most of us didn’t have, or appear to want, spouses or babies any more than we wanted a recipe for Sunday roast with all the trimmings, and got by on one-pot meals and knowing which label dresses a really nice French wine. Not sewing, not knitting, and sucking at poached eggs. These inabilities were badges of honor, as though we had transcended the system that hitched our elders to undervalued work within the home. Then, in our twenties and thirties, we mastered those skills after all, ostensibly empowered since we opted to learn household proficiencies instead of having the domain imposed.

My girlfriends and I began seeking serious partners at roughly the same time we took an interest in grilling techniques and making jam. I haven’t asked these ladies about the process that ultimately landed them good men (and women), but I expect their transition was similar to mine. I didn’t wake up one morning, ready to embark on a husband hunt fit for the worst variety of chick-lit. Rather, I began to sense that, like the rare steak, Stilton cheese and butter cookies I missed during the Years of Vegan, relinquishing my stubborn solitude and sharing my days with a partner might be rather tasty. I admitted that I’d snubbed homemaking and settling down like they were signs of being lazy or giving up. And, I admitted that not only was cooking-for-one really fucking lonely, it was ridiculous to sustain solitude simply to make a point. And so, I invited risk and chance to dinner, and on special occasions, I served my own heart.

There is another pattern here, beyond using food as an emotional decoder. By making things official – deliberately tackling recipes; dating on purpose and with intent; enrolling in a class; writing stories about it all – I have bolstered vulnerabilities and reinforced weak spots that would otherwise feel recklessly unprotected. In January, I begin pastry school, where I will learn the ratio of flour to butter to sugar, the correct method for folding in egg whites, and how to laminate a delicate dough. I will master the foundation for items I already excel at (desserts and treats) and the dinner course my partner and and I rejected in our haste to shuck our clothes. The program is the ghostly legacy of once hot, now lukewarm, soon to be chilly love. Months ago, he paid my tuition, a generous birthday gift, and we joked about the mile-high cakes I would make when our birthdays roll around next year. It’s a wry twist that the table we shared now rests on scorched ground. And, that he has ultimately footed the bill for training me to woo his successor with sweets when someone draws a chair up to take my last love’s place.

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AMANDA MILLER is a writer and editor who lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. She moonlights as a baker and is currently writing a book about the intersections between cake and love. You can find her work in the anthology, The Edible City (Coach House Books, 2009). She also appears online at http://cakesandneckties.wordpress.com and http://hangoverhelper.wordpress.com/.

29 responses to “Bellyache versus Heartache”

  1. […] I will suggest you read this. from → The Nervous Breakdown ← Things LikeBe the first to like this post. No […]

  2. Reno j. Romero says:

    Amanda:

    This is so, so beautiful. Please, please, please, send this out to every lit mag/website you can find. I’m lost for words. The marriage you made with food and love is perfect. The science in your writing, the calculated recipes colliding with the emotional side, the taste, the warmth, is nothing short of perfect. Very artful story. Very. And very again. I’m sure someone will be sitting at your table and again the dance in the kitchen, the curious placement of knives and pots, the ditching of clothes and dinner for the bedroom. Things will get better. They always do. At least I’d like to think so. You are a wonderful writer and this is by far my favorite piece you’ve written (I did love the vacation tale, too). Keep on keeping on, Amanda. We carry on.

    Reno Romero

    • It takes a bit of gutting to get at the good stories, doesn’t it? Someone once told me the best work comes from poking at the wound. And yes…it always gets better…on New Year’s Eve last year, my best friend and I sat in a fancy-shmancy restaurant wearing dresses, suits, ties. We’d had a brutal year, but things were looking up. So, we raised a glass and toasted, “2010: down with fucktards and fucktardery!” Needless to say, 2010 brought a whole lot more of each, into both our lives…but…hey…new year soon, new toast soon, a whole lot of fresh starting will occur.

  3. Ashley Menchaca (New Orleans Lady) says:

    Very touching and beautiful.
    I’d love to say more but I’m afraid I couldn’t put my thoughts and feelings down in a way that would ever compare to this story. I’m just going to end here but please know that I loved everything about this piece.

    Sending good thoughts and love on your journey.

    • Thanks, New Orleans Lady…I started writing it at the office the other day while attempting to hide that I was crying at my desk like a total suck. Eventually, that disguise failed, and I passed the rest of the morning in my colleague’s office eating cucumber slices and chatting about “wtf?!”

  4. Kimberly says:

    Oh my Amanda.

    It appears we have shared the same past few months, and most tragically, the same past week.

    Thank you for having the courage to put to paper what I still cannot utter from my trembling and tear-drenched lips.

    • This one was mighty ouchy to write. The break-up came out of the blue to punch me in the face, and it’s quite possible the shock hasn’t worn off yet.

      Thinking of you while I wallow in all-about-me.

  5. Matt says:

    Well, damn.

    “And so, I invited risk and chance to dinner, and on special occasions, I served my own heart.”. Yes. Absolutely.

    I was the principle cook in my last relationship as well. No training or anything like that, but I threw myself into it, researching recipes, experimenting with ingredients, treating the kitchen like a ten year-old kid would a chemistry set: throwing things together in search of the biggest bang. I got it, of course, when she left.

    I keep cooking for myself, making the same sized meals as before, since I don’t mind leftovers the following night. And because I never know when a person of interest just might be joining me.

    Nice to see you back here, especially with such a solid entry.

    • When he came over to have the post-breakup “closure” talk a few nights ago, I had two Berkshire porkchops in the oven, a pot of beets braising on the stove, freshly baked brownies cooling on a rack and my favourite red wine taking a deep breath on the counter.

      The fucked up part was that any other weekend, this would have been precisely the scene that welcomed him for a quiet evening together at home. I figured I could stomach a proper dinner, but instead it got divvied into two Tupperware boxes and turned into Monday’s and Tuesday’s lunches.

      I always loved cooking, even alone, and look forward to loving it some more.

      Thank you for the welcome–it’s good to be back.

  6. dwoz says:

    I’ll bring the cilantro, garlic, and merlot.

    🙂

  7. This is great Amanda. I’m sorry about your heartbreak. It seems that most women have a relationship with food that is tied into their current love life. Have you ever met someone who didn’t eat differently, in some way, once they’d fallen in love? I had a close friend in college who wore her love life like an inflatable/deflatable vest. She would fall in love and lose five pounds, become miserable in the relationship and gain twenty pounds, leave the guy and lose fifteen pounds. It went on and one like this for as long as I knew her.

    • So true.

      I once gave a lecture about how women talk about dessert and sweets in the same tone and language as they discuss their sex lives and sexual encounters. Like, once one lady in the group admits she eats full slabs of cake alone at home sometimes, suddenly everyone at the table has a dirty dessert confession to share. Or, when the waiter slaps the dessert menu on the table, we all make eye contact and mutter to one another, seeking consensus that yes, it’s ok, we’re all going to have some pie. Like normalising and reassuring one another that yes, our dessert (sex) lives are alike and it’s all ok.

      I love the lovelife as life vest…that’s awful and lovely to consider!

      This week, I dropped ten pounds simply from sadness and stress…soon, it’ll all be back. It doesn’t matter how much or little I eat…heartbreak shucks the weight from my bones. It grosses me out a little…sad and bony…not a winning combination!

  8. Judy Prince says:

    Amanda, what a brave and deep-reaching essay on the food of love and the love of food!

    The comments are as marvelous as your writing! May I wholeheartedly join Reno J Romero (oh that man can use words!), Ashley, Kimberly, Matt, dwoz and Jessica in their wise, abundant thanks for your post?

  9. Lorna says:

    Wow. I don’t think I could possibly take another home cooked meal for granted after this story, Amanda. My husband is the cook in the family. We used to cook to together, but at some point in our marriage, I participated less and less and now almost all meals are prepared exclusively by him.

    I’m sorry for your loss. But this is a lovely love story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • My parents went through a similar role-exchange when I was in my late teens. My mom declared she was retiring from the kitchen and if we wanted to keep on eating, then we could damn well learn to do it ourselves.

      Now, I think they rotate, taking turns depending who works earliest or comes home late.

      I will always find it very sweet, seeing my dad (who pragmatically dons an apron even when slicing cheddar cheese and placing it next to small toasts) present a little plate of snacks to my mother along with a glass of white wine so that she has something to tide her over while he puts the finishing touches on whatever he’s got going on the stove.

  10. Simon Smithson says:

    It gets better, is about all I can offer. Slowly, oh, so slowly.

    Like a roast that last for months.

    And never tastes good. Not even once.

  11. Richard Cox says:

    This is a powerful piece, Amanda. I agree with Reno that you ought to submit it somewhere. I love how you were able to look into your own feelings and draw comparisons with food without dipping into sentimentality. In finding these truths we’re able to convey our pain in a way that resonates with others, making it shared pain, and in turn, art.

    • Is your little gravatar bird firing a gun?! That’s really just so great.

      It always feels a little trite, writing about topics like this. My litmus test is, did it just all come tumbling out, or was it carefully crafted over a few drafts and some agonising revisions? With my own writing, the ones that just kinda go blehhhhhhhhhhhhh all over the page are the ones that, as you say, avoid sentimentality. The ones I try to carefully articulate typically end up sounding like quoting my own diary circa 1987.

      I’ve actually come back to read this essay at least a dozen times since I wrote it…sometimes to give myself a bit of focus since the writing initially served to crystalise too many thoughts, sometimes to remind myself that there were good bits in with the rough, and sometimes because the re-reading is all that’s left of the relationship, which is still something of a shock. I’m glad people other than me have found something in it to take away…thanks for your words.

      • Richard Cox says:

        That’s a woodpecker firing a E-11 blaster rifle, which were standard issue for Stormtroopers during the Galactic Civil War.

        Despite my well-known Star Wars geekdom, I was forced to Google that, and was amused to see how on “Wookieepedia” they write about the Star Wars universe in the past tense. You know, since it all happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

        It’s this sort of thing that leaves me wondering if the net effect of the Internet on human life is necessarily positive. Hahahaha.

        • I have a couple longstanding, intensely close friends with whom I engage in a sort of “twin language”. One of those creepy-to-those-not-in-the-know sort of things cobbled together from in-jokes, banter, history and random dumb things that, over a sustained period of time, comprise a way of speaking and being together that is incomprehensible to other people.

          It’s the sort of thing that compels people to ask if we’re siblings or partners (the either/ or of that equation being the subject of another discussion unto itself haha), even though we look nothing alike, and don’t give off couple body language. I’m sure we sound like Wookiepedia, too, heh. But, we insist we’re pretty funny and pretty smart.

  12. Marni Grossman says:

    Amanda-

    This was really lovely and thought-provoking. I’ve never been much of a cook- I joke that, for me, cooking is just another word for “melting cheese on shit”- and I’ve never been in a serious romantic relationship. I wonder what it all means…

    • Amanda says:

      Melting cheese on shit…indeed. After reading your comment, I spent the afternoon mulling over the not taking the kitchen seriously/ not having a serious relationship thing…much thinking about this remains to be done by me.

  13. angela says:

    love your honesty here. i hope your heart is feeling better.

  14. Mo says:

    Coming to the party a bit late, but this piece floored me – because of how beautifully it’s written, and because the topic is one I understand.

    Thanks for sharing, I hope that pastry school is going well!

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