They both brought bacon-turkey wraps, but his was heightened with baseball mustard while she had horseradish dijon instead. Their yogurt was Greek, their hummus garlic-infused. Both had celery and carrot sticks, but he ignored the celery while she looked at the carrots as if they were plagued. For dessert they had green apples and a small bar of chocolate. They ate in the same refectory where, to the best she could recall, they had never talked.
One afternoon, she forgot her chocolate and he swept in to rescue her by breaking his own bar in half. She accepted it, only to frown as the first piece melted on her tongue.
Milk chocolate, she said, is a cardinal sin.
Her tone was piquant and that night, as she hovered over leftover pizza, she regretted the remark; preparing her oatmeal the next morning, she decided she would take lunch on the quad. But he ambushed her, appearing in the hall with a bar of chocolate that was 70 percent dark. She frowned again and hated herself for it, but he didn’t mind. He liked a challenge. Day after day, he returned with a new bar.
The chocolate became darker and her frowns became smaller until, one Friday afternoon, he offered a small slab of 100 percent pure cocoa butter unadulterated with vegetable fat, and the frown disappeared entirely, to be replaced with a smile that revealed the spinach in her teeth.
At the Indian buffet, she was sloppy with her butter chicken, while he spooned basmati onto his dish before carefully adding chicken masala on top. He followed it with rogon josh and a tandoori chicken drumstick before wiping the rim of the plate clean. On their second trip to the trough, she was fastidious with her dal and imitated the way he folded his naan. Before they left, he introduced her to gulab jamun: balls of cake nestled in syrup that smelled like a rose.
They went for a nightcap at the bistro where he worked as a garde-manger. She liked her stouts while he favored ciders that were dry. They each drank their preference, but on the second round, he tried a Guinness and she had a Crispin. On the third round, she suggested they mix the two and was so proud of the result that he let her believe this was the first Black Velvet in the history of the world.
When they woke the next morning, he fixed a breakfast of epic proportions while she made her father’s famed concoction for eliminating hangovers, an unholy mixture of tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, cinnamon, cough syrup, and Coke. He drank it without alarm, an act which she venerated more than his homemade hollandaise or medium poached eggs or the way the entire meal, as might be expected, was arranged on the plate with a delicate touch.
First course: Soup
After graduation, they spent the summer backpacking through restaurants. He had a legendary metabolism, but she was not so blessed. He acted upon her as a roux: By September, she was buying new pants because she now quivered when she moved. He didn’t mind because he had been trained to make gravies that coated the back of a spoon. He loved the way she had congealed.
Eventually they ran out of money and he turned to elaborate dinners, all of which were improvised on the spot. Eating well demands eating what’s fresh, he told her. It’s pointless to plan a meal in advance.
By spring, her vitamins were in his cupboard and her milk of choice (skim) was in his fridge. She found work writing slogans, and he appeared at noon bearing turkey wraps and a charming grin. After becoming apprentice to a patisserie, he embarrassed her with a birthday tortierre served by singing friends. In his father’s house, they ate Dublin coddle and drank whisky that burned her throat. The following week, he served her parents a banquet of Polish food, during which her mother declared that she now believed in reincarnation because she was certain she had eaten these exact pirogues in her youth.
On their first anniversary, she arrived to find the apartment smelled of curry. The table was furnished with a buffet, and he presented her with a plate of basmati, chicken masala, and one carefully folded naan. They mixed stout with cider and toasted each other with ornate steins. His attention to detail was so absolute that she should not have been surprised when she discovered the ring in the mulligatawny. Yet she reacted as if it had appeared by magic, and when she threw her arms around his neck, she half-expected him to, like any illusion, completely disappear.
Second course: Fish
There was sole at the rehearsal dinner and halibut the next day, but the extravaganza so distracted her appetite that she was famished by the time it was done. On the plane, she made the grave error of ordering one of everything the airline had to offer. For 12 hours, she knelt in the bathroom of their honeymoon suite while her new husband tried to communicate with a doctor en español. For days she could eat nothing but bread and salmon without the skin and the occasional tablespoon of paella, which he was eating at every meal.
Back home, there followed so many celebrations that she could not distinguish between the herring of an April morning and the grilled shark of an August night. The mussels might have been a midnight snack, and if the barbecued trout was dusted with snow, that was either because of Christmas or Valentine’s Day or both. The next meal she truly remembered was the one she didn’t eat at all: He left her a message asking her to buy kibble, even though, until that day, they had never owned a dog.
Her turkey-wraps were replaced with elaborate club sandwiches, pieces of lemon meringue pie, and beef empanadas. At dinner (when he was home for dinner), it was Around the World in Eighty Meals, with kabuli palaw and shorba and Swedish meatballs in a peppered sauce. His legendary metabolism left him unchanged, but she began buying new clothes, despite the fact that she (and only she) walked the dog twice a day. She took antacids and anorectics and caffeine pills. Nothing helped, and at lunch meetings, as she sat with clients, she ordered salads and picked at them with a fork.
The dog became sick after eating macadamia nuts; he became sicker after he got into the grapes. But it was the dark chocolate that ended him. Milk chocolate may be a sin, but to dogs it can be a saving grace. After throwing out the chocolate with the kibble, her husband announced a prohibition on all cocoa for the rest of their days. She began to sneak chocolate as if it were heroin, but when a bar fell from her bag, he fell into a fury that made her repent.
The very next day, while lunching with a client who was in from Baton Rouge, she ordered a salad and spent all her time sliding cucumber slices through the field of green.
Thank God you’re not an eater, said the client. Food just makes it that much harder to get drunk.
He ordered a martini and she, after a moment’s pause, ordered a stout, the first she hadn’t mixed with cider in almost 17 months. She became reckless with a second drink and than a third. It was happy hour; then it was last call. She had the foresight to tell her husband she was out with friends but not to have dinner. She didn’t eat again until, back at the client’s hotel, they ordered room service and enjoyed an indulgence of oysters while lounging on the rumpled bed. An hour before dawn, she had black coffee from the all-night café across from the hotel. By sunrise, she was drinking a batch of her father’s famous hangover cure, and by noon she was treating her husband to an elaborate brunch of coddled eggs, bacon, hot coffee, rye toast, and strawberries whose shape remembered a heart cleaved in two.
A few weeks later, he came home with cider and stout, only to learn she could no longer drink. He found her drinking fortified milk and arranging a meal plan with a regimented number of vegetables, grains, and meat. His culinary skills had never seen a better challenge. Six months later, an average night consisted of him stewing fruit while she indulged in non-fat frozen yogurt. Privately, usually when she was in a doctor’s waiting room, she looked online at the menus of restaurants in Baton Rouge and imagined a life of grits, chicken creole, and Sazerac slings.
Her body stayed healthy and her breasts became milk-plump. For the first year, she spent hours being devoured whole and watching the baby with care. Once the little girl switched to solid food, it became clear she had none of her father’s appetite. The girl ignored her carrots and preferred chocolate as dark as licorice gum.
Third course: Roast
He became the sous-chef, leaving her to concoct meals of canned soup, freeze-dried noodles, and imitation cheese. The girl became a student and the mother slipped into an era of packed lunches, during which she seemed to spend all her time arranging juice boxes and removing the crust from cheese sandwiches. There were hundreds of pudding cups, thousands of celery sticks, a million tiny raisins. It was never enough. She shopped, prepared, ate, recycled, composted, shopped again. Relief came in the three hours before her lunch break and the four hours after; she felt a slight dismay when a meeting came with a platter of blueberry muffins, as if the baked goods were interfering with a few blessed moments of peace.
She enjoyed the office parties, mostly because of the beer, and it was at a retirement celebration that she learned of the opening for a new liaison with some clients down south. She proposed herself even as her supervisor offered her a piece of the store-bought carrot cake that had been acquired for every departing office worker since the dawn of time.
On her first trip to Baton Rouge, she was welcomed by colleagues who took her out for fried chicken and reported, upon compulsion, that the man who drank more than he ate had changed professions. Someone thought he might have gone overseas. She spent the rest of the meal picking at the collard greens. Later, in the hotel, she ordered oysters and ignored the calls from home.
She brought home cookbooks with the intent of introducing her family to things like gumbo, jambalaya, and rice with sausage gravy. But her husband demurred: The spices in Cajun cooking, he said, would make his stomach hurt. His iron constitution was finally starting to fade. He was cutting down on all meat and made plans for a garden so he could make organic meals. He promised to plant roses: He could use them to make syrup for homemade gulab jamun.
Her new cookbooks went onto a high shelf; she had herself transferred to different accounts and vowed not to think of Southern cuisine again.
They spent a year without alcohol and another without sugar; their daughter spent six months not drinking milk. It was the age of dieting. Doctors told him to give up gluten. Coffee was prohibited, and salt was declared the devil’s curse. They inhaled protein shakes, licked cinnamon sticks, and popped echinacea. His body continued to revolt, and he decided it was so rich in toxins that the only cure was a cleanse. For 10 days, he would consume nothing but a witch’s brew of lemon juice, maple syrup, water, and cayenne pepper.
On the second day, he had chest pains and a persistent cough. Two nights later, he slept for 13 hours, and the day after that he complained of headaches, nausea, and cramps. On the eighth morning, he collapsed while measuring out the lemon juice; by the tenth day, mother and daughter were alleviating their anxiety with potato chips from the vending machine in the hospital’s hall.
Tests revealed an ailment no amount of juice, syrup, and pepper could defeat: He had a tapeworm almost nine feet long. His legendary metabolism had not been supernatural, after all; tapeworms can live in the body for years. No one knew how long he had been a living, breathing meal.
Surgery was performed, but in the aftermath he contracted an infection that invaded his lungs. The sickness was bad; the food was worse. Salisbury steak, tough as sinew, was served with slushy peas and a gelatinous dessert the shade of watered-down blood.
Night after night, she took her daughter home and lay in the dark thinking of the spearmint phlegm that dribbled out of him when he coughed. She began to spend more time in the kitchen, that home away from home inside the home. At last, one morning, her daughter woke to find her mother lost in a wasteland of cookbooks and dirty pots. Her daughter asked for breakfast, but the new cook just looked at her with the gaze of a calf who has learned the definition of veal.
Either get ready for school or help. Food doesn’t make itself.
They swept into the hospital laden with containers, cutlery, and paper plates. They swept his nightstand clear and set up a buffet of curry, rice, and rogon josh. She instructed her daughter on how to arrange the plate and wipe the rim so the whorls of her fingertips turned red with sauce. They passed the meal beneath the patient’s nose. The fumes raised his heartbeat, increased his blood pressure, and brought tears to his eyes. Mind won out over matter, or perhaps appetite over illness, and though his throat was clogged with mucus, he opened his mouth to taste what his wife had made. She fed him as an infant, spoon by spoon, and then finally presented her masterpiece: She had made gulab jamun from scratch.
Roses! he exclaimed.
She had done well, but it wasn’t enough. He was buried with the taste of syrup still on his tongue.
The food they had made furnished the funeral table: his Irish clan and her Polish rodzina mourned at the buffet. The widow watched the guests slop food onto their plates, stricken by the thought of the thousands of meals that lay in her path. So many menus, one of which would almost certainly involve the taste of oysters and a description of Southern cuisine. But, as her husband had always said, it was pointless to plan meals too far in advance. Her daughter arrived with a paper plate, but she said she couldn’t possibly think of food; in fact, she was already thinking of the morning ahead and what she would make for their first breakfast alone.