Culinary Compatibility Played A Role In Ending My 20 Year Marriage, But Is Helping Me Find Love Again

It took me over two years to start dating after my marriage of 20 years fell apart. Dating as a single mother in 2022 looked nothing like the dark (and dirty) college pub where my now ex-husband serenaded me with a beer-induced rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon," which later became our wedding song. Dating today is driven by apps. Potential partners are vetted on social media, which is supposed to make it easier to meet someone using an algorithm, but it felt like I'd been thawed out after a century.

When I fell in love at 21, I focused on the traditional elements we are told are critical for a successful relationship — religion, whether you want a family, political views, and shared interests. Since we were in sync on the "important" factors, I convinced myself that his picky eating was insignificant. I'm from a close-knit first-generation New York Italian family, and his lineage dates back to the Mayflower, multiple generations of New Englanders.

His family was time-saving casseroles and jarred Alfredo sauce, while my family was all day simmered gravy meat with homemade cavatelli every Sunday for the extended family. We never purchased anything store-prepared, including canned and jarred items, and convenience was not considered for a meal. 

So, as I embarked on this next stage of my life, I wondered if a foodie like me could ever find happiness with a picky eater and what a red flag versus a beige one would be.

My love language

Food and eating have always been important to my family. It was how I was raised and how I raised my children. While every meal couldn't be a feast, I fiercely protected the days we could eat together and enjoyed spending hours preparing meals my family would appreciate. They weren't all successes, as my son quickly points out; but carrying on culinary traditions like Sunday pasta in the afternoon was essential to me.

Although I didn't realize it until much later, suppressing that side had long-term consequences. While I love fish, my ex-husband wouldn't try it, so I never prepared it at home and only enjoyed it at a restaurant. As a result, my children didn't eat fish growing up and haven't developed a taste for it. It's something I regret and brings me shame, although I haven't given up.

Cooking, eating, and food, in general, are part of the daily conversations I have with my parents and college-aged children each time we speak, discussing delicious recipes or familiar comfort foods we crave. As someone who based most of her career around food, I am constantly trying to expand my culinary knowledge to share new dishes with loved ones or describe them on paper.

Food is more than fuel for my body. It is how I express my creativity and show my loved ones how much I cherish them; part of my love language, and I think people like me need to take that into consideration when dating. 

Diminishing returns

I wouldn't reduce the demise of my marriage to my partner not appreciating the bitter taste of broccoli rabe as much as I do. After all, he had never heard of the vegetable until I started cooking for us. Still, when my efforts in the kitchen resulted in "diminishing returns," as he called them, it was clear that we were speaking a different love language.

The importance and weight I assigned to our meals and eating together didn't match how he felt. The issue wasn't whether our palates aligned since that is so subjective and a product of your environment and upbringing. It's hard to place any stock on whether you both like spicy food — it was deeper than that. It's the value you place on food and the shared experience of enjoying it. From how much of your income should be allocated to it to how much time should be dedicated.

While we both enjoyed good meals, his interest in food stopped there. Eating was often a business meeting when he traveled for work, trying to woo clients or make his employees feel good about their jobs. He had no interest in learning to cook and couldn't share in my excitement about the science behind it or the art of plating. 

Preparing our family meals, however elaborate or time-consuming, was just food. Although our children often participated and eventually became fantastic cooks, cooking was viewed as a chore like laundry, not an experience we could share.

How do you tell if you are culinarily compatible?

Once you've identified what was missing in your relationship, more questions arise, like what is a red versus beige flag, and how do you figure out what's enough? The older you get, the more confidence develops, making you a little impatient about people you spend time with. You no longer need to apologize for who you are and only want to surround yourself with people who make you a better person, and that's true for all relationships.

There's a strong desire to be authentic, which means no more pretending that a salad is enough for a meal. Still, you can't help wondering if the first date is too early to tear apart a rack of ribs, eat off his plate, or order a bowl of garlicky pesto. 

I know I don't need a chef. From all accounts, Julia and Paul Child had an enviable relationship with one person doing the cooking. But it is vital that they are open to trying new things and are interested in food, even if they can't cook.

For me, that means someone who enjoys going out to eat but smiles when he smells what I'm cooking. Someone who sees the value in preparing pasta from scratch together even though you can purchase dried pasta at the supermarket. A partner who joins me in the kitchen as we prepare dinner, not when I put it on the table. And maybe cook a meal now and then.

What to prepare first?

After a few dinner dates, I was excited to cook for a man I had been seeing but was nervous about what to prepare. I wanted to prepare the meal while he was here but didn't want to put on a cooking show, so the dish needed to be fairly simple but still memorable and, of course, delicious.

Naturally, I decided on seafood — something light and quick to cook but still a little decadent. I chose shrimp since it is one of my favorite foods, and I decided it was time to embrace my love of garlic with a scampi sauce that I served over rice.

While I let the rice cooker take care of the starch, I took advantage of the white wine in the recipe to enjoy a glass while waiting for him to arrive. Although I usually fly through meal prep, I was surprised that his interest in how I minced the garlic with course sea salt and how I knew the shrimp was cooked slowed me down and made the experience more enjoyable.

As we sat down to eat, watching him close his eyes as he savored his first bite and mopped up all the buttery sauce with crusty bread felt terrific. Food connects people in a way that brings me so much joy. I don't want a carbon copy of myself but someone who appreciates what I do and can say, "I can't believe you threw this together so quickly."