Only a spoilt fop like the Duke of Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night could imagine music is ‘the food of love’. Had he ever turned a spit, or sung for his supper, he would have realised that music may nourish romance, and possibly aid digestion, but without grub there is no love.
If food and love aren’t identical, they’re near as fraternal twins. As Cervantes remarked, ‘All sorrows are less with bread’. Food and love are bare necessities, but also have potential to be as troublesome as Adam and Eve’s apple, since both mediate pleasure and power in relationships. Spoon-feed a toddler and you’ll soon grasp that without love’s seasoning providing food can be hell.
It’s amazing how efficiently cooks’ feelings translate to the tastebuds. Eating in motorway service stations, who can ignore the whiff of a chef’s minimum wage-indifference? Similarly, I knew where I stood with a boyfriend’s mother after she fed me a black roast spud that had sat a week in her oven before its second Sunday lunch. Not coincidentally, the shelf was her preferred destination for me.
Whether you fancy oysters or asparagus, the aphrodisiac quality is about texture, form, as much as any chemical. But even culinary erotica has a childish core, because food’s love-purveying dimension derives ultimately from the cradle, and parents’ devotion to the egotists Colette called ‘happy, unconscious little vampires who drain the maternal heart’. The solace babies find in milk is the nourishment we seek in comfort foods. Just read Nigel Slater, our foremost lyricist of the sideboard, on ‘creamy clouds of blissful mash’ – ‘the sort you want to bury your face in’.
Breaking bread was once the essence of companionship (‘com’ meant with, ‘pan’, bread). Now many dine alone, serenaded by a microwave’s ping. Our emotional contract with food is different if it’s made by machines.
Cheap, fat-laden foods are marketed as convenient little luxuries – a form of self-love epitomised in the ad with the woman gobbling chocolate in the bath. Go on, have another love, says the supermarket; this week it’s buy one, get one free. But eating disorders seem a logical response to spoil-yourself consumerism. To food available 24/7, that doesn’t tire in its preparation and makes blood sugar soar then plummet – making us fat, yet leaving us hungry. Without love, such food is antisocial, and very inconvenient.