Sunday, December 17, 2017

11 Valentine's Day stories of food and love

The first time I laid eyes on the man who would become my fiance, I was frothing milk.

Clad in a uniform of khaki pants and bright yellow shirt, I was working in the University of South Florida bookstore cafe, serving up Caramel Macchiatos and Vanilla Bean Frappuccinos to book-toting college kids.

Phil was one of those kids.

He ordered a grande Java Chip Frappuccino from me that day, forever insisting I didn't blend the drink well enough. He also insists I flashed him a smile, like I knew this was the start of something big.

It was.

We'd bond over burritos and quarter beers at Tijuana Flats the next few months, him staring longingly and me trying to deny we were meant to be. Soon enough, I was staring back.

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

When I asked him what sort of romantic food story I should share about us for this issue, we couldn't think of anything spectacular. There was the time early in our relationship when he made me salmon for dinner because he knew I didn't like the fish and wanted to convince me it was delicious. He cooked the pink fillet in the oven of his college apartment, slaved over a bright fruit salsa. The meal deepened my love for him more than for the salmon. Over the years, we've both been passionate about finding good food wherever we go. We've noshed on everything bagels in New York City, sought out tremendous Italian food in Washington, D.C. And for our wedding in October, what's on the plate is a priority.

We've gone from two poor college students who had their first-date dinner at Chili's (I was too nervous to eat my taquitos) to adults who celebrated his 30th birthday at the indulgent Bern's dessert room in Tampa, but no one memory stands out. Then I realized, that's because all of them do.

Phil crystallized my epiphany when he texted this back a few hours after my initial query: "Well, that might make a nice point about how anything can be romantic when you're in love."

Even burritos.

We asked Times staffers to share their stories of food and romance, and of how the two often intertwine. Sometimes, good intentions gave way to disastrous results. But mostly, these 10 vignettes show how food often brings people together.

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

No petal pusher here

A foot-and-a-half-long San Francisco Columbus Italian Dry Salami or two dozen roses?

I didn't know that Wendy's mother would be judging my ability to take care of her daughter by the gift I sent on Valentine's Day. This was in 1971. I loved dry salami and so did Wendy, so I didn't think twice about what to get her. The problem was, she had another boyfriend and he was from one of the wealthiest families in Lodi, Calif. His name was Dave. He had a couple dozen roses delivered to Wendy's front door, making sure her mom would be there to witness all the love. All I had was the salami and the two years we had gone together from ninth to 11th grade.

In the end, it was the salami that decided it for Wendy. We've been married 40 years in September.

Don Morris, Times assistant news art director

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

Bring on the heat

The first time a man ever made dinner for me was sophomore year in college. The lad, let's call him Chris D., was house-sitting at a gorgeous home in the countryside outside of Charlottesville, Va. He handed me a glass of wine and told me to relax, he had it under control. He chopped things, he consulted recipes, he pulled out two adorable Cornish game hens from his grocery bags. Preheated the oven, slid those lovely birds, marinated and vegetable strewn, into the oven, and joined me for a glass of wine. Twenty minutes later, he peeks in. Grimaces. Turns up the heat. Ten more minutes, worried, turns up the heat again. Five minutes more, he's got his hand in the oven, waving it around. Oven on high, we wait. And wait. That night, the hens perched nearly raw on the counter, we ate a box of crackers and finished the wine. I think he still got lucky.

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

Love at first bite

I fell in love with veal while on my honeymoon in the San Francisco Bay area. I'd never tried it before and restaurants were serving these giant veal chops with the most exotic seasonings: garlic and rosemary. Now, 29 years later, veal chops are always on me and my husband's anniversary dinner menu, only I prefer to make them at home. Seared in a skillet then finished in the oven, liberally seasoned with garlic and rosemary, of course, and served with brandy mushrooms and scalloped potatoes. You'd say "I do," too.

Irene Maher, Times staff writer

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

An answer to the question

"Welcome to Moe's!"

Back in 2012, six months into home ownership, my then-boyfriend and I were working ourselves ragged on the yard. Young and idealistic, we drove 20 minutes out of our way to get a Florida-friendly mulch. Hungry and dirty, we stumbled into the forcefully cheerful Moe's in Clearwater.

Over fajitas and burritos, in between runs to the salsa bar, we talked about plans for the yard and house and somehow that morphed into a conversation about our relationship as a whole. Sometimes joking, sometimes serious — we lived together, we insulated the attic together — with a tinge of a question mark hovering in the air.

"Do you just see us living together forever?" I asked.

"Yeah, Ellie — that's why we bought a house," he said.

"Okay," I said. "I guess."

"Do you mean will we get married?" he asked. "Because I already think of you like you're my wife."

It's sweet now, but I didn't think so at the time. I got a little weepy, didn't make eye contact. The next thing I know, he got up and stomped away from the table. I continued picking at my food when he returned.

"Ellie, will you marry me?" my boyfriend said, sliding a ring he'd fashioned from a paper straw wrapper onto my finger.

It was one of the sweetest and most silly moments of my life.

We go to Moe's infrequently, and I was sad when they switched to plastic straw wrappers. We always try to sit at the booth where we got engaged, though now we have to pull a high chair up to the end of the table.

And the original engagement ring is still in my jewelry box.

Ellen E. Clarke, tbt* editor

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

But I won't do that (again)

Typically, cooking dinner for your significant other on Valentine's Day is considered sweet. Everyone is appreciative of a home-cooked meal, right?


During my junior year of college, I started dating someone right at the beginning of the year. Not sure what to do for Valentine's Day since we were in the early stages of a relationship and I was staring down the barrel of a bank account barely edging out of single digits, I decided to cook dinner for my lady-friend.

My only problem: I was (and am) a largely terrible cook. With limited options and an even more limited skill set, I settled on a classic American dish: meat loaf.

Aware that it is not the most romantic of foods, I decided to kick it up as many notches as possible. Extra peppers? Check. Meat thermometer to ensure salmonella wouldn't ruin the mood? Check. And the piece de resistance: I would mold the meat loaf into a heart.

Not only did I think she would appreciate this effort, I thought she'd be through the roof.

She wasn't. Not even close.

She stared at me, informing me that a loaf of meat, no matter the shape, is an inadequate Valentine's Day gift. She then promptly gave me the silent treatment.

The lesson for me? Stick to flowers and chocolate. She'll thank you later.

Andy Rosenthal, Times staff writer

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

An 'A' for effort appreciation

In college I met this guy I really liked, and after several good dates, we were closing in on Valentine's Day. I decided to cook him dinner in my tiny loft apartment near campus — basically a room with a kitchen wedged in the corner, the futon so close it was perpetually endangered by spaghetti sauce splatter.

It felt momentous, this cooking-for-him-for-the-first-time thing, and I decided to go fancy with a garlicky shrimp scampi that involved much messy shelling and deveining of shrimp, dolloping of white wine and melting of what had to be a full pound of butter. I thought it was perfect.

I shared that apartment with Chester, an imperious, massive Maine coon cat, which, if you are unfamiliar, looks like an elegant long-haired tabby on serious steroids. I was frantically finishing the dish when I realized my go-to neighbor was out and there was no one to taste-test for me. (I was too nervous to trust myself.)

But there was Chester, twining around my ankles in the kitchen filled with the smells of seafood and butter. Desperate times.

I served him a piece of shrimp in his dish on the kitchen floor. He sniffed it delicately. And then on the linoleum, Chester made that digging, sweeping, burying sort of gesture with his paw that a cat generally reserves exclusively for covering up something in the litter box. That, he told me, was what he thought of my meal.

And also apparently, of my date — who, when he arrived, did a double take and asked, "Is that all one cat?" Chester glared at him all night as we ate a dinner so bad we laughed about it. But I was touched at how much he appreciated all the effort.

I never again made a butter-drenched scampi. And when the man who bravely twirled that slimy pasta on his fork celebrates our 25th wedding anniversary with me in June, it's fair to say he'll do the cooking.

Sue Carlton, Times columnist

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

A good beginning

"Breakfast is served, beautiful."

Waking up for the first time in someone else's bed is always a little moment of truth, a sign of where the relationship (if it is one) might be going.

The first time I woke up in the home of the man who would be my husband, it was to the sight of him wearing a blue bathrobe and a beaming smile, holding out a tray.

As I sat up and tried to smooth out my bed head, he said, "I hope this will be all right."

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee opened my eyes. Arrayed on a white porcelain tray rimmed with yellow flowers were a mug of coffee with milk (he already knew how I liked it), a pink grapefruit half drizzled with honey and a golden croissant fresh from the oven. Tucked next to the white linen napkin was a crystal bud vase with a pink hibiscus, just cut from his garden.

Our wedding would be a year from our first date, and we would be married for 31 years, until his death in 2014. For most of that time, one or both of us would work as restaurant critics. We would bond over everything from burritos to Champagne, share countless spectacular meals from Le Grand Véfour in Paris to Stars in San Francisco. After he was gone I would leave a pinch of his ashes in the window box at our beloved Babbo in New York.

But I knew the moment I bit into that warm croissant that John Bancroft was a keeper.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

Broadening the palate

My boyfriend was born and raised in Bihar, India. I'm several generations native to Florida. As you can imagine, food is a very interesting part of this cross-cultural relationship, one of those things that reminds us just how far apart we can be.

There was the time Pratyush called me after I sent him to Publix, hesitantly asking, "So, where do I find macaroni and cheese? Is it in the freezer section?"

There was the time he offered me litti chokha, a snack delicacy from his home state, and I couldn't even swallow a bite. It's a wheat flour dough ball with a roasted chickpea flour stuffing that's cooked directly on coals. Politely, I'd call it "earthy." He said the other descriptor I used was too rude.

There was the time I had to explain the delicious heart-attack-in-the-making that is fatback, admitting that, yeah, eating deep-fried pig fat is pretty weird when you stop to think about it.

There was the time he had to teach me how to eat rice with my fingers the Indian way — a trial by fire at a meal with his family in New Delhi. He says I've gotten good at it; I'm pretty sure he's just trying to make me feel better.

There are the differences in terminology — to him, mutton is a goat; to me, goat is goat and mutton is sheep.

Among the ongoing fights I never expected to have with a significant other: when to eat dinner, with reference to the clock ("7!" I'll say, and he won't even show up till 9), and whether it comes before or after drinking. (This was a big problemo on New Year's, when I was asked to eat dinner at 3 a.m. after a few rounds of scotch.)

And who can forget the constant adventures in the kitchen? Somehow, we're still together after all of the mushy daal I've made him eat and all of the animal organs he has tried to make me eat. Thankfully, the way to the heart isn't always directly linked to the stomach, especially when the matter occasionally involves chicken hearts.

Caitlin O'Conner, Times entertainment news editor

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

Strands of love

During my second year at college, I thought Valentine's Day would pass as uneventfully as it did the first year. But earlier that week, Kyle said he didn't have plans and offered to come over and make spaghetti. We'd been hanging out ever since Hurricane Ivan brought us together on a friend's living room floor. He'd been a reliable ride to Walmart and bouncer for my house parties. I wasn't going to turn down free food or company on the dreaded Valentine's Day since both of my roommates had boyfriends and plans. Kyle whisked in to my apartment with bags of groceries — much more than I thought was necessary for a pot of spaghetti. He broke a little sweat as he chopped onions and peppers and basil. He liberally sprinkled oregano and other spices on the meat and browned everything as the noodles cooked in my best pot. My roommate walked into the kitchen for water just as he was preparing to plate. "Aww. Are y'all dating now?" Neither of us would confirm or deny. Eleven years later, I can still remember the taste of my husband's sincerity.

Robbyn Mitchell, Times staff writer

Marilena Perilli | Special to the Times

That's amore

When I was in my junior year of college at the University of Delaware, I went on a study abroad trip to the land of wine, Bernini and afternoon siestas. I traveled all over Italy's cobblestoned streets, from Rome to Venice to Siena.

On the first evening in Sorrento, one of my closest friends from the group called my room and told me to come down to the hotel bar for a drink before we went to the Piazza Tasso. I made my way to the lobby.

I will never forget coming down the stairwell and spotting him. There, in the foyer of the hotel, was a group of the study abroad girls crowded around my boyfriend, Randy.

"What are you doing here?" I squealed and hugged him close. Our embrace was filled with everything I missed about home: our parents, our yellow Lab and his affection. My fellow college students swooned, gasped and giggled. Here was my boyfriend who I'd left behind on another continent, surprising me in Italy — the most romantic thing a girl could dream of.

Randy and I spent the next nine days traveling the Amalfi Coast and Rome. We drank limoncello in Capri. We devoured Italian chocolate and toured Pompeii. We ate gelato and threw coins in the Trevi Fountain.

But of all the ruins and all the Renaissance art, one of the things we loved the most was the pizza at Pizzaria De Franco. The restaurant was a cozy dive right next to our hotel in Sorrento. Big slabs of prosciutto hung from the ceiling and the pizza was served on metal trays. The whole place stunk like cheese. It was so unassuming that the first time we went in, I debated if we were making a safe decision eating there.

Then I took a bite of the light crust topped with fresh melted mozzarella and sweet tomatoes and was smitten. We ate there four of the five days we were in town.

As two kids that grew up in a touristy beach town, it was typical us to love the most local place we could find in Italy. Eleven years later and married, we both still agree it's the best pizza we have ever had.

Amber McDonald, Times staff writer

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