It was in Pizza Express Pinner, aged 16 years old, that I first made the connection between food and romance. Young, nervous and baffled as to how I had managed to bag a date with one of the hottest guys in our year, I decided the best thing to eat was nothing. “Chicken Caesar salad, please. Without the chicken. Or dough sticks,” I whispered. My date regarded me with a mixture of pity and puzzlement. “Is that even a thing?” he asked, before ordering himself dough balls and pizza with extra pepperoni.
Reader, there was no second date. I don’t know if my comprehensive rejection of sustenance had anything to do with it, but I’m certain it didn’t help my cause.
So when a survey revealed last week that one in five people decide whether to continue dating someone based on their food preferences, and that more than half would be more attracted to someone if they like the same foods as them, my surprise was only that the numbers weren’t higher; for in the inimitable words of writer MFK Fischer, "our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others."
The survey was conducted by Peperami, purveyors of salami snacks and more recently of snackable chicken bites, in whose name the research was commissioned. Other revelations were that over 50 per cent of people believe someone liking the same dishes as them makes them more attractive, a significant majority were more likely to judge what is on their dates plate than their shoes, car and income, and 39 per cent thought chicken and chips was the safest meal to opt for on a first date.
This latter figure of course begs the far more important question of why in heaven’s name 780 adults are ordering from the kids menu on a date – but there is a serious point here. Where for most animals, food is fuel, for humans it is a medium through which we communicate everything from our table manners and tastebuds to our upbringing, belief systems, economic status and politics.
“The thing about food is, it becomes part of you. You literally are what you eat,” says Dr Kaori O’Connor. An Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Anthropology at University College London, she has spent years exploring our eating and drinking practices, and is entirely unsurprised by the survey's findings.
“Eating is a secular sacrament,” she continues. “Sharing food makes you one, in a sense – which also means the reverse is true”: in short, that a die-hard vegan would be repelled by my showering pasta with parmesan. “You might be able to overlook sports teams and even politics, but it’s hard to overlook the fact your partner or potential partner is eating something you deeply disapprove of – particularly these days, when people’s food choices are increasingly dictated by ethics and sustainability.”
It is why I myself cannot date someone who knowingly eats low-welfare animal products; and it’s why some vegans can’t date me, because I love cheese to the point of reverence. This isn’t just about ethics or even physical disgust, O’Connor says, “it’s an act of intimacy, eating together.”
Learning what someone likes, how they like it and catering for that is “like seduction at one remove. In fact, many societies do parallel eating with sex.” There’s no escaping the sparks that fly along Lady and the Tramps’s spaghetti strands, or between Skylar and Will in Good Will Hunting when they snog mid-burger. Years ago, my friend dated somebody “who loved creating little perfect mouthfuls on his fork of combinations of food that he thought was delicious and then passing it to me to try. I remember thinking it was quite cute that he wanted me to taste the meal the way he did.”
Of course, sharing food isn’t necessarily sexually charged – just as well, given the number of restaurants with sharing concepts – but “it is still a huge sign of trust to say you are happy eating off the same plate,” says O’Connor. If this was true pre-pandemic, how much truer must it be in this new age; after all, she observes, the only thing less socially distanced than sharing a meal is sharing a bed.
“The idea of sharing a plate of nachos absolutely repulses me now,” my date observed in the pub last week; yet when I’d seen the plate of golden, gooey guacamole crowned tortilla chips sail past, my first thought had been to order some to share. To the list of subliminal messages we send to prospective partners through our food choices, we must now add ideas around viral transmission and social distancing.
Nor is this the only aspect of our eating habits the pandemic has changed. With more carnal pursuits unavailable during lockdown, many single people turned to cooking and baking “as a source of distraction, and serotonin – the feel-good hormone which sex also induces,” notes psychologist Amanda Hills. 30 per cent of singletons surveyed in September claimed food was more important than sex, and only 17 per cent thought sex was more important than food. This doesn’t surprise Hills, who – like me – has found many single friends regard dating as too risky or just too much effort. As one pal memorably put it, “if I stay in and make fresh pasta, my sensory pleasure is guaranteed.”
I’ve long maintained that you can tell a lot about a person by the condiments they favour (a belief born out by coruscating encounters with tabasco, kisses slick with garlic mayo and, more positively, a shared enthusiasm for wholegrain mustard). Yet according to Hills and O’Connor, it is not what, but how we eat and our approach to food in general, that is most likely to dictate our dating lives: whether you are generous or stingy, snobby or fussy, and whether you regard meals as “a time to be together and talk, or be sat in front of your laptop or TV.”
“I don’t think it’s very important to be compatible with your food choices. It’s actually possible that two people who eat or drink differently can have a very positive effect on each other.” A case in point is a vegetarian, lactose-intolerant and wine-loving friend of mine who is very happily partnered with a teetotal omnivore. They cook together, eat together, choose restaurants both can enjoy and take great care not to judge each other.
Yet many people – myself included – tend to struggle a bit when they meet someone for ‘a drink’, and find they aren’t drinking. “I remember being asked for a drink with a guy, and we got the pub and he ordered a tap water. I was livid. Made me feel like a lush for wanting booze in a pub,” she recalls. It’s not the not drinking, says one woman I speak to, who turned around with a large glass of red only to find her date had ordered hot chocolate with marshmallows. “It’s the mismatch, and the potential judgement that comes with it.”
“It’s how you’ve been brought up around food – that is the interesting part,” Hills remarks. “Whether you value each other’s time and chat, whether you are polite to staff, whether you have good manners.” Indeed, when I look back on my best and worst dinner dates, what he or I ate was immaterial. You can be – and I was – in a two-Michelin starred restaurant in Venice, but if your companion is rude to you or the waiting staff – and he was, to both – you might as well be scraping the barrel of Pizza Hut’s salad bar for all that you’re going to enjoy it.
Indeed, perhaps the most insightful stat from the survey is that a third of those surveyed would prefer a home-cooked meal over a restaurant. This is a far more telling of your compatibility as partners, says Hills: “a meal out is a courtship dance, but being cooked for or cooking for someone else – that is a bonding thing.” After all, one of the main reasons food affects our relationships at all is that “it’s our first taste of love in the world. When we’re fed milk from the breast or the bottle by our mother or chief care giver, it’s intrinsic to our survival – but it is also intrinsic to our feelings of comfort,” Hills continues.
When you fuss over a fish pie, lacing the mash with lemon and and the rich sauce with bay leaves; when attempt your own hummus, even though it’s a quid in the shops – that’s affection. “And when they eat it and like it – or even if they don’t much like it but they do their best to appreciate your efforts, that says so much more than being in a pub, where you can leave half your food and it doesn’t mean anything” – even if it is that alleged romantic failsafe, chicken and chips.