Sometimes, Love Means Having to Say 'Separate Menus, Please'

Cindy Klein and Ben Mann share mealtimes but not meals. She's eating veggies and grains; he's got a cheeseburger.
Cindy Klein and Ben Mann share mealtimes but not meals. She's eating veggies and grains; he's got a cheeseburger. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cindy Klein knew what she was getting into when she decided to date Ben Mann. After all, his previous girlfriend had broken up with him because of his eating habits; she had even introduced him to Klein, a holistic health counselor, in the hope that he would improve his diet of spaghetti, pizza, steak and milk.

"He sent me an e-mail saying he was helpless," Klein, 28, remembers. "I think he may have used the word 'troglodyte' in the message. He said that everyone thought he was weird and that he would love to have more-social eating habits."

Klein and Mann met for a drink and hit it off instantly. In the first flush of love, she set aside fears of his limited tastes: "I don't think it sank in until we went grocery shopping the first time," Klein says. "He loaded 20 boxes of spaghetti into the cart. I held out hope that maybe he would change."

He hasn't. The couple, now engaged, are negotiating an acceptable wedding menu. He thinks burgers will do just fine. She's pushing for sliders -- at least they're daintier -- and grilled salmon.

Disagreements about food probably wouldn't make a counselor's top-10 list of couples issues. But in today's food-conscious culture, what and how a significant other eats is becoming one more proxy for couples' deeper conflicts about control and respect. Food obsessives divide the world into two kinds of people: those who seek out truffles, sea urchin and single-estate chocolate, and those who don't. And when an avid food lover falls for one of the others, it can get complicated. Unlike fly-fishing or knitting, what to eat is a question that comes up three times a day. The result: Romantic dinners are ruined. Tempers flare. And though some couples find ways to make compromises, in extreme cases, relationships fall apart.

"Food is actually a lot like sex," says Judith Coché, a psychologist in Philadelphia who specializes in couples therapy. "It's very hard to be a couple and go to very different restaurants, just like it's hard to have sex with a partner with entirely different desires. There has to be a natural compatibility or a good sense of how to negotiate and compromise."

Whether a romantic interest has similar tastes is not always immediately apparent. Jennifer Smith, 26, met her boyfriend, Caleb Parker, two years ago on a cross-country trip. In the early days, the couple commuted between Washington and Savannah, Ga. When Smith went to visit, Parker would take her to dinner at various restaurants around town. "It turned out he only liked five places," Smith says. "But I didn't know that because they were all new to me."

The culinary gulf was exposed when Parker, 30, moved to Washington last May. Smith keeps a file of restaurants and dishes she wants to try. Parker prefers to stick with Jaleo, Lebanese Taverna or Zaytinya. Even if Parker agrees to try a new restaurant, it doesn't solve the problem. "I want someone who will be excited to go to the Ethiopian place, not say, 'Yeah, I'll try it for you,' " Smith says.

Parker says he's doing his best. Before meeting Smith, the born-and-raised Southerner's definition of adventurous eating was Chinese food or chicken Parmesan. Parker says that he is glad to try new food but that the constant conflict can be irritating. What's wrong with grabbing two chili cheese dogs, two Mountain Dews and a cinnamon bun for lunch? And what's wrong with going to Zaytinya over and over again? If dinner is going to cost $100, Parker wants to be sure he'll like it. "I give in more than she does. It's the man thing to do," he says.

"And she lets me watch football."

Food lovers seem to do most of the complaining. But picky partners also suffer when their eating habits come under constant inspection. Lourdes Ashamalla, a 31-year-old customer relations manager who lives in Fairfax, admits she has limited tastes. For most meals, she eats a chicken sandwich (just chicken and bread), a ham sandwich or chicken tenders. Vegetables, with the exception of mashed potatoes, are out. Apples, watermelons and oranges are the only fruits she will eat.

When Ashamalla was a child, it was easy to make excuses for what she calls her "particular palate." But now that she is an adult, it's trickier. She feels guilty that she doesn't like the ahi tuna with mango glaze that her husband, Patrick, enjoys preparing. She's nervous to go to people's houses for dinner, because either they might serve her something she won't like or Patrick might announce to the assembled group that she won't eat whatever the host has prepared. "It's embarrassing," she says.

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