I DON'T KNOW art, but I know what I like." Some critic said that. "Beauty is truth." Keats said that. "Food is love." I said that.
The fact is, love and food are inseparable. All you have to do is see Alan Alda and Meryl Streep eating in bed, and you'll know. I cooked my very first meal because I fell in love. Also my second, third, fourth, and fifth, and by that time I had just gotten into the habit.
To the infant, food literally is love -- and comfort and security. The first intimacy begins with the first feeding. Eating, affection, sexuality -- they are all tossed in together through childhood and adolescence like an emotional Waldorf salad.
But adults have an advantage, sensuality, and that knocks eating into a whole new ballpark. It has scent and texture and visual attraction, and sometimes auditory as well (think about Chinese sizzling rice). The way to the heart is through the stomach, sure, but also through the eyes and sensory nerves. A child gobbles chocolates like an addict, for the sheer rush of it, while an adult, properly initiated, can linger a long time over one spoonful of mousse and get just as much pleasure out of it, and on a wider level.
We can assume that your Significant Others know how to enjoy food: If you lead them to the table, you can make them eat. But beyond that, you must lure them into cooking with the same indulgence and pleasure they have in any other creative endeavor. Maybe more. A loaf of bread and a jug of wine is all well and good, but thou can do better.
Food, like love, should not be made by the book. It wants improvisation, imagination, a certain boldness. Nor should it be a solitary entertainment. There should be room for laughter and error without embarrassment. You're not aiming to meet someone else's standards, only your own. So what if it doesn't look like it did when Julia Child pulled it out of the oven. If it smells good, eat it. And don't be formal. Lick your fingers. Look what that did for Tom Jones and Colonel Sanders.
Make your lovers comfortable in your kitchen. Tantalize them with spoonfuls, let them lick the bowls. Seeing the pleasure you have in preparing food will increase their pleasure in eating it.
And you're feeding all their senses, not just one. Be aware of the appearance and the textures of the food you serve. One of the great attractions of Japanese food is its exquisite display, the meticulous presentation of color and shape -- as much a collage as a dinner. That's a trick that the disciples of cuisine minceur have learned well: that food which is visually satisfying is also physically fulfilling, even in smaller quantities.
Aroma has great power of suggestion. Leaving the lid tilted to scent the kitchen is a truly gracious insinuation. As a matter of fact, Town and Country magazine just coerced a dozen or so of the world's top cooks, Paul Bocuse and Michel Guerard included, to create new dishes inspired by great perfumes.
Mix up the textures of your dishes. Play off puree against crisp saute. A creamy coquille should be sided with a snappy celery root or zuke. (Think of sashimi dressed with radish threads.) Such normally smooth dishes as pates and pastas will be considerably brightened by the presence of chopped nuts, and crisp diced apples should be de riguer for a well-simmered curry.
Think about the colors you're combining; if a platter looks boring, it will taste it. White is the most overused color in the cookbook, and for no good reason. Vegetables and garnishes come in a remarkable range of colors, and so do sauces: gold with curry or saffron, orange or red with tomato, pale green with chopped herbs, even blue with curacao. And even if you are determined to serve a standard old starch, it doesn't have to be white. Serve little red potatoes, or sweet potatoes, or wild rice, for heaven's sake. Or green noodles.
Remember the pleasure of surprise. Citrus fruits and lamb, chopped raw tomatoes and seafood, chocolate and ginger -- don't be afraid to mix up seemingly disparate foods. That's the way you get recipes named for you.
Finally, don't fluster. Everything has its own rhythm, including cooking. Food responds badly to being rushed, and so do guests. Relax. Enjoy. You are how you eat. I said that, too.