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Roast chicken might be the most romantic dinner of all

Person holding a red ring box. Inside the ring box is a mini roasted chicken. It gleams like a diamond. In the background, there is a glass of wine.
(Maria Jesus Contreras for The Washington Post)

If restaurant Valentine’s Day menus are to be believed, the foods that whisper “romance” are tenderloin steaks and butter-poached lobster, all perched atop gold-rimmed china. Truffles and oysters abound. And chocolate rules the dessert course like a satin-draped siren.

But the food that might actually beat out those cliches in the department of amour is actually quite humble: Consider the roast chicken. Served at home. Atop your everyday plates. Unglamorous? Maybe. But hear me out: A golden-skinned bird, prepared with care, if not huge effort, might just be the most romantic of dinners.

Chicken has a low-key reputation as an unlikely aphrodisiac. You might have heard the decades-old lore of “engagement chicken” — a lemon-stuffed bird with such bewitching properties that, when prepared for a lover, is said to prompt a marriage proposal within days. According to the story, in 1982, Glamour editor Cindi Leive shared a recipe for roast chicken with her assistant, who made it for her boyfriend. Said boyfriend proposed soon after, and the assistant passed along the recipe to three colleagues who had similar experiences.

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Ina Garten helped spread the word of the magic bird, publishing her own recipe for it. In a 2010 episode of her Food Network show, the cook known as the Barefoot Contessa described first hearing about the dish at a recent party from two “incredibly beautiful girls from Glamour magazine” who told her it had worked for everyone in their office.

Garten was already an evangelist for poultry as love language: Her husband, Jeffrey, the other half of the #relationshipgoals couple, has always been famously hot for his wife’s roasted bird. In her first cookbook, Garten prefaced her recipe for “Perfect Roast Chicken” by describing how it was his favorite Friday night dinner, a dish she prepared as he made his weekly commute from the city to their home in the Hamptons. “There’s nothing like the smell of a roast chicken to make him feel that the trip was worth it,” she wrote.

The power of the roast-chicken-as-love-potion got a more recent endorsement when it made a cameo in the how-we-got-engaged story that Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex shared in interviews. The couple was enjoying a typical night in, “roasting a chicken,” Meghan recalled. “Trying to roast a chicken,” Harry interjected. The prince presumably took a break from basting to drop to a knee.

Of course, along with the heady scent of garlic and herbs, the concept of “engagement chicken” bears the whiff of antiquated notions: desperate single women performing domestic feats to snare their men, or the idea that a partner can be won through a single heroic act. But underneath those layers, there are the bones of something true to many people: Chicken conveys love.

Jacques Pépin, the legendary chef, cookbook author and TV personality, has always felt a connection between chickens and love — his 2022 book of recipes and paintings, “Art of the Chicken,” chronicled it. In an interview, he recalled making countless roast chickens for dinners with his wife, Gloria, in their Connecticut home. Sometimes it was the kind his maman made for him, served with a cream sauce seasoned with tarragon, and sometimes with the flavors of her Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage.

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“It makes no difference if it’s your kid or grandmother or your lover, you express your love through your cooking,” says Pépin, who at 87 years old no longer keeps a flock of his own but instead procures eggs and the occasional bird from a friend.

In his book, he noted that the French use “chicken” as a term of endearment. “A loving husband will call his wife a cocotte [little chicken] or ma poule, or my hen,” he wrote. “Conversely, a loving wife will call her husband mon poulet, or my chicken.”

So many foods typically thought of as romantic are those thought to juice the libido (even if science doesn’t exactly agree with the marketers on those purported qualities). Legendary 18th-century lover Giacomo Casanova is said to have eaten dozens of oysters before his trysts, and ancient Romans believed strawberries were linked to Venus, the goddess of love, because of their red color and heart shape.

Others — such as pricey filet mignon or gold-leafed anything — seem to be more about conveying wealth and status, the culinary equivalent of a blingy diamond ring.

But Ashley Rodriguez, author of the “Date Night In” cookbook, says the better way to think about sexy food is the intention behind it. A chicken, she notes, requires some forethought — she likes to season her birds well before cooking them to maximize flavor — and care in preparation, which are acts of love. “It says, ‘I thought of you and this meal and this moment’” she says. “And as homey and comforting as roast chicken is, I still feel like it creates an occasion.”

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Food blogger and newsletter author Adam Roberts began making roast chicken for his now-husband when they were dating. It’s become a “favorite ritual” in their relationship, he said — at first, they favored a Chez Panisse recipe with fennel seeds and cayenne pepper, but these days, it’s more likely a Thomas Keller version with roast vegetables. And even though a roast chicken might evoke a mood that’s more cozy than outright carnal, Roberts still thinks there’s something sensual about the dish.

“You can tell a lot about a person’s sexual prowess by how they tackle the bird: If they use a knife and fork, they’re a snooze in the sack,” he says. “If you see them tearing it apart with their hands, gnawing on the bone, and making a huge mess of things … that one’s a keeper.”

I can personally vouch for roast chicken as date-night food. I’ve found that it’s the kind of dish that makes dining in feel like an occasion — presenting it, hot from the oven, all brown and crisp, seems like I’m offering a gift. During the pandemic, it became even more important to my husband and me to enjoy moments at home that felt special, and Roast Chicken Night somehow did stand out from the endless string of Blurs-days. (We experimented with different preparations, but we’ve settled on a super-simple Thomas Keller recipe, too.)

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Charles Hunter III, a personal chef and blogger, says the “set it and forget it” nature of a roast chicken means that you don’t have to fuss over it — instead, you can turn your attention to the person you’re cooking for. “It’s warm and cozy and inviting,” he says. “It can be the perfect date night food or for a romantic moment because it can be well executed with simple ingredients.”

The heady scent is also part of the appeal, he finds.

“It does make your home smell amazing — you want someone to walk in and take a deep inhale and know something good is going to happen. I love it when my wife walks in and asks, ‘What are you cooking?’”