If there’s one thing I adore more than a freshly cooked feast, it’s sharing dinner with a friend as they clue me in on misadventures from their love life. I had settled into this happy place one evening last May, when I’d met a fellow food-obsessed journalist at a chic restaurant where the servers twirl waxed mustaches while taking your order.
I swirled a french fry in curry-spiked ketchup as my colleague revealed what had soured her most recent relationship: her partner’s diet. He was the kind of vegetarian who wouldn’t eat much other than pasta with Alfredo sauce.
She quickly defended her decision to end things. “It wasn’t just the fact that he was a vegetarian,” she said, fidgeting with the orange peel in her Negroni cocktail. “It was his reasons for being vegetarian. It was like a symbol for his aversion to new experiences, which is really not in sync with how I like to live my life.”
Now, I’m the kind of gastronome who charges plane tickets I can’t afford because I crave a salty whiff of seafood markets in Tokyo or a bite of buttery steak in Buenos Aires. At home in Portland, Ore., I can be found carefully perusing all manner of fruits and vegetables at my local farmers market every Saturday. I have a keen interest in eating well.
Even so, I’d never considered whether mismatched culinary preferences could spell doom for a budding romance. Maybe I’d lucked out and dated equally food-obsessed guys? Or maybe I unconsciously weeded out less-adventurous eaters?
Whatever the reason, I had a few similar experiences, which gave me a window into my friend’s line of thought. I tend to view similar taste in pop culture as an omen for long-term compatibility: I once ended a promising relationship for no other reason than the guy’s Nickelback fandom. It sounds harsh, but research from the University of Cambridge indicates that people use music to convey their personality to others. He was clearly telling me something gross, and I listened. Another time, I went on a date with a barista at my favorite coffee shop — not only because he and I shared a mutual love of “Frasier,” but we also had the same favorite episode. (“The Ski Lodge,” of course.)
It turns out that a penchant for ’90s sitcoms didn’t signify a deeper bond, as I made it through only one Netflix session with him before moving on. Still, psychologists can quantitatively demonstrate that similarity matters in relationships. The cliche about opposites attracting doesn’t seem to hold true.
So maybe eating habits could signify the chances of romantic success? Of course, finding someone who matches your taste in food in every way may be impossible, if undesirable. But go ahead and do the math: Married couples may share tens of thousands of meals together. When put that way, culinary style doesn’t seem like such a trivial factor.
Clearly, my friend’s spoiled affair had me rethinking my priorities. The following month, I met a guy who’d just moved west from Peoria, Ill. His small-town demeanor and small-c conservative worldview was adorably Midwestern — things I could relate to, having grown up in the heart of Appalachian coal country. His dad-like sense of humor and childlike imagination made our first several dates hilarious and spontaneous. His muscular, cornfed physique didn’t hurt, either.
But I quickly discovered that his Heartland sensibilities translated into a meat-and-potatoes diet. This manifested first in his gripes while scrutinizing a menu. “Why can’t the burger come with just American cheese?” he asked. “And what is ‘chutney’ anyway? Can’t they call it relish?”
At first, I considered his limitations a challenge. Maybe I could help him broaden his culinary horizons? This, however, frustrated me as his list of unacceptable foods grew from the usual “funky texture” suspects — olives, beans and the like — to things no right-minded adult could reject: blueberries, nectarines and other universally loved produce. He didn’t even like Thai food!
I tried to handle his objections with good humor, but my irritation spilled out in dismissive and somewhat callous jokes during a friend’s backyard barbecue. He and I stood in a circle munching on cheesy nachos. As he quietly picked out the black beans, I proceeded to tell my group of friends how he’d never eaten a peach. Not even peach ice cream! I spoke of him as I might an oddity in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. When his face turned pink, I realized I’d gone too far.
That night, he kept to one side of the bed. “You were sort of an ass to me earlier,” he said, unusually bluntly. I hedged my apology with an explanation of the role that food plays in my life: To me, it’s not only sustenance. I write about it. I travel for it. And I want a partner who can relish that experience, too.
As we spooned beneath the sheets, I wondered if we weren’t a good match. Or maybe we were — tastes change over time, I assured myself. Still, it felt cruel for me to expect him to change for me.
A few days later, he texted me a photo from a grocery store: a basket full of peaches, nectarines and blueberries. “Why do blueberries taste like bananas?” he asked sincerely.
I blushed. At least he was trying.