Not long ago I opened my freezer and found, just to the left of the ice cubes, a container of frozen pasta sauce. This is not an unusual occurrence for me, an Italian cook adamantly opposed to wasting food, but this particular sauce happened to be special: I made it for a man I had been dating toward the end of last year. Our relationship was brief, the ending uneventful; he came on strong and disappeared suddenly, leaving me with nothing more than bad feelings and confusion that lasted about two weeks. The sauce, a zesty, Bolognese, is a little more stubborn, it was delicious and begs to be defrosted and enjoyed over spaghetti once again. But somehow, the simple act of opening the container feels like sacrilege.
I suffer from an unrelenting compulsion to cook for the men who enter my life for however long or briefly. In a twenty-some odd year dating career I've made a lot of terrific food and many bad choices. My heartbreak usually comes with a side of leftovers.
Every break up leaves something behind: there's the emotional mayhem, of course, and then there are the mundane material things: shirts, boxer shorts, stacks of CDs. The ownership of these detritus is clear-cut: The psychological trauma is exclusively yours to unravel with your therapist or blot out with steady doses of Ativan. The personal effects you can give back, or if you're really pissed off, dispose of as you see fit. But for a cook, there's often some culinary delight hanging around the kitchen whose ownership lies in a gray area. Food made to be shared loses its taste when eaten alone. Which is why these particular leftovers are so sad. They have the tainted flavor of a rejected heart; offered in a spirit of love, or some misguided dream of love, and left, unwanted. They are the heaviest of dishes.
I've been stuck with all manner of relationship doggie bags: meatloaf made with strict attention to my Midwestern first-love's mother's recipe (delicious, in spite of my misgivings about frosting it with a mixture of ketchup and mustard); containers of frozen chicken broth, suspended in animation in order to be reactivated to become risotto at a moment's notice to delight the unmarryable man I dated for two years and hoped to marry; sugared donuts for the sober Brooklyn hipster who didn't have much of an appetite, but needed something to accompany the coffee he consumed by the gallon. All of these dishes ended up in my freezer, that limbo for food I don't need but for which I imagine some kind of future. I forgot about all of them while I digested my feelings, at which point I would do not much more than toss each forlorn food, plastic container and all (sorry Earth, but I'm not so resilient that I can bear to watch this stuff defrost on the counter) into the trash. This has taken anywhere from a few weeks (the donuts) to about a year (the chicken stock).
This bolognese -- a vestige of one more romantic failure in a long menu-annotated line -- hit me hard. I spent a couple of weeks wondering how to handle it. I wanted it out of my life, but I remembered how good it was, and how happy I felt making it and thought it deserved more than quick disposal. After thinking about it for a couple of weeks I came up with an innovative solution. I decided to defrost the sauce and share it with some friends who recently had a second baby, leaving them no time to cook for themselves. The service of cooking for them would help to heal my heart and redeem my food's unpromising past. My creation would be given another, more worthy life as food for a growing family. My heart would be nourished and expanded by the optimism inherent in that scenario.
I enjoyed that meal with my friends as their two tiny daughters caused chaos of some form or other around us; the experience succeeded in wiping away any memory of my latest doomed affair and my difficult romantic past, at least until the next relationship wreaks havoc on my heart and freezer.
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