Putting Dinner in the Dinner Date

I remember coming home from my first date witha boy.

There was my mother, waiting up in the buzzyfluorescent light of our kitchen. She was gripping a cup ofalready-cold tea, her elbows propped up on the table. She wouldprobably want to know everything — if I liked him, if he liked me,if we’d see each other again, if I thought he was a good person, ifhe made me laugh.

This was a big moment for her, a single motherwatching her only daughter enter the potentially painful world ofmen. I waited for the onslaught of probing questions as she tightenedthe belt on her faded chenille robe and looked up at meexcitedly.

“Well, what did you have?” she asked. “What did hehave? Was it good? What came with it? Did you have dessert?”

An alien could have landed in our kitchen at thatmoment and have easily been able to deduce one thing about ourfamily: Jewish.

Like many Jewish families, food was at the heartof our rituals, even though we weren’t very religious. Every year,when the streets were deserted on Christmas, we ate chicken chow funat the Hong Kong. The waiters began to expect us that day, bestowingmy brother and I with wind-up “Garfield” dolls as holidaygifts.

There were the usual Jewish soul food favorites,kugel and brisket and chicken soup. And there were rules: Two peopleshould never order the same thing so as to avoid culinary redundancy.Anybody’s plate was fair game, and the forks were alwaysflying.

I was raised to love food. Still, on that firstdinner date, I inexplicably suffered from the fate of many youngwomen of all faiths. I’ll call it “Salad Syndrome.” That night, anddozens to follow, I ordered nothing but a dinner salad, which Idaintily ate as though the jejune meal was the most satisfying dishever.

I am not a big girl, but neither am I small. Whowas I kidding? It had to be pretty obvious that I was putting awaymore than artfully arranged radishes and oil-and-vinegar dressing.Make no mistake, however, this was no eating disorder. I ate justfine. Just not in front of him.

I don’t know what I was trying to hide. Was it myappetite — not just for food but for all of life’s more visceralpleasures? Or was I simply trying to hide the food in the teeth, thegarlic on the breath, the bread crumbs on the chin that would clearlydefine me as human. I guess I wanted to be more mysterious thanmortal, more refined than ravenous, more lettuce than lambchop.

Like fossils, I can look at meals past and see adistinct evolution in my life, from “Salad Syndrome” to a dinner dateI had just last month. I ate a generous helping of salmon withmushrooms, as I would in front of anyone. The salad was only astarter, and I felt perfectly comfortable exposing the shocking factthat I, too, can clean my plate.

To me, a man who likes to see a woman eat is asgood a catch as that salmon. And a man who feels comfortable sharingfood? That’s even better.

Last weekend, I fixated on a woman’s plate at anall-you-can-eat buffet in Las Vegas known as “Pharaoh’s Feast.” Shewas dining with her boyfriend, a beefy gentleman whose muscles werepopping out of a T-shirt shouting the slogan “Failure is Not anOption.” I looked at her sparse array of celery sticks, garbanzobeans and small hunks of cantaloupe and felt I knew her. “SaladSyndrome,” I thought to myself, sighing at the barren landscape ofher lunch tray.

I wanted to lean over and whisper: “Why don’t youhave a little slice of cheesecake. The Pharaoh would want that foryou. It’s not going to kill you — at least not today.” I wanted totell her that food isn’t always a guilt-inducing vice, an attempt tostuff the hungry inner child, a replacement for love, or a sign ofweakness. Sometimes, food is just a snack. And it tastes good.

I wanted to grab a fistful of her bitter celerysticks and let her know that it was time for lunch, not a showcasemeal for her meathead boyfriend. Because famine is no longer anoption.

Teresa Strasser is a twenty-something contributing writer forThe Jewish Journal.