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By Hannah Howard

I’ve been having vast trouble writing about how to win over a man via his stomach. So I surveyed some men in my life. They said things like “Oysters!” (“Isn’t that cliche?” “For good reason.”) And, “A lady wins me over with her magic combo of charm, beauty, wit, and culinary savvy.” (Reasonable, but not particularly helpful.)

If I’m honest with myself, I don’t know how to win a man gastronomically. I don’t know how to win a man at all.

My past romances remind me of my short stint as a pastry cook at a restaurant famous for its towering soufflés. They were truly glorious, yet my most earnest attempts plunged into a sad, gloppy mess of a fall.

When I was a hostess at Blue Hill, I fell for an eager cook with cucumber-green eyes and wild duck-butchering skills. We assembled elaborate curries–he would later take off to cook his way through Southeast Asia–and superfluous grilled cheese sandwiches in the apartment he shared with a countless cast of roommates on Avenue C. He was one of what felt like a million boys I liked who “didn’t want a girlfriend.” It became an inevitable refrain. Soon after I left him to bask in his single glory, he married a voluptuous vegan. Fleur de sel in my heart-achy wounds.

There was a restaurateur who whisked me across the Brooklyn Bridge on the back of his motorcycle as the sun came up; a B-list food celeb with dozens of pounds of frozen pig parts stashed in his freezer; a film student who lived entirely off of Koronet pizza and black & white cookies from Nussbaum & Wu.

The first one who did want a girlfriend was Eli, a scary-gorgeous Israeli chef. He was so obsessively perfectionist in the kitchen that I learned to relegate my cooking to when he was not around. My gougères got swept into the trash, their bodies too wobbly, too messy for his immaculate standards. Sometimes I chopped garlic for him, perched beside him on our kitchen counter, or washed beautiful, abstract-shaped squashes, their necks bending this way and that, their skin blue-black or sunshine-yellow.

Even at the time, I understood our kitchen disharmony to be the embodiment of a larger lack. I was lonely; I was hungry. He was tweezer-food, perfectly precise, but I longed for a big bowl of pasta, maybe chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

Boyfriend 2 was the opposite of Eli in the kitchen. “How did the Le Creuset end up on the floor?” I asked him. He didn’t cook, really, but he bought the groceries, big bags with way too many things to turn into a meal. He ate anything happily, gratefully, even my failures. My feelings were a little hurt when he slathered my chicken in a condiment orgy of Sriracha and honey mustard and fancy olive oil.

This is an optimistic Valentine’s Day. I have a new boyfriend who likes to eat and likes to cook. We haven’t embarked on the second venture together, yet.

I don’t have the recipe for love (sorry about gag factor), but I’m pretty sure it requires harmony, adventure, taking care of and being taken care of, balance, depth, and joy.

I’m going to keep cooking, and living, and loving. I may be a little cynical—a legacy of lackluster risotto and overcooked sea scallops will do that to you—but I am also a romantic. I want to forgive myself for the utterly-wrong-for-me boys and the soggy French toast. I want to forgive them. There will always be another meal around the corner, another chance. If the heart can get all moved by a well-placed chocolate cake doused in sweet cream, it can get over a few sunken soufflés. I believe in love and pork belly.

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