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After 20 years of marriage, I get a funny feeling when I eat salmon.
I’m not allergic to the fish, nor do I dislike its flavour. Grilled, broiled, served raw over sushi rice or smoked, sliced thin and piled atop a schmear of cream cheese on a bagel, salmon almost always works for me. Even the dried-out version they serve at diners in the US isn’t half bad if you squeeze enough lemon on it.
My issue with the dish is purely a by-product of my psychosexual development. So central was this particular food to my life as a young man that I toyed with the idea of writing a book about my dating experiences titled I’ll Have the Salmon (a companion piece to my as-yet-unwritten but exhaustively researched self-help guide: Stop While You’re Behind — Learning to Live Without Reaching Your Potential).
Rightly or wrongly, I came to see salmon as the answer to one of life’s more difficult questions — what to eat when one is attempting to fall in love and might have sex. The issue is rarely addressed in the traditional romantic literature, I suspect, because it is so problematic. Even Shakespeare would have been hard-pressed to render a Juliet reeking of the anchovies in her Caesar salad or a Romeo weighed down by the slab of porterhouse he downed at dinner.
Although courtship often involves meetings over meals, culinary obstacles to intimacy abound. There are oily sauces that splatter and stain, the cloves of garlic that linger in the gastrointestinal tract long after the linguine has been eaten, and those infernal chilli peppers that lurk in Thai dishes, threatening the tongues of would-be lovers with outright incineration if they dare to look up from their food to gaze into the eyes of their beloved.
My digestive problems as a dater were compounded by my taste in romantic partners. As a young man of somewhat literary sensibilities, I was drawn to women who were characters — the kind I knew from 19th-century novels, French New Wave films and the popular songs of my youth (hello, “Ruby Tuesday”!). A queasy nervousness goes with this particular territory; after Tony meets Maria in West Side Story, they dance, they sing, they embrace, but they never call Domino’s and order a pepperoni pizza.
I began to understand that for someone like me, looking for love demanded sound menu decisions. On general blandness grounds, the obvious solution would have been to stick to chicken. But there was a rub. Chicken is often the least expensive dish at a restaurant and no man wants to look like a cheapskate to the woman who was going to make his life worth living — at least not right away.
Salmon, like so many aspects of relationships, represented a compromise. It cost more than chicken but less, say, than lobster. There was always the odd chance of biting into a bone, but the dish could be consumed without picking anything up with your hands or making any unfortunate slurping sounds. I even came to like the fact that salmon is often served in small portions and without significant adornment; it helped me focus on the matter at hand.
Salmon became such a regular companion during my romantic pursuits that I started waxing on the subject while drowning my sorrows on dateless nights, giving rise to the I’ll Have the Salmon concept.
Looking back on it, I would say the book failed to materialise for two reasons. Given the author’s record of accomplishment in the field, there was a serious possibility that the tome would have come in at pamphlet length. It was also the case that the role of food in my life evolved. Somehow my internal organs began to operate more independently as I made my way in the world, enabling me to follow my heart without upsetting my stomach.
I met the woman who became my wife at a party where dinner was served. The strange thing was that on the way over, I had stopped at a store to buy a bottle of wine, saw her and a friend doing the same, and wondered why I never seemed to go to parties attended by women like them.
They were there when I walked in. Although it’s politically incorrect to admit this, I started flirting with her friend first. I only met my wife when we both went back to the buffet for second helpings. She didn’t make me nauseous then, nor did she a few days later when we met at an Italian restaurant, where I skipped the salmon.
Two decades on, my wife handles nearly all of the serious cooking in our house. Although our children prefer their salmon raw or smoked, she grills a fillet from time to time. I tend to eat my portion after it has been reheated in the microwave, one of the consequences of working fairly late and having to commute back to the New York suburbs.
Dining in front of my television set, the salmon tastes like it used to. But now, it’s just fish, no more, no less.
Illustration by Harry Haysom
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