When I was 13 years old, I worked as a junior counselor at a ferociously expensive day camp. Campers and counselors ate lunch together on a perfectly green, impeccably manicured lawn beneath a copse of willow trees. One noon, a girl of about ten approached me to say that she and the other campers had taken a vote, and the overwhelming majority had decided that I was that summer’s ugliest counselor. There had been another contender, she said. A kid named Scott. But really, it wasn’t even close.
After that, every time I looked in a mirror, I saw a series of small tragedies playing across my features. Before long, I felt uneasy around pretty much anyone female.
Five years later, I arrived in Boston a college freshman, scrawny, scruffy, and wild with anxiety and hope. I’d never really been away from home before and was eager for some good times involving the standard debauchery of wine, women, and song — especially women, that increasingly bewitching, beautiful, and complex demographic about which I still knew nothing, which still made my hands shake.
Since I was now a college man, I assumed I’d attained some sort of romantic Cíbola where entanglements would crop up with the regularity of the lunar cycle. I put my collection of Kerouac on display, turned The Smiths on loud, and sat back — waiting, hoping, expecting all sorts of deep flirtations, soulful all-night talking sessions, and long, slow walks along the banks of the Charles River.
None of these happened. I certainly tried, though.
One night a co-ed named Marnie showed up at my dorm room. I had it in my head that channeling Sartre makes a person irresistible, so I just started talking about life and the meaning thereof. After an hour, she politely interrupted me. “I don’t want to be rude,” she said sweetly. “But I really came to see your roommate.”
Another evening I spent questioning, bantering with, and confessing to Tina, a literature student, in the study lounge. I was attempting to be very suave and mysterious, in what I thought to be the mode of James Dean — none of whose films I’d actually seen. Tina suggested that we repair to her room, where we could really talk. She dimmed the lights, put on 10,000 Maniacs, and commenced sobbing inconsolably about missing her boyfriend back home.
“Oh…uh…I thought…maybe…” I stammered, feeling a little embarrassed.
“I knew you’d be a great person to talk to,” she wailed, putting her head on my shoulder and proceeding to irrigate my neck with her tears.
When things did, on occasion, show promise, I compulsively shot a bullet right through my foot. Squiring Kate and a six-pack of Bud to a nature conservancy where we sat and drank on a fallen tree trunk seemed charming in conception, but lost a lot in execution. Bringing Amy on a first date to see a documentary about white supremacists was, perhaps, ill-advised. And reading Allen Ginsberg‘s “Howl” in its entirety to Jen in full stentorian voice, including all the obscenities, might have benefited from a little forethought. Ultimately, my concept of charm seemed to require a little reworking.
After a two-year stretch in the dorms, I moved off-campus to an apartment with a few friends. Finally, finally I had full access to a kitchen, and I threw myself headlong into indulging my long-time mania for cooking. I’d always felt at home in front of a stove, even if, in retrospect, I wasn’t particularly good at what I was doing. Still, I had a repertoire, albeit a small one — my mother had taught me the basics of the culinary arts when I was 11 or so — and I soon found myself in the role of apartment chef.
My roommates and I sometimes invited friends over for dinner, which is how I met Kara, an art student. I liked her immediately. Although my father is an abstract painter, I was pretty poorly versed in art history. That didn’t stop me from dropping the name of every artist I’d ever heard him mention, though. Kara immediately saw through this and initially seemed a bit chilly. But as we sat and ate my homemade pasta, whose strands were coated with a sauce that I’d been tending all afternoon, she seemed to warm up. After dinner, we continued our conversation in the living room as I — ever the mood-setter — played Black Sabbath. Finally, at some point on either side of one of those tension-filled pauses, it happened.
“Dinner was great,” she said, meeting my eyes with hers.
I leaned in to kiss her and she didn’t pull away. We made out on the sofa for a while before I walked her home. She and I didn’t see each other again, but that didn’t faze me. I’d begun to understand a sort of correlative principle at work. I’d cooked for a woman and she’d let me kiss her. I saw endless — and very attractive — scenarios spinning out from this discovery.
I immediately began to bolster my arsenal. I subscribed to Bon Appétit and Gourmet. I borrowed a few titles from my mother’s cookbook collection, and I scoured used bookstores for more. Still, I felt incredibly insecure about trying new recipes. Financially, I couldn’t afford to experiment much, and I’d theorized that feeding a date would be successful only if the meal was good. I figured it was smartest to stick to my repertoire. One by one, I learned the recipes for things I liked eating as a kid: tomato sauce, curried rice, roast pork and gravy, chicken parmesan, and my go-to recipe of chicken cutlets, breaded, fried, and served with mushrooms and a wine-butter sauce. Fresh pasta was always a crowd pleaser, too, and I liked making lasagna with it, piling it thick with layers of ricotta and béchamel.
Eventually I decided it was pointless to even bother with excursions into the outside world when in the company of a young woman. I had a good record collection and decent kitchen equipment at home. What better date could there be?
In one of my journalism classes, I’d met a woman named Margaret whom I quite liked. After a few getting-to-know-you conversations, I asked her over for dinner. She seemed surprised that I’d be cooking, but accepted immediately. I couldn’t decide which would make the best impression — chicken parmesan or lasagna. At the supermarket, I still couldn’t decide. As I moved my cart slowly through the aisles, in the spirit of “go big or go home,” I opted for both, figuring it would show off my cooking dexterity.
I was way under 21, so I did some begging and pleading with a neighbor to secure the biggest, most budget-conscious bottle of wine he could muster. He returned with a mammoth jug of Ernest and Julio Gallo‘s Burgundy.
I bribed my roommates into leaving Margaret and me alone for the evening by promising they could have the leftovers, and then I got to work. I wanted everything set to go when she arrived. Led Zeppelin was thundering when Margaret knocked on the door. I had put a copy of Neitzsche’s Will To Power, which I’d never read, on the coffee table, in an attempt to appear wise and philosophical. The lights were low. Dinner was in the oven.
I served Margaret her plate, filled to the height and breadth of Kilimanjaro, and waited for the food to work its voodoo. Out of courtesy she emptied most of her plate. After dinner, we retired to the living room, where we attempted to make conversation but wound up sitting there with our stomachs horribly distended, exhausted just from the effort it took to breathe. On her way out, Margaret gave me a slight kiss on the lips, but that single motion seemed to sap her reserves. Perplexed, I began trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong. Later that night as one of my roommates sat and ate leftovers, he muttered, “Wow. This is just…heartstopping.”
I took a different tack a few weeks later when I cooked dinner for a woman named Rachel. I’d wanted something more exotic — and more singular. I was making an Indonesian chicken dish that sent me to Chinatown, on the border of the city’s red-light district, for galangal root. The store was nestled between the Naked Eye and Pussycat theaters and, after a little explaining, the proprietor finally handed over a large chunk of the root, which I took back home and finely chopped. I never thought in those days to ask if anyone had food allergies. If I had, Rachel might have told me that members of the ginger family disagreed with her. Not long after dinner, she excused herself to go to the bathroom…and didn’t come out for a very, very long time. I sat on the couch fidgeting and occasionally yelling comforting words at the bathroom door. When she emerged, she left immediately, moving quickly and wordlessly straight out the apartment door.
“You know, Dixon,” one of the roommates said upon hearing the story. “Maybe you should just pony up the money for a movie.”
Once in a while, the cooking waxed into miracles. I had a number of dates with Julie after I prepared homemade ravioli. A half-year relationship with Jolene started with a batch of chili. And my fried chicken seemed to send Lisa straight from the table into my arms. Each time, I’d been confident in the dishes I’d served, felt relaxed, and fancied myself a good and charming host. When a dinner date didn’t end with success of any sort, I resolutely believed it was because the preparation of the meal was subpar. Upon hearing this, one of my roommates suggested that the food might have nothing to do with it. Or that it might be just an emblem of my state of mind. I thought it was just crazy talk.
From Boston I went to New York City, hoping to find a brilliant life to live. I knew no one. Making friends, meeting women — it was difficult. Little by little, my life in the city was tinted by depression. It was always raining in my head. I stayed in much more than I went out, and pretty much stopped cooking. Everything tasted a little bit like loneliness.
I met Nelly in a tiny Brooklyn bookstore where she was giving a reading from her recently published collection of short stories. I thought she was stunningly beautiful and a superb writer. Still, it wasn’t love at first sight for either of us. We became friends, exchanging emails about writing, life, and the world and getting a drink together every few weeks.
We kept this up for well over a year. As time ebbed, I started feeling differently about her. I’d never exposed more of myself, shown so many of my tics and quirks, to anyone, not even a therapist. I was never more Jonathan Dixon than in her company. In time I discovered, with no small wonder and no small fear, that I loved her. But I wasn’t yet willing to risk our friendship.
One night she came over to hang out and I decided, on a whim, to cook for her. Sure, I’d hoped maybe she’d be impressed, but mainly I just wanted the two of us to have a nice evening. I made ravioli with a nice sauce full of pork bones.
We lingered, as was our way, over dinner, during which it always felt as if we had too much to say and not enough time to say it. Afterwards, something was different in the way she touched my arm. Neil Young was on the stereo. We were sipping scotch. And then we kissed.
Almost seven years later, we were married at City Hall.
I wondered at the time if everything I’d ever cooked for a woman had been a trial run — practice for this one meal. But I suspect that my roommate back in Boston was right. The food really had nothing to do with it.