On Valentine’s Day my father cooked. Just for my mother, that is, and, since he couldn’t technically cook (unless you count steaks and burgers) he heated up: frozen Australian lobster tails, twice-baked potatoes, creamed spinach. He was a Safeway clerk and had dream access to the freezer aisle. I imagine him days before February 14, combing the luxury end of the freezer bin, weighing the likely effects of frozen chateaubriand or lobster Newburgh. Hopeful that the sheer physical beauty of factory-extruded potato, cheese, and guar gum could work a kind of magic on my mother’s heart.
On the big day I set the table, and helped with the heating up. In the neon orange glow of the electric broiler the lobsters swelled, white flesh miraculously puffing up through slits in their arched shells. Stuffed potatoes browned at the edges, shrinking away from the rolled-foil rims. Orange cheese melted, while flecks of paprika bled tiny vermilion stars into the delicious-looking surface.
As I set out cupcakes spackled with pink icing, stuck with plastic charms (a gold-edged rose, cupid with a blurry face) painted, I imagined, by hairnetted Chinese women who couldn’t possibly know about Valentine’s Day. I thought that love must be something complicated and baroque. Gilded with yellow cheese.
I once asked food writer Laxmi Hiremath (author of The Dance of Spices) what Valentine’s Day was like in southwest India, where she grew up. Valentine’s? It’s become a fever in only the last ten years or so—she noticed it on a trip to India one February, when university flower beds had been picked clean by students intent on giving filched blossoms to their squeezes. But it’s in India’s elaborate wedding preparations where love turns all baroque, Hiremath said. Especially through food.
Food is a vector of touching, a surreptitious way for couples to begin to explore each other’s bodies. With fingers dipped in turmeric paste, fiances paint each other’s faces, literally gilding one another with fragrance. Or plunge their hands into a huge mound of raw rice or lentils, feeling for a concealed ring—a way to touch your betrothed’s hands, semi-concealed from family’s unending gaze.
Husbands give their wives gifts in February, India’s romance month even before the shiny new Valentine’s import. Wives score jewelry and sarees; in return, they make elaborate sweets for their husbands: thin pancakes stuffed with pastes of lentils and jaggery laced with cardamom and nutmeg, and delicate vermicelli puddings.
Hiremath’s parents had an arranged marriage, best guarantee for a long, loving relationship. Or so she swears. “As couples grow older, they grow very close,” she said. Maybe. Certainly my seventysomething parents—whose marriage in the 1950s was arranged, I suppose, by a little bit of lust and a whole lot of family pressure—are inseparable, caught up in a shared life of bickering and tenderness.
Me, I like the idea of Hiremath’s India. In February, the month when Lord Shiva’s wife did penance to win his affections, and Indian classical music is full of melodies that mimic the trickling of honey, and the sounds of cuckoos feeding on mango shoots, women are cooking intricate recipes to win their husbands’ affections, gradually. Over time.
Call love a work in progress, on Valentine’s and most other days. Who knows? Maybe Stouffer’s creamed spinach—or the coffee I’ve made for my own husband nearly every day for the past 17 years—really does have transformative powers on the heart. —John Birdsall