it's complicated

The Restrictive Diet That Changed My Marriage

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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We fell in love with food at the same time that we fell in love with each other.

Our romance began with a blind-date dinner, at a restaurant that coincidentally was one of my parents’ favorites. Horn of Plenty was soulful Southern cuisine, comfort food for urbane Yankees. At our table in the vine-draped back garden, Steve and I clinked wineglasses, unknowingly toasting to the beginning of our life together.

I was 23, a grad student  by night and a guidance counselor by day, living above the Eighth Street Bookshop, where starving beat poets would come to get loans from owner Eli Wilentz. Five floors up from the stacks of books, in my bohemian penthouse, my blind date spent the night. After he left the next morning, my roommate commented, “He seems like a good one.”

The next weekend we grazed through the Feast of San Gennaro, already comfortable enough with each other to let greasy sausage and peppers drip down our chins. Later, in his tiny studio kitchen, he cooked me a steak from a tony butcher down the block. Steve lived uptown and I lived downtown, with enough distance between us to squash a budding relationship, but I knew I wasn’t going anywhere as I watched him cut up a zucchini to serve with the meat. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone slice a real zucchini. I was falling in love with a man whose suburban upbringing was a bounty of farm-stand vegetables, so unlike the produce in my Sheepshead Bay childhood home, which came from a can or in plastic wrap from Waldbaum’s.

Four years older and farther up the salary ladder, Steve tried to impress me with stuffy restaurants where patrons donned Italian suits and Hermès scarves. I lured him downtown into Chumley’s, a former speakeasy we could enter only through an unmarked alley. He ordered espresso like a character in a Jean-Luc Godard film, and he introduced me to new wave French cinema, where everyone was always drinking wine and breaking baguettes.

Six months later, over tortellini in Trattoria da Alfredo, Steve said, “Let’s move in together.” In our new apartment, we kept a restaurant notebook, pasting in matchbox covers and jotting down reviews for every shared meal. And a year after our first blind date, we married, feeling revolutionary with our chocolate wedding cake. Late that night, exhausted but starving in our hotel suite, we dashed down the block to a place known for serving hot fudge in silver canisters. Our marriage was officially consummated.

And food quickly became the third member of our marriage, just as it had been for our courtship. We developed new traditions: Every Saturday night we went to Art and Ice Cream, where the owners showcased their paintings and ice cream that had been made with love by a grandmother in Little Italy. On Sundays we lingered in bed, but always managed to arrive somewhere for a mid-afternoon brunch before the kitchen closed.

Occasionally, we deviated from our routines to travel. In Paris, we spent our time scouring cobblestone streets for affordable bistros; back home, bloated from enough fromage to give a cardiologist palpitations, Steve invented a new weight-loss regime. “Every time we crave snacks,” he suggested, “let’s kiss instead.”

Things continued this way until shortly before our tenth anniversary, when Steve came home from an annual physical and morosely announced that he had high triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood that can be a warning sign for heart disease.

In nearly a decade of marriage, this was one of our biggest tests. Food was an integral part of who we were as a couple, the foundation upon which we’d built our bond. And now we had to learn how to readjust our relationship to the very thing that had brought us together.

Steve dutifully ate his lean roasted turkey, but he’d regularly lapse back to double-dip ice cream cones at Mother Bucka’s, a storefront with sentimental memories from the early days of our romance.

“You have to stop cheating,” I warned, torn between my worry about his health and my worry of sounding a little too much like his mother. “Pay more attention to your health!”

“I’ve been a saint for months,” he insisted. Maybe so, I said, but I didn’t want a husband with cardiac disease.

We fought — about his ice cream, about how many pieces of bread he ate at dinner. Briefly, he turned vegan, microwaving frozen meals from Whole Foods. I missed holding his hand over a starched white tablecloth, sharing carbonara. Sometimes I took our personalized restaurant book down from the shelf, wistfully leafing through it, the way I’d peruse our wedding album with sentimental fondness.

He needed discipline. I needed patience and flexibility.

But neither of us really got either of those things. Instead, we briefly seesawed back to our past life when a doctor pronounced his arteries perfectly clear, followed by a warning from a different doctor years later that Steve was dangerously close to developing Type 2 diabetes.

“Feel sorry for me,” Steve moaned when he relayed the news to me.
“The doctor said, ‘Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.’”

Instead of heeding his request, I sent him to a nutritionist. I steamed his kale and held my tongue when he lapsed into an ice cream binge. And I learned to skip out on my usual concession-stand snack when the two of us went to the movies together.

But I didn’t want to skip out on travel. Given the gift of a three-month sabbatical last summer, I wanted to take a trip before spending my time off researching a book. But it was busy season for Steve’s job, and he couldn’t get away. So when my ex-roommate from grad school suggested we go to Spain, just the two of us, to reconnect, I jumped at the chance.

Instead of sharing my excitement, Steve was angry. We had one of those humiliating arguments on the street for all to hear. He was envious of my vacation flexibility, and in four decades of marriage I’d never flown so far away from him before.

“You can’t tell me not to go!” I protested, ignoring the stares of passersby.

“I’m not,” he insisted. “But I can still be jealous.”

I didn’t blame him for feeling left behind, so I kept my trip planning quiet. Gradually, he adjusted to the idea, eventually waving us bon voyage at the airport.

In Seville, my friend and I dined at the Spanish hour of 10 p.m.
A bartender turned us on to a wildly inexpensive local red wine. Every time a new plate of patatas bravas or Iberian ham landed on our table, we became giddy with the wine and food. We split the check and parted to separate rooms in our rented apartment. Alone on a strange pillow, I felt sated, yet empty and sad at the same time, missing Steve.

“Let’s go away together next summer,” I suggested when I got home.

“I’ve always wanted to see Amsterdam,” Steve said.

I nodded. “I hear they have great pancakes.” Immediately, I regretted the words, remembering that he’d had to swap out his beloved flapjacks with gobs of maple syrup for an almond-flour Paleo version. “We’ll see amazing van Gogh paintings,” I added.

“And bicycle along the canals,” he chimed in. “Being together is more important than food,” he added, as if trying to convince us both.

Instead of researching restaurants in the Netherlands, I leaned over to give him a kiss.

The Restrictive Diet That Changed My Marriage