I’ll admit, I knew early on that my wife, Sigrid, wasn’t like me when it came to food. The first time I opened her refrigerator, I was greeted by nothing but a bottle of beer, a jar of mustard, and (boy, it’s been a long time) a few rolls of film. Her oven was being used as a photo archive. Though not polar opposites, she and I exist on opposite sides of the eat-to-live/live-to-eat meridian. While her diet is broad and adventurous, her approach to food has an almost actuarial undercurrent: Analyses along the lines of “Does this satisfy a caloric/nutritive need?” tend to trump the commonplace motivations of want and crave.
For instance, one morning not long ago, while I stumbled around the kitchen trying to conjure a cup of coffee, Sigrid sat on the sofa, scraping the last bits of white out of a soft-boiled egg. A moment after the scraping subsided, I heard a sound like a boot crunching through a crust of ice on settled snow. I looked up, and through a mouthful of eggshell Sigrid volunteered, “It has lots of calcium.”
There might have been a “Yes, but…” on my part, but I knew better than to question her fit of pica. I had no doubt she’d marshaled nutritional and anthropological data in advance of this uncommon mouthful, and considering that I hadn’t yet caffeinated myself, I wasn’t quite ready to ask for a complete explanation. Besides, this was the only time in more than a decade together that I’d seen her do that.
But what if I had witnessed her munching that eggshell way back when, during our first breakfast together? How would it have struck me? Would only the eccentricity of the act have come through? Would I have been able to discern anything useful or relevant about Sigrid’s character or personality from observing such a moment? If I’d been able to foresee her penchant for dietary theory-hopping and experimentation unspooling in front of me, would it have given me pause?
“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are,” Brillat-Savarin wrote, with the hubris of a man who trades in precepts. And we, consciously or otherwise, have taken him rather literally by analyzing the plates—and grocery carts—of those around us for clues. Is the diet a window to the soul? Are vegetarians inherently more empathetic? Are spicy food lovers more passionate? Can a person who eats pizza with a knife and fork ever be trusted?
“There’s no question, we make attributions about people on the basis of their diet,” states Paul Rozin, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. An expert on the complex emotional relationships humans have with food, Rozin finds that we assign moral value to certain foods, typically associating healthy foods with virtuousness. According to one famous study by Richard Stein, Ph.D., and Carol Nemeroff, Ph.D., psychology professors at Arizona State University, college students presumed that people who eat chicken and salad are inherently nicer than and morally superior to those who eat cheeseburgers and milk shakes.
Nowadays, food choices are writ large in the databases of online dating. Whether in personality profiles or specific “date ideas” proposed by users, “food has become more and more an expression of self,” says Brian Schechter, founder of digital matchmaker HowAboutWe.com. So it seems synergistic and perhaps inevitable that this site—centered on users’ suggestions for places to go and things to do on a first date—would partner with national food site Eater.com, as it did last month. Together, these brands may just help singles find one another and their city’s hottest restaurants at the same time.
Some of the date ideas on HowAboutWe are thick with semiotic value, designed to attract certain potential suitors and ward off others. To cite a few actual postings, “How about we go to [Chicago’s] Girl and the Goat and eat more pork face than we can possibly handle” is worlds apart from “How about we satisfy our guiltiest pleasures with gooey vegan cinnamon buns.” The person who finds a kindred spirit in someone who wants to test the limits of human pigface consumption is probably not going to click with one whose guiltiest pleasure is a vegan pastry.