Every time I pass a bakery, I feel a pang of longing, not because I want to eat the baked goods whose delicious smells waft outside—I have a far bigger salt tooth than sweet tooth—but because sugary treats used to be how I bonded with my boyfriend. When I lived in Brooklyn, an hour and half by train from his New Jersey apartment, I’d stop by Doughnut Plant and bring him dessert.
The first time I delivered such a sweet-smelling package, he placed the box of half a dozen luscious square donuts in flavors like coconut cream and peanut butter banana on his dining room table, sat down with a knife and fork, and made the kinds of noises previously only reserved for sex. He ate them slowly, tenderly, carefully, fully appreciative of both the offering and the discovery of a new kind of donut. From then on, Doughnut Plant was “our” place, even though we’ve yet to grace its sugary walls together. I got a thrill going there specifically to bring them to him, like I was doing something naughty, carrying an open secret with me on my New Jersey Transit train.
I didn’t always go all out in my sweet deliveries—sometimes it was just a Kit Kat or spare cookie from a party, but one I’d selected with his taste buds in mind. I’d walk in the door, say, “Close your eyes,” and gift him a small bite I knew he’d like. My heart sang as he closed his lips around my offering. The sugar was a symbol, but a powerful one. It said I knew him intimately, and thereby could make his day with the merest of efforts. I wasn’t indiscriminately doling out desserts to anyone and everyone I remotely cared about; these were special efforts made just for the one I loved.
Food has always been a key way we’ve bonded, from our first and second dates at the same Thai restaurant to the glorious pile of potatoes he calls “smashed taters” that have become our occasional, celebratory Sunday post-sex brunch meal. We’re foodies not because we keep up with the latest restaurants, but because we often plan our days around what we’ll be eating. I don’t think I could live with someone who treated food as mere sustenance, rather than celebration as well.
The man knows his way around a kitchen, whereas I often crack the eggs I try to boil. If recipes worked for me like they seem to for most people, yielding a treat approximating what’s on the glossy page of a cookbook, I’d try to whip one up for him before he gets home during the week, but the words may as well be in another language for the results I invariably get. Barring baking, securing sugary snacks was my way of delivering the opposite of a sweet nothing. These sweet somethings made me feel needed; I couldn’t bake chocolate chip cookies, but I knew where to procure pastries that would make him moan.
Food has also, on occasion, been a source of conflict in our relationship. One of our only fights in almost three years together has been over candy. In our first few months of dating, I attended a party at confectionery funhouse Dylan’s Candy Bar, and wanted to make sure to get him something he liked. “You pick. Surprise me,” he insisted. But how could I when faced with gigantic gobstoppers and a rainbow array of gummy bears? When he didn’t answer my further texts, I called him. “This is ridiculous. What are your favorites?” I demanded. He continued to be evasive, and in return got a very mixed bag of nonpareils nestled next to Pop Rocks, Sour Patch Kids and cola flavored snacks jumbled together.
Some were a hit, while others were relegated to the garbage. I forgave him while memorizing the ones he devoured first. I learned he was a sucker for suckers, along with Swedish Fish and malt balls. Next time I delivered only his favorites. These desserts were my way of showing my love—just as my Jewish grandmothers would ask me, immediately upon entering their homes, what I wanted to eat. The connection between food and love is so strong in my mind that when my boyfriend decided to quit eating dessert last year in order to be healthier, I experienced a loss too, one I wasn’t expecting.
I was proud of him for giving up his nightly post-dinner ice cream, but this drastic change left me clueless when I wanted to give him a token of my affection, bereft at no longer having my go-to symbolic love on a plate at the ready. Even though I’ve been a feminist practically since birth (one of my favorite baby photos shows my grandmother holding me in a Ms. T-shirt), raised mainly by a single mom who preferred ordering takeout, while my dad was the one who enjoyed cooking, I picked up the idea from our culture at large that a woman’s job is to feed, to serve.
Though I’d say I hold my own in the girlfriend department, the knowledge—or at least, hunch—that so many other women could effortlessly turn out an omelet or pot roast or casserole or coffee cake, while I wouldn’t know where to start, makes me feel inadequate, especially because we now live together and I work from home. Shouldn’t I be able to slip away from my laptop, throw together a few ingredients, and make the house smell nice for him? Even though that’s the last thing he expects—he’d actually be disappointed to be deprived of his nightly cooking rituals—a tiny yet powerful part of me believes this is what I should be doing, and guilts me for slacking off. Given that background, it’s not surprising that my edible gifts had an ulterior motive: to make me indispensible.
So his sugar detox gave me pause. Was I a feeder? A pusher? I’m sure many people would say yes, especially given that he weighs over 300 pounds. I’ve had everyone from a therapist to friends to family members inform me I should be trying to steer him toward healthier eating habits, as if by living with him I’ve now become responsible for all his nutritional needs. Fat people get told by pretty much everyone what they should and shouldn’t eat; I loathed the idea of joining in that particular shame-filled chorus.
But this was different. The directive came from him. He wasn’t ruling out sugar categorically, but simply forgoing his nightly bowl of ice cream, cutting back to one glass of juice a day, and saving dessert for special occasions. If I was on my way to becoming an enabler, I didn’t want to be, but I still needed to find a means to get that same rush I’d received from my little deliveries. It didn’t take many walks past the candy aisle or French bakery to make it crystal clear that my gifts were more about my peace of mind than his taste buds. They made me feel useful and powerful instead of needy and dependent. They were something I used to assuage my decidedly retro guilt about not measuring up in the domesticity department.
If I couldn’t dote on him with dessert, I’d have to find another means of showing him I was thinking about him. He’s a minimalist, so buying him gifts is tricky. Edible presents worked because they could be enjoyed without adding any clutter to our home. As I said, cooking wasn’t an option. He’s the chef in our house; I’m the one who fetches spices and ingredients. I had no desire to take over his role in the kitchen, simply to put a smile on his face. My missives weren’t about being the next Nigella Lawson, but being his one and only. I bought them not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
Once candy was off the table. I upped the ante on sending him cards when I traveled, with sayings like, “There Is Nobody Else I’d Rather Lie in Bed and Look at My Phone Next To.” I texted the occasional naughty photo or news about his favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen. Yet somehow those never felt like enough. It’s pained me to realize how much I relied on sweets as a stand-in for words. He knows I love him—we tell each other this daily—but I still feel the need to somehow prove it with actions. Recently, he told me he misses the wide array of fishnets and other tights I used to sport in winter when we first met, which have been sitting unused in a drawer in favor of my far more common wardrobe of a bathrobe and sweatpants. I’m doing my best to mix up my wardrobe and approximate the fashion sense I had before we lived together.
It was and still is a challenge to resist the allure of a black and white cookie or chocolate croissant. I know exactly how it would feel to break off a piece in my hand and offer it to him, the sounds he’d make and the way he’d pull me close for a kiss afterward. Those imaginary moments I still savor in my mind.
“You’re all I need,” he reassures me whenever I bring this topic up. I know, but I’ll keep on trying to find sugar substitutes anyway.