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Food and break-ups: how relationships influence the way we eat

Break-ups can trigger an entirely new relationship: the way we interact with food. We look at the different roles that eating can play in the wake of heartbreak

Break-up food; Illustrations by Bárbara Malagoli

I was 23 years old when I experienced my first knee-buckling heartbreak: not so old for it to be logistically complicated; just old enough to have discovered negronis. That I'd broken his heart, twice previously, proved scant consolation as I tearfully boxed up the tagine I had prepared for us to eat that night, then looked menacingly towards the bin. "Don't even think about it. That's a waste of good food. And my Tupperware," my mother's voice chided in my head – and then again in person, when she came over to pick me off the floor the following morning.

She insisted we eat it that night, huddled together on the sofa whilst she mothered me through each miserable mouthful. "Funny, isn't it?" she mused, as I chewed. "Tagine is one of those things that just always taste better the next day."

I'm not sure my mum meant that to sound as profound as it now does. In all honestly, I think she was just making a benign point about braised food. Nonetheless, her words sprung to mind when I came to write this article, and for the first time in years I started to question their truth. Not about braised food of course – that's a given – nor the idea of heartbreak healing with time, but whether the meals you enjoyed, or intended to, with a former partner are ever as enjoyable again after you've split – let alone better. How can they be, when in the inimitable words of writer M.F.K. Fisher, "sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly"? When so many of your most memorable moments as a couple – birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and even simple date nights – are steeped and shaped by the preparation and joyful consumption of meals?

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly

Needless to say, while there have been many meals (and no few men) in the eight years since that night, I've never again made a tagine. I've never even ordered one. I'm not triggered by it (it's just tagine, after all, I can eat it without crying into the couscous) but if I can avoid the memory imbued into its hearty, aromatic depths, I will. According to accredited psychologist and writer Amanda Hills, though, this is no surprise. "The Hippocampus area in the brain affects the associations we have with tastes. The same area is linked to memory, as well as our sense of smell. It's why when we do want to be reminded of someone we smell their aftershave or perfume." And it's why, by the same token, I give stews containing soaked apricots a wide berth.

It's also why London is a minefield of sensory cues, its bars and restaurants pockmarked with scars visible only to those who have loved and lost within their environs. For my own part, I have only recently returned to The Pig & Butcher, while the lovely Mayflower in Rotherhithe remains dead to me. "I can't remember its name, but if you took me to Richmond I could point it out to you," my friend Ben says of the café in which he ended things with his first serious boyfriend a week before Christmas – a surprisingly good time to do so, he notes, it being the season for friends and family. Equally vivid is a visit to the McDonald's near Bank station 12 hours later, when, having been passed from friend to concerned friend like a parcel, his appetite finally came back to him. "I hadn't been to McDonald's in ten years until that night," he recalls. "But my friend and I had walked and talked for hours, and I was in such a state of turmoil. I felt shaky and emotional, but I also felt lighter. I needed greasy sustenance." Two cheeseburgers and a large fries did the trick.

Again, this response to a break-up is unsurprising to Hills, who reminds me of the line that springs to the mind of every Bridget Jones fan when we think of food and heartbreak: "'Am enjoying a relationship with two men simultaneously. The first called Ben, the other, Jerry.' Bridget turns to chocolate, wine and ice cream, and the likely reason for that is insulin, which stimulates tryptophan in the blood steam – and that is the precursor to serotonin, the hormone that boosts your mood and also induces pain relief."

Break-up food

She's not recommending the Bridget Jones diet: turkey is a fine source of tryptophan, for anyone looking to plug a fresh hole in their heart with a Pret Christmas sandwich this month, as are potatoes. "The problem with refined sugars is that you experience a crash afterwards – which is the reason why these foods can become addictive."

As for the wine, gin and other blessed bringers of amnesia, release and relaxation: "There is no good that comes of it," Hills says firmly. But then again, we know this. We've all (haven't we?) sent that text at 3am having spoiled the party with our unstoppable sobbing. But here's your monthly reminder that alcohol, in fact, "suppresses the central nervous system, it's a depressant, it distorts our judgment and reduces our ability to think rationally and it can also be addictive," according to Hills, who makes a small, seasonal allowance for champagne, which offers a "natural uplift." Cheers to that.

Still, while scientific evidence points overwhelmingly to the contrary, it's not impossible that some good be born of break-up binges. When Australian chef Aaron Turner discovered his wife and business partner at their critically acclaimed restaurant Loam was having an affair with another member of staff, he closed the restaurant, moved to his mate's couch in Nashville, Tennessee and spent the best part of two years drinking "pints of beer for $2 and eating BBQ chicken wings for less than 20 cents each until I passed out," he writes in his recent cookbook, "then waking up and doing it all again." Upon his return to Oz, he turned his hot chicken addiction into an 'open fire' restaurant, Igni, and last month released the cookbook of the same name.

While scientific evidence points overwhelmingly to the contrary, it's not impossible that some good be born of break-up binges

"I think when you get out of a relationship where someone really fucks you over like that, you do feel you've lost part of yourself," says Claudia, who discovered her fiancé was sleeping with prostitutes just weeks before their wedding. After spending a couple of months in the hands of her friends and family, "getting drunk and eating everything," she launched Claudia's Cake Company, an idea she'd flirted with previously but never had the confidence to carry out.

"I was so scared about failing. But when you've got nothing left, you take the leap," she shrugs. For her, baking was both a means of asserting her independence, and "a way of reconciling and reaching out to people. Maybe it's the big Jewish mum in me, but I just love to feed people," she laughs, "and my ex was so weird and prescriptive with eating." Now that she's engaged again, to her school sweetheart (a plot twist even sweeter than her cakes, which are excellent) she isn't tiptoeing around the table anymore. "I've embraced this part of my identity. Food is simply the ultimate happiness."

Of course, not all break-up binges are so productive: little came of the family-sized trifle my friend Lauren polished off in a single sitting, for example, nor the plantain chips with hunks of Galaxy, procured for her by her housemate in accordance with their unwritten code that "any time anyone got screwed over, they got snacks. When another boyfriend broke up with me to go travelling, a different housemate brought me home a Peyton & Byrne cupcake which – this being 2007 – was premium currency of affection."

Break-up food

Another friend, Lizzie, tells me of a deal with her best friend wherein they take each other out for a fancy meal after a break-up – further substantiating my theory that the best remedy for a broken heart is thoughtful food cooked or bought for you by a family member or close friend.

Which brings me to break-up number two, and the meal my brother made after picking me up from my flat like a knight in a white Fiat. It's a measure of just how intuitive we can be around food that, though he was barely 19 and had little heartbreak experience to speak of at the time, he knew just what to cook. A swift half at the pub was followed by a steaming bowl of our mum's cheesy pasta: zinging with peas, juicy with sweetcorn, heady with wholegrain mustard and steeped in our childhood. Much is made of the 'pudding tummy', the mysterious empty space where a treadle sponge can still fit even when you're so full you've had to unbutton your trousers; perhaps we need a term for that special place in a shattered heart that can still be nourished and filled.

But not everyone has hungry heartbreaks. The reason some of us rush to our loved ones is not just to comfort and treat them, but because they're incapable of eating properly. This could be a physical reaction – "If you're angry, or shocked, by the ending of your relationship that physiological response will have an effect on your eating," says psychologist Hills – or the simple logistical consequence of leaving a partner who took responsibility for meals.

In the weeks following his split from his partner, Matt ate nothing but jarred artichoke hearts and vegan scotch eggs. "By the time we broke up, I was so emotionally exhausted I couldn't make a decision about food – because even on that granular level that involved some sort of emotion, and it was too much for me to deal with," he recalls.

Meanwhile, at the 'physically can't' end of the spectrum is Catherine, a non-executive director of a charity who has had three husbands, and describes each break-up as "a good stone's worth of weight-loss in the bag. I am someone who can't really eat when going through emotional angst," she explains, "and I seem to prefer getting men to chuck me than chucking them, which isn't helpful."

By the time we broke up, I was so emotionally exhausted I couldn't make a decision about food – it was too much for me to deal with

One incident in particular stands out: "I was in my early twenties, and I was living with a man I loved dearly. He went on a business trip, and he actually got married while he was away. The first thing I knew of it was when I opened a letter congratulating him on his new marriage – and my legs literally buckled. I didn't eat anything for nearly two weeks. My body just couldn't.

"Then one day, at five in the morning, my dad came in with a bowl of banana, custard, a chocolate flake and some carnation milk, and said 'You have to start eating again. You have to live, Catherine.' I ate every mouthful – though my stomach was heaving – and when I'd finished he just looked at me like the farmer looks at Babe in the film when he says 'Well done, Pig,'" she remembers. "It was one of the most intimate moments of my life."

Though "a bit of a drama queen" in the immediate aftermath, Catherine is quite the pragmatist when it comes to past relationships and their associated recipes. In fact, she's compiling a book of them, which she's two thirds of the way through. "The first time I ventured into internet dating, I met a very nice chap called Jeff, who would rub a lamb leg with garlic then stick the cloves inside before roasting it. Even now when I do a leg of lamb, I do this and think of him," she says fondly. Another man, Tony, was "very controlling. A lovely lady in her seventies who lived locally warned me off him – but I still make his chicken wings in Caribbean sauce. Why let a relationship bugger up a good recipe?" In fact, the only food Catherine finds "connects with a true sense of loss" is Weetabix and hot milk. "Our mum would make that for us when we were sick and off school, and she died when I was 18," she continues – a tragedy with which no break-up can surely ever compete.

As for a watertight solution to the food and break-ups conundrum, I wish I had one. Specifically, I wish the answer was pasta, cheese and chenin blanc – yet while comfort food always helps, it is no cure without the company of family and friends.

Fischer is right: food and love are inextricable, as she wrote in her seminal book The Art of Eating: "So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it." As for me, I don't know if tagine will ever taste quite the same, but I still maintain it is better to have eaten together, and lost, than never to have eaten at all.

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