stories

Food and long-distance love

left: original artwork, right: the tea towel itself (creased, stained and used)
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No items found.

On our first date, we forgot to eat dinner. Neither of us can believe this now, because we can barely last an hour without talking about food. We drank coffee and cider on empty stomachs and called it a night six hours later. It wasn’t enough time. We arranged our second date while I was whizzing away from the countryside on the last train home. The next morning, he drove for two hours just to come for a walk with me.

We fell into a long-distance relationship without thinking about it. From the moment we parted on the station platform, we knew we were going to be in each other’s lives. It was simply understood. We’d danced around each other for years at university - hardly ever speaking, but always wondering. After all this time, the miles between the countryside and London didn’t matter.

Of course, we felt the distance. Even more so as time went on, and butterflies turned into feelings that blossomed into love. But I don’t think about distance when I think about us. I think about dates that lasted for entire weekends, denim-clad thighs touching under the table in our favourite independent café, spots of homemade tomato pasta sauce on noses in the kitchen, West Country cider and chips on New Year’s Eve. Every memory has a taste, a smell, a texture. 

Food has a different kind of significance when you’re in a long-distance relationship. It’s more than food, it’s the food you eat when you’re with each other. It’s not just brunch - it’s brunch with garlicky scrambled eggs and lightly charred red peppers, the way he makes them. It’s not just a donut - it’s the Crosstown donut you sought out on the way home from touring London, because he doesn’t know the city like you do. 

We learned about each other through food. In the early days, over text, we learned that we both adore mushrooms. Thinly sliced and fried with lots of garlic, piled on top of toast with basil pesto, roasted whole in the oven - we can’t get enough of them. When we had sushi for the first time, he covered his maki in wasabi paste, while I stuck to dipping my nigiri in the soy sauce. He likes spicy food; I don’t. When we got cocktails at a rooftop bar in Oxford, he learned that my kind of drink is light, fruity and zesty. His is anything at opposite ends of the flavour scale - sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter - something strong and distinctive. It was late February then, but warm enough to sit outside with our coats on. We looked down at the city from above, our faces glowing in the sunset, the same colour as my passion fruit cocktail. 

Our differences make us a good team. I can’t function when I don’t have a meal plan, but he can make my stress evaporate by throwing something together on the fly. I can never be bothered to make my food look appealing, but he’ll happily take my questionable-looking dishes and make them a feast for the eyes. The first time he cooked for me, he made pizza from scratch with a tomato sauce to die for. In his nervousness, he forgot to transfer it to the baking tray before adding the toppings, and it stuck to the kitchen surface. Being a perfectionist, he wanted to bin it. Being not so much of a perfectionist, and a very hungry woman, I scooped it off the surface with a spatula and arranged the salvageable pieces on the tray. The result was delicious, like tomato and basil flavoured crackers with dairy-free cheese on top. It just took some of his tomato-sauce-making wizardry and a little of my let’s-whack-it-in-the-oven-and-see-what-happens attitude. 

Now, pizza is one of those dishes that always reminds me of us. I’d been eating pizza for many years before we met, but nobody had ever wanted to make it for me, to make it so perfectly, so earnestly. Nobody had ever wanted to sit me down with a glass of wine and reassure me that there was, genuinely, nothing I could help with while they were working away, covered in flour. It means something more now. It’s part of our story, like my dairy-free macaroni and cheese that we always take with us when we stay at an Airbnb. Like the hummus-and-tomato-stuffed pitta pockets and flask of oat milk hot chocolate that we bring with us on every hike. Like the incredible gravlax and orange polenta cake we had at a tiny French restaurant in Bath, which neither of us can stop going on about, over a year later. We almost annoy ourselves with how frequently we talk about it. 

Before the pandemic, I worked from home every other Friday so I could get the earliest possible coach to his place. I’d trek across London with my over-packed bag and buy myself an orange juice and a sandwich from Pret for the coach journey. He’d pick me up at the stop outside Sainsbury’s and whirl me around, spinning the city stress off my body. We’d skip through the supermarket aisles, picking up ciders, salt and vinegar crisps and dark chocolate. We always chose the same snacks, but there was something about the endless rows of choice that made us feel free. We were ourselves again, released from our work personalities and to-do lists, just a young couple in love. 

When he came to stay with me, I’d always buy a loaf of bread on the way home from work. I only have a few slices of toast per week, but he can easily polish off a loaf a day if left unsupervised. I’d walk home with the bread wedged under my arm, a physical reminder that we’d be together again soon. I’d spend the hours before he arrived baking, so I could send him home with something when he left on Sunday - if we hadn’t already eaten it all. ‘Wait,’ I’d say, just before he stepped out into the night. I’d run back to the kitchen and return with a foil-wrapped parcel of chocolate chip banana bread or almond butter cookies. He’d tuck it inside his jacket pocket, pat it lightly, and somehow I’d feel better. 

Then, lockdown came. The miles stood indefinitely between us. We Skyped often, but no video conversation could take away the uncertainty that now shrouded the world. We were all physically apart. A few weeks in, I had an idea. I baked walnut brownies and posted them to him, thinking they were one of the few baked goods that wouldn’t mind being squashed in transit. They arrived safely, and he devoured them all in one go. The surprise sweet treat delivery was nothing like being together, but it made us feel closer. It was something real, something tactile, something with a scent that reminded us of happier times. And, brownies are at least a partial solution to every problem. 

Ironically, the lockdown that separated us might just be what makes the long-distance part of our relationship a thing of the past. The whole world shifted, and so did our plans to reduce those miles. Wherever we are, food will always be our love language.