By Lise Funderburg
O the Oprah Magazine
There was a period in my life when I had my very own Groundhog Day. The plot, ever repeating, went like this: I was on a date, midway through dinner, when the man across from me sat back in his chair and put down his utensils. He gazed at me. Enter romance, I thought. To be so baldly admired, so desired, so devoured! He’d clear his throat. He’d speak. “You’re a healthy eater,” he’d say; eyebrows slightly raised.
Mea culpa. I love food. I love it with a zeal often considered unseemly for my gender. I seek it out with a gusto that challenges the capacity of my metabolism and forces me into the gym several times a week. I embrace it with a we-are-the-world democracy that delivers me into one cuisine after another, that has made silken Burmese sautéed tofu triangles as much of a thrill as pernil, the Puerto Rican pork roast sheathed in a crackly herb- and garlic-laden skin. My exuberance isn’t about quantity — most of the time — as much as it’s about quality, how the experience employs all my senses, my intellect, my heart.
Early photographic evidence of this love shows me as a toddler decimating an orange, its juices running down my naked stomach. I bear a look of complete and perfect satisfaction beyond what any therapeutic relationship, psychotropic drug, or religious cult could ever deliver.
Further documentation of this love surfaces in a travel diary from my first trip abroad, age 12, in which I seem to have understood the difference between Denmark and Switzerland as a distinction between buttery; almond-infused baked goods and wild alpine blueberries. We spent time in Copenhagen with one of my mother’s dearest friends, a wry and kind woman whom I’m named after and with whom my mother helped repatriate German refugees after World War II. This is my complete record of our visit: “We had a pastry that Lise Dybvad brought us it was flaky and delicous [sic].”
Food adventures didn’t start at home. My parents were fairly conventional. Salad was iceberg lettuce; vegetables came from the Jolly Green Giant; bread was baked at the Pepperidge Farm. I did learn from my father the distinctly southern utterance of approval — ‘Mm-mm-mm” — and the hospitable phrase (repeated throughout the meal): “There’s plenty more in the kitchen.” On my mother’s side, meals signaled a time for boisterous laughter and rounds of grace sung with gusto, if not always musical aptitude. But I developed a love for food itself on my own. When I taste something new or of extraordinary quality (chipotle hot sauce! Early South Carolina peaches!), I want it at every meal for days on end.
Case in point: cannelés — custardy, crisp, caramelized little tuffets with a hint of citrus. Metropolitan, the best bakery here in Philadelphia, makes them and I fall in love at first bite, only to discover that they are catch-as-catch-can — a mere handful delivered daily. I am disappointed one too many times, and finally I think to call ahead. They have four. I give my name and promise to pick them up before the bakery closes, then I skip dinner so I can eat all of them by myself. The next day I call again. I mention what I’m looking for, and the woman on the other end of the line says, “Is this Lise?”
My eating adventures aren’t always so solitary: My neighbor Claudia and I, in the grip of porkaholic cravings, once drove through a major snowstorm to feast on pernil at a Cuban-Colombian restaurant across town. We still talk about it, years later. Food can be a bridge to other people, a way to explore cultures, a way to show one’s love. Imagine, then, my delight upon meeting a man who shares my gustatory passions.
One of the first things he told me about himself was that he keeps healthy by eating whatever he wants, once a day. More than his profession, hobbies, height, or weight, this detail made me want to know him. Now he cooks for me. He makes me cornbread the way his grandmother did, fried in bacon fat. His butter-crust fruit tart had me swooning. He saw a photograph of sausages served with sautéed red grapes, cooked it up, and after my first bite — crisp fruit balancing the rich, savory andouille — I realized that my karmic bank account must be solidly in the black.
I stopped by his house recently. It was late; I was tired and ravenous, and he would not let me head home without being fortified by some of his chicken hash on toast. Thick chunks of roasted chicken swam in a peppery onion and celery gravy that might have soaked through the bread completely if I hadn’t been inhaling it at warp speed. He had already eaten, but he sat across from me, gazing.
“You’re a healthy eater,” he said. Then he leaned over to kiss me.