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Well Fed

For a new couple, food is the language of love.

man and woman in front of a Chinese restaurant man holds a box of pastries with a heart on it
Illustration by Doris Liou

I wasn’t hungry for a partner that fall. Thirsty at times, but certainly not starving for a relationship. After finally severing emotional ties with a guy who mastered the carrot-on-a-stick approach, I was taking well-deserved time to focus on other things that would keep me satiated: a shift in my career, the new creative opportunities that crossed my desk, my family, and the upcoming holiday season.

He’d likely tell you the same thing, but still, we came to each other unexpectedly. He was experiencing something similar: content in dating casually and creating freely. He was a full-time freelance photographer; his physical presence at events was the linchpin to his potential projects, clients, and a way to meet new people.

I’d say the stars aligned the night we met, but they were likely hidden from the city skyline. Like most evenings, I was at yet another event wearing my usual hats: part guest, part publicist who was tasked with taking iPhone photos for a client’s social media, coyly sipping cocktails while mingling with the new faces present. He was there to photograph, too — equipped with more impressive gear than mine — capturing the candor of the event attendees and the beautifully plated dishes as they left the hands of the chef.

The aroma of warming spices floated in the air and my stomach growled quietly. Was it time to eat?

“Have we met before?” a baritone voice said. His intrigued eyes locked with mine, catching me in a stare.

I smirked, flirting subtly. “I certainly would have remembered,” I replied with a smile.

The night went on, and a formal announcement asked guests to find their way to their tables for dinner. The first course came from the makeshift outdoor kitchen. Between passed plates and small talk with others, the photographer and I would exchange glances and just enough conversation to keep each other coming back for more.

We were serving a meal of our own. As the next course came out, we shared a smirk with a side of flirtation.

A full stomach was my exit cue. I started to bid adieus, making his my last.

“I’m going to head home,” I said to him reluctantly.

“Same for me. How are you getting home?” he inquired.

“Gonna grab a car. I live in Harlem.”

Lucky for me, my assumption that he was a Brooklynite was pleasantly disproved as he offered to share an Uber uptown. We exchanged business cards before I headed out of the car. At the turn of the key into my apartment, my phone illuminated: “Do you like duck?” the text message read.

“I could eat duck,” I replied, salivating at the thought.

The following day, it was a date.

***

Off the Grand Street stop, the sticky and subtly rotting smell of durian wafted from around the corner. He chivalrously took to the street side of the sidewalk, slowing the pace of my metronome-like stride. I accepted the hand he offered to me as we weaved through the crowds.

Turning a sharp corner, he led to me down a small alleyway that housed an inconspicuous storefront: “Fried Dumpling,” it read. How did I, foodie resource to my friends and writer on the topic, not know about this gem? From its entryway came the sound of a sizzle escaping a flattop where pan-fried dumplings were doled out quickly to customers. He entered, confidently sounded off an order, and passed me the tools I’d need in my arsenal: plastic fork, bottle of vinegar, Sriracha, and a couple of napkins. He grabbed his iPhone and took a shot of me, plate in hand and a genuine grin across my face. I sunk my teeth in the piping hot dough, allowing the steam to escape, added vinegar to the pork and chive filling, like I had on many dim sum occasions, and savored the rest.

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I talked about my favorite chefs and places at which I’d recently dined. Between bites, he made mention of the change in Chinatown’s real estate, the restaurants that once were and his favorite dishes from each. My ears perked up at his voice’s cadence and, much to my surprise, at the names of chefs and other eateries — many that had been on my list — he’d experienced through photography and personal interest. As he finished off a veggie dumpling, he informed me that he was vegan. Interesting, I thought. Assumptions that his dietary restrictions would throw a wrench in our courtship began to consume me — until he started to tell me the story of one of the best dishes he’d ever eaten: the Long Island duck at The Four Seasons restaurant. He recounted the grand setting of the prominent property. His eyes lit up as he spoke of the crispy skin and addictive plum sauce. I knew what that spark meant. My worries were put to rest as he escorted me to our next destination.

The remnants of roasted pork hit the storefront’s glass window, where rows of duck hung on display. He gave our order to the gentleman behind the register. Shortly after, a small Styrofoam container made its way to my hands. It was filled to the brim with warm duck, pork, cabbage, and rice: poor man’s food turned headline for NYC cheap eats.

With our takeout in hand, we made our way to the park to people-watch. A game of chess was under way, and a chorus of women sang in Chinese, their voices seeming to accompany the game. It was there on that bench that things seemed to slow down. He scooted closer, and I savored the taste of my meal a little longer than usual.

I was well fed.

***

Six months had passed since that bite in Chinatown. Time flies when you’re having fun, and, in our case, that was when we were eating.

An assignment led us to Staten Island, where I was covering Sri Lankan food. Weeks prior, I had scoured the Internet to pull together a list of potential eateries, many of which didn’t have publicists to coordinate a visit. Personal phone calls with my cold pitch ensued, and I set the day’s itinerary with the two restaurants we’d visit. He made his way to the driver’s seat of our Zipcar and input the destination into Garmin. With voice recorder and notebook on my person, I took to the passenger seat and organized his photo equipment at my feet.

A bell jingled as we opened the door to a small outpost off Victory Boulevard, the main artery of Sri Lankan food on Staten Island. There, son and mother welcomed us and plated a traditional breakfast pie stuffed with mutton and a side of bright red-orange katta sambol.

He brought his charisma and genuine interest in people to the table, asking questions about the family’s exodus from Colombo to the States decades ago. I pressed the red circle of my voice recorder and asked our hosts about other components of Sri Lankan breakfast, adding asterisks to my notes. We were escorted to the kitchen, where the father and cook added a light batter to a curved cast-iron pan. Instinctively, he rotated his wrist, and within minutes, a crepe-like vessel met an over-easy egg. Flashes from a Canon captured our breakfast and the vibrant yellow from the curry we were to eat along with the fresh appa. As we took our first bites, the family stared eagerly, anticipating our reaction. So simple, yet prepared perfectly. He smiled at the humble presentation and took another morsel.

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He was well fed.

***

Fresh pasta at Eataly, Tibetan in Jackson Heights, Ethiopian uptown, and vegan at home. A ubiquitous influence in our respective upbringings — he a Jamaican-born Vermonter, me a Black Caribbean raised in the suburbs of Florida — sustenance is love. It’s one of the ways in which we come back to humanity, and to each other. Like a recipe passed on for generations, modified to taste with no exact measurements, the final product pleases the palates of its recipients. From seven-course meals and takeout via Seamless to plastic-wrapped utensils, chopsticks, and our own hands: whatever the setting, whatever the tools, food is our language.

We are well fed.

Shanika Hillocks is a digital strategist and freelance food-and-drink writer based in Harlem. Her musings can be found over on shanikahillocks.com.