It was the tea tray that saved my relationship. When we first started dating, my girlfriend would never spend the night. At 2, 3, even 4 in the morning, she would put on her shoes, kiss me goodnight, and drive the 45 minutes back home. This, it transpired, was normal for her; she was a night owl, (or as she preferred to describe it, a vampire) who rarely went to bed at home before 5am.
Being a chipper, waffle-making morning person, I heard this, but didn't quite believe it. Why didn't she want to wake up with me? Hadn't I mentioned the waffles, the possibility of scrambled eggs and homemade toast with homemade jam?
What it was really about was the tea. Being half Irish, she took her morning cuppa very seriously. What would I, a coffee drinker (and, horrors, a decaf drinker at that) know about the brewing of a proper cup of tea, the importance of warming the cup, using organic sugar, adding just the right splash of 2% milk? She wasn't a tea snob--PG Tips or Barry's Gold Blend teabags were fine for her, as long as they hadn't gone stale--but tea was a ritual. There were rules.
At the time, however, I didn't know any of this. I only knew that she drank black tea and scorned Earl Grey. Conversely, she knew nothing of my childhood Anglophilia, where I'd gotten up at 5am to watch the royal wedding (the first one); pored over British cookbooks, mysteries, and novels; and yes, read a lot about tea, and teatime. I wrangled visits to the harp-playing environs of the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel in New York City for three-tiered plates of scones with clotted cream whenever I could. I'd had tea and fruitcake on the lawn at Harrow, sipped smoky Lapsang Souchong with my tea-loving grandmother (who also started every day with a pot of tea), baked scones to welcome my high school's glamorously English exchange student back when I was 13.
Little did she know that my tea-drinking maternal grandmother had given me teapots and teacups and, at 14, an antique silver tea strainer with a mother-of-pearl handle. My other grandmother, content with instant coffee, was completely befuddled by this: What could a teenage girl want with a tea strainer? But, quirky me, I loved it, and use it to this day.
So, the morning after I'd finally cajoled her into staying the night, I knew what I had to do. I'd like to say she woke up all smiles, but she didn't. She'd had a restless few hours of not enough sleep in too small a bed. To be honest, she was cranky. Downright irritable, in fact.
But, morning person here, remember? I threw on my leopard bathrobe and put on the kettle. Laid out a pretty place mat on a tray. Got out the milk pitcher, the sugar bowl, a nice cup. Warmed the teapot and added just the right amount of loose black tea. Added the strainer and a spoon. Brought it into the bedroom with a smile. Begrudgingly, she waited for it to steep. Poured. Added milk and sugar, and stirred. Took a sip, then another sip. Halfway through the cup, a small smile lifted the corners of her mouth. "Well, she said, with unmistakable surprise in her voice, "That's a good cup of tea."
Why am I telling you this story? Because it's most often the little things that couples remember when it comes to wooing and romance. When I started asking around for food-related stories of great dates, almost no one mentioned an overpriced, pink-champagne'd Valentine's Day dinner for two. Granted, I know a lot of chefs. But you don't have to be a cook to treat your lover like a king (or a queen) on Valentine's Day, or any other day that strikes your fancy. Caviar, fried chicken, even mac n' cheese can all make for a memorable meal if the company's right.
Longtime San Francisco entertainer Leigh Crow, currently starring in the Thrillpeddlers' revival of the musical Vice Palace, remembers the Valentine's Day when she was house sitting at a place with a fantastic view. Her date showed up in nothing but a slip and a faux-fur coat. "We had a fried chicken picnic on the living room floor!"
Wine and cheese, those old standbys, work their magic when the setting's right. Laiko Bahrs, co-founder of the gourmet events site Epicuring recalls a Valentine's Day spent on the beach at Pigeon Point. "We were staying at the hostel and snuggled up for a wine and cheese picnic. The view was stunning and the simple meal and sunset were perfection. Lots of smooching by the sea."
"On my first date with my current sweetie (which was one year ago, just after Valentine's Day) we lingered forever at Maverick until it was clear we had to give up our table. Neither of us wanted dessert, but we didn't want the date to end. She said, 'My favorite dessert isn't on the menu,' and I said, 'What's your favorite dessert?' knowing for some reason she was going to say panna cotta.
I can't tell you why I knew, but I can tell you that the week before I had just made the perfect panna cotta, using Jessica Thoreux's lovely book, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. It was perfect, just barely, barely set, not jiggly at all, with the taste of fresh cream, vanilla, and barely a whisper of sweetness.
The next date, the following weekend, we went to Pizzaiolo and then back to my house for panna cotta. That wasn't the only thing that sealed the deal. She also brought me a can of tomatoes that she'd grown and canned herself--and she's not a cook at all!
We spent many many hours canning tomatoes together this past summer, and are enjoying the fruits of our labor together. And I pretty much never make any other dessert but panna cotta for the two of us.
For Toddler Cafe author and chef Jennifer Goldman Carden, it wasn't so much the Valentine's Day caviar she remembers sharing with her then-boyfriend (now husband) as the shot glasses they used for the toasts.
"When Matt and I were first dating, we celebrated by buying one of those cool sets of tall shot glasses that sit in crushed ice. I got some nice caviar, and we ate and drank from the shot glasses. But the glasses were really quite large, much larger than regular shot glasses, and no big surprise, we got really drunk!
First we re arranged the furniture (we are so nerdy that way), then we decided Matthew needed a hair cut. He had pretty long hair, below his shoulders. We cut it off, thinking it would be somehow a good haircut. Well, it turns out Saturday night is a terrible time to cut your boyfriend's hair, since most salons are closed Sunday and Monday. He woke up with a terrible hangover and a bad haircut, and had to walk around with a really bad pageboy cut for 2 1/2 days.
We still have the pony tail and the shot glasses. My advice? Don't drink and cut!
And sometimes, it's the simplest things that can be the most generous. When Shifra Pride Raffel, currently appearing in the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at the Live Oak Theater, was first dating Stephen, her now-husband, they shared a double whammy of food sensitivities/allergies: she couldn't eat wheat, and he couldn't eat eggs. She remembers,
Before we lived together, I made egg-free, wheat-free mac & cheese and brownies (Stephen's favorites) and schlepped them on bus, BART, and another bus so we could have a comfort-food feast.
My boss at the time saw all the containers and asked me what I made, and was clearly taken aback that I wasn't trying for elegance. But, I think we're just not elegant people... romance doesn't have to exclude homeyness!"