Ah, the power of food. (The American Dairy Association’s slogan, “Ahh, the power of cheese,” is too specific for this month’s column.) Freud posited that, as infants, we only learn to love our mothers after we bother to notice that the milk-pumping bubble has a woman behind it. If babies knew how to talk, they’d say something like, “Milk is delicious! Existence is great!” And I am entirely convinced that the way to a man’s heart is truly through his stomach. Forget promises of threesomes or attempts at unconditional love. Those aren’t going to fix that rumbly in your tumbly.
But this is a dangerous position to be in. Seduction can be used to treacherous ends. As in, poof! One lollipop and you’re a sucker, one bowl of spaghetti and you’re spineless. Last year, I asked my former boyfriend whether he thought we were more alike than we were different. We are more alike, he answered.
“You like to cook, and I like to eat.”
And so the power relationship was established. I had the pots in the relationship, but he had the pants.
But there’s a way out. Food is incredibly accessible. You have it every day! (Or did you forget that it’s food they’re serving in the dining hall?) Educating yourself is the best prevention against culinary assault; your stomach need not dictate your life choices. You don’t even have to look very far for some culinary guidance. Here are some ways, listed in ascending level of involvement, in which you can protect yourself:
1) Watching Cooking Shows — This requires the least effort on your part, and may enlighten you about some pretty good food that’s not microwaved, in an on-the-go pouch, or edible with the addition of liquid. There’s no reason to be intimidated by the food channel. It’s really just a different translation of network television. “Iron Chef” is like “American Idol.” “Food 911” is like “NYPD Blue.” And “Cooking Thin” is like “Friends.” See? Easy as pie (but none for you, Aniston).
2) Reading — Every Wednesday, the New York Times puts out its Dining In/Out section. It has restaurant reviews, wine analysis, new product information, recipes and stories about entertaining parties and their entertaining guests. This is a fabulous resource for food vocabulary if you choose to expand yours beyond “Let’s kick it up another notch!” For example, in describing mushrooms you may use words like “earthy” or “meaty” but not “wormy” or “poopy.” Wine can be “spicy” or “vibrant” but not “bitchy” or “self-centered.”
3) Cooking — Getting to a kitchen may be difficult in college, but it may be worth it to have the satisfaction of buying your own food, cooking it and serving it to a group of friends. And cooking doesn’t have to be hard. Really. There are cookbooks that go through every single step for you — actually, all cookbooks do that. Cooking for yourself can also be very informative — you can experiment on yourself in ways you could never do with your so-called friends. In an instance of an evolutionary convergence of cooking, I have been experimenting lately with alternate forms of dining hall protein and have nearly perfected something I like to call “tuna surprise.” Later, as I filed through my mental cookbook, I realized the dish closely resembles the restaurant staple Tuna Ni?oise. It’s an easy dish that can be made in almost any dining hall and has considerably more flavor than the prepared food.
4) Eating (intelligently) — This may be the hardest to do because we are all in a rush. We have class! Meetings! Showers! Naps! In this constant time crush, it’s easy to be enticed by sweets that are only good because they’re sweet and nothing more. Food can be many things: emotional relief, functional source of energy, companion for boredom. But good food is artistic, and once in a while should be savored in its simplicity or complexity, as the case may be. Food does not only satisfy hunger but also the little critic inside all of us that loves to appraise food, whether it’s ceviche and duck confit or Coke and Pepsi.
If you’re still not convinced that food should be chosen carefully and intelligently, think of it this way. Your mouth is just like any other orifice on your body — would you really want just anything in it? Only the highest-quality pudding for you.
I Like to Eat to My Own Tuna Ni?oise
Adapted for dining hall preparation
Salt and Pepper (to taste)
Parmesan Cheese (optional)
Hard-Boiled Eggs, chopped (optional)
Hot Peppers (optional)
Secret ingredient: Relish
Mix in bowl in desired proportions. Eat as a sandwich with lettuce and tomato, on cold pasta, on toasted bread, on salad, or on its own.
*Traditionally, Tuna Ni?oise also includes anchovies. Bring your own.
Jessica Tom is holding a pear.