February 14 is a day for proposals—usually of the marriage and living-happily-ever-after kind. But I have a proposal of a different sort: that we recast Valentine's Day as a food holiday celebrating community and friendship so that everyone, whether single or in a relationship, can join in.
I got married in my 30s and stayed married until my mid-40s. Like many couples, my husband and I had our Valentine's Day traditions—those cozy, unquestioned romantic rituals that cause single people to refer to paired-off friends as "smug." In our case, we celebrated every year with a meal at a special-occasion restaurant in New York City. That was the beginning of my associating the day with eating, and I lumped it in with all the other food-related holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July. I looked forward to our February dinner as much as I did an Independence Day barbecue.
Then my marriage ended. When the next Valentine's Day came, I had no one to celebrate it with. I reflected instead on the deeply unsettling weirdness of a day that fetishizes romantic love and therefore makes brutally clear, for many people, what they may lack. That's not true of most other holidays. On Thanksgiving, for example, those who can't afford turkey and the trimmings aren't alone—churches and soup kitchens make a point of serving a meal to anyone in need—and people living far from their families often get invited to friends' homes. Where are the Saint Valentine's charities to provide the uncoupled with holiday affection? Romantic love is a slippery, inexact commodity, after all: You can't buy it, you can't conjure it, and you can't count on its being there tomorrow. But if the holiday were food-related, we could all look forward to it as a collective, warm, easy pleasure. "What are you cooking for Saint Valentine's?" we could ask one another, or "Want to go out with us for Valentine's Day dinner?"
Shortly after that solitary February 14, I fell in love again. Last year, our third Valentine's Day together, Brendan and I found ourselves alone in his family's remote New Hampshire farmhouse. We took a long walk on the frozen lake, then came home and prepared dinner. We sat by the fire with a bottle of Rioja and a sumptuous feast of oysters, endive with artichokes, and chocolate-dipped strawberries. It was lovely, but something was missing.
"This meal would be even better if our friends were here," I said.
"Next year" said Brendan, "let's fill the house with them." And that's what we plan to do.
Brendan and I recently moved to Portland, Maine, a small city with amazing restaurants. I asked one of our favorite chefs here—Steve Corry, the co-owner and executive chef of the elegant Five Fifty-Five as well as the French bistro Petite Jacqueline—what dishes he might cook for a group of friends on this winter holiday. To start, Corry suggested a soul-warming cauliflower soup enriched with crème fraîche. Next: shrimp sautéed in vadouvan curry butter and salmon baked in parchment—festive, cozy dishes whose pink ingredients would nod to the original romantic associations with the occasion. "You can have the salmon on a tray, ready to roast, before guests arrive," Corry says."When you take it out of the oven, it's puffed up a little from the steam, then you open it like a valentine." He also shared with me his foolproof family recipe for chocolate pots de crème infused with clementine zest, a dessert I can make the day before.
With Corry's recipes in hand, Brendan and I plan to cook together this Valentine's Day, but we'll make enough for a crowd. We'll open a bottle of prosecco and put on some bossa nova. We'll set the table with tapered candles and lacy paper cutouts. As our friends arrive and shed their coats, we'll hand them glasses of wine and set out cheeses, radishes, olives, and cornichons on a side table so everyone can hang out in the kitchen while we finish cooking. Brendan will be mashing potatoes and mixing in pureed fennel while I toss caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon and brioche bread crumbs. As we change the music to swank old jazz, we'll make sure everyone's glass is full. And then, when our guests have gathered around the table, we'll toast Saint Valentine, the patron saint of travelers, greetings, and, of course, love.
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