I associate St. Valentine’s Day with food so profoundly that I keep accidentally calling it Thanksgiving. This wasn’t always the case. As a kid, I loved making Valentines with red construction paper and paper lace. The most elaborate one I made was always, of course, for my mother, the person who inspired my greatest passion until the age of somewhere between ten and eleven. She was guaranteed to love me back a thousandfold. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “heartache” back then.
Then we started using the pre-printed cardboard Valentines with catchy messages, glitter, and cute cartoon drawings. I loved the classroom exchange of cards in little paper envelopes; everyone had to give one to everyone else, so there were no hurt feelings. I was thrilled and bewitched by the one I got from my fifth-grade crush, Tommy Bello – he gave me the special card that came in every box of prefab Valentines, the one that actually said, “I like you” – a prepubescent declaration of love. (After that, we “went out,” an arrangement achieved entirely through intermediaries. We never spoke a word to each other, but everyone in our class knew we were in love.)
Those were simple days. Then came puberty, high school, romantic awkwardness, and the end of the magic of St. Valentine’s Day for me. I never had a proper boyfriend in high school. What I had were painful, unrequited crushes on both sides. I couldn’t talk to boys I liked, because I was too shy, and I couldn’t deal with boys who liked me, because I couldn’t take them seriously. My adolescence was, like many people’s, hormonal agony. St. Valentine’s Day came around every year and just made it all feel worse. And then my twenties brought a series of tortured, protracted so-called relationships; did we even celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, me and any of those guys? I don’t know, maybe, but if we did, I don’t remember.
I got married in my thirties and stayed married till my mid-forties. Like many couples, my husband and I had our St. Valentine’s Day traditions, those cozy, unquestioned romantic rituals that remove all doubt and anxiety from the holiday and cause single people to call married couples “smug.” In any case, we celebrated it every year with a memorable meal at a restaurant where we didn’t usually go. That was the beginning of my association of the day with food — not the gluttonous, stupefying turkey and mashed potatoes and sides of that other food-related holiday, but light, buoying, sensual delicacies, raw oysters being the most obvious of these.
Then my marriage ended, as some marriages do. When the next St. 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, the lack of it. To return to the Thanksgiving analogy, people who can’t afford turkeys don’t rejoice and give thanks as the entire country tucks into gargantuan roasted stuffed birds. They feel even hungrier. But luckily, there are charities and churches that make a point of serving a Thanksgiving meal to poor people, as many of them as possible, so they don’t feel their lack so starkly. Where are the St. Valentine’s Day charities, the ones who provide the uncoupled with temporary holiday love? They don’t exist, of course. Romantic love is a slippery, inexact commodity. And it’s not just single people who feel it. I know from experience that people in relationships and marriages can be just as lonely.
It’s a hell of a day, a bitch of a day, and we should probably abolish it for everyone over the age of eleven.
But apparently that’s not going to happen, so instead, maybe we should shift our expectations and associations from love to food. You can’t buy love, you can’t make love appear, and when it does, you can’t always enjoy it. Love comes and goes and waxes and wanes and vanishes and changes color. The vicissitudes of romance, to make things worse, don’t calibrate themselves to surge in the middle of February – on the contrary, at this point in the winter, most of us are at our lowest ebb, and all we really want to do is stay on the couch in our elastic-waist pajamas watching movies and eating comfort food. It’s the middle of freaking winter. Flowers aren’t in season, it’s frankly too cold for champagne, and plunging necklines, spaghetti straps, and short skirts are madness in this weather. It’s a bad day for romance, all around.
If this were a food-related holiday, on the other hand, we could all look forward to it collectively, as an anticipated, warm, easy pleasure. “What are you cooking for St. Valentine’s?” we could ask one another, or, “Want to go out with us for Valentine’s dinner?” This strikes me as a sensible way of circumventing much of the angst and irritation this day inspires.
St. Valentine’s Day is, of course, already associated with food that warms the loins — ridiculously out-of-season, decadent delicacies with aphrodisiacal properties. That’s fine and wonderful, of course, but such a meal can also charge the cells with renewed life and provide fuel to get through the rest of the winter. And a social, communal, shared sensuality can be so much more exciting than a narrow, proscriptive mandate to be happy with only one other person.
Groups of people should dine lavishly and convivially together on St. Valentine’s Day the way they do on Thanksgiving. Single people wouldn’t have to feel as if they were missing out on “coupled bliss.” Unhappy couples could indulge in a day of social bacchanalia. Happy couples could widen their circle, which is always a good thing. Instead of reverting every year to the timeworn offerings between twosomes of lingerie, roses, and chocolates, making many people feel pressured, inadequate, or left out, it strikes me that it would be so much more fun if everyone just gathered around tables to flirt and make toasts and enjoy one another’s company and feast all together on a traditional St. Valentine’s Day dinner: raw oysters, asparagus, artichokes, fresh figs, chocolate-dipped strawberries… and then have a big, old-fashioned orgy. Just kidding, I think.
Buckwheat Blini with Sour Cream and Caviar
Well, all of this is lovely in theory, but Brendan and I happen to be alone in the farmhouse today, so there will be no well-populated Valentine’s party around here. Right now, we’re sitting at the table in warm bathrobes, drinking coffee and listening to Bach piano concertos and looking out at snowy fields and bare mountains. Of course, we plan to cook and eat and drink all day, because this is the other Thanksgiving. We’ll drink toasts to all the people we love, the ones we wish were sitting at the table with us.
To 2/3 cup buckwheat flour and 1/3 cup gluten-free baking flour, add ¼ teaspoon baking soda, 1 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp salt. Stir. Make a well in the middle and add 1 1/2 cup buttermilk and 2 egg yolks and mix till smooth. Beat 2 egg whites till stiff and fold them in. Stir in 1 T melted butter.
Drop spoonfuls of batter into very hot butter in a skillet to make small, thick, round pancakes. As soon as you drop the dough in, turn the heat down to low and let the pancakes sit until they bubble on top, then turn and cook them till browned. Slather a thick layer of sour cream on top and garnish with plenty of caviar and chopped chives.