Illustration by Neo Clark

Cook adventurously this Valentine’s Day

Be fearless, not formulaic

Each Valentine’s Day, besides considerations about cute cards, flower arrangements and date scheduling, stands the supreme ruler of the language of love: food. If “the way you make an omelet reveals your character,” as Anthony Bourdain says, the way you cook Valentine’s Day dinner reveals a great deal about how you express affection.


The only trouble is: what exactly do you cook? That depends, of course, on the person or persons you’re cooking for—but we can find some guidance in the traditional foods of the holiday, with a little help from major media outlets.


You’ve probably heard of most of the foods typically associated with Valentine’s Day, and therefore with love generally as well: wine, which one assumes has more to do with its alcohol content than anything else; strawberries, a traditional symbol of Venus; and chocolate, which isn’t really traditional at all but rather the vanguard of Richard Cadbury’s plot to commercialize the holiday in 1861.


This isn’t much help. Wine, strawberries and chocolate are great, sure, but a satisfying dinner they do not make. So, let’s turn to the guardians of American cultural life for guidance: the mainstream food news media.


In a turn likely to make the President’s Council of Economic Advisers have a fit, large media outlets like The New York Times and Good Housekeeping have recommended that their readers decline from eating out this Valentine’s Day—in a time when a dozen eggs cost, on average, $4.25, it makes sense to keep costs down by turning down fancy dinner reservations and cooking in, even for Valentine’s Day.

Illustration by Neo Clark

The New York Times, to their credit, have offered a recipe list so soporific and middle-of-the-road it’s sure to make their loyal readers reservedly hop for joy. Spaghetti carbonara, Steak Diane, French onion soup—these are the safest choices, to be sure.


The BBC provides a similar list, replete with such standard fare as steak with a peppercorn sauce, carbonara (again!), and “quick & easy cocktails.” The one slightly adventurous recipe on the list, Dauphinoise potatoes, loses points for the fact that it’s essentially just potatoes and cream—delicious, but hardly impressive.


Shouldn’t food on Feb. 14 have a little more… pizazz?


For example, in medieval Europe, young women were encouraged to eat bizarre foods on Valentine’s Day, such as roasted hedgehog, in the hope that digestion of such oddities would cause them to dream of their future husband. Putting aside the heteronormativity and possible animal cruelty inherent in this practice, we should consider that maybe they had a point. I, for one, think we should return to a culinary tradition that puts a little more spice into romantic life. What’s stopping us from putting haggis back on the menu?


In all seriousness, cooking food for someone is a profound expression of love, and the formulaic nature of “Valentine’s Day recipes” has made the whole process a bit… sterile.


To quote Anthony Bourdain again: “The Italians and Spanish, the Chinese and Vietnamese see food as part of a larger, more essential and pleasurable part of daily life. Not as an experience to be collected or bragged about—or as a ritual like filling up a car—but as something else that gives pleasure, like sex or music, or a good nap in the afternoon.”


This Valentine’s Day, resist the urge to make the standard meal, or even to go to a standard restaurant with a standard V-Day menu. If you go out, try to find someplace you’ve never been before, someplace you wouldn’t normally go—make it an adventure to discover something new together. If you stay in to cook, make something that’s meaningful to you and/or your partner: a recipe from childhood, a dish you’ve always wanted to try, a meal you can really share.


And if you’re cooking alone this Valentine’s Day, don’t fear. Put as much effort into it as you would making dinner for someone else. Be a hopeless romantic for yourself. Make that multi-course dinner. Get that fancy wine (but maybe don’t drink it all on your own). Have a friend or a few over, and test out new recipes on them. Who knows? Maybe roasted hedgehog really is that good.