We were still just dating when that first Valentine's Day came rolling around, and any opportunity to express our...appreciation...for one another - Hallmark sanctioned or otherwise - was welcomed. The deal was this: Lisa, studying at Peter Kump's cooking school at the time, would plan our meal, and I would figure out the remainder of our evening's festivities.
Dinner was at her apartment, a studio in Chelsea appointed not as a way station to a grown-up life, but designed for living, with a mix of antiques and modern art. We sat at the tiny drop-leaf table inside her "eat-in" kitchen, glimpsing the top of the Empire State Building from its fire-escape window.
The centerpiece of the dinner: eggplant parmigiana, baked in a dark and gurgling red sauce prepared in a heart-shaped metal pan Lisa had had for years. After the meal, we stepped out to a movie at Film Forum (a beautiful little film called "Utz" with Armin Mueller-Stahl about a fine arts dealer which, while no "Breakfast at Tiffany's" on the romance scale, was just right for us), and then popped into SOB's for an hour or so of dancing before retiring back to her place.
It was a perfect night.
Which is why I broke it off with my valentine the very next morning. How could I not? If this hot little evening with this hot little girlfriend was any indication of the romantic/culinary bliss I might experience for the remainder of my days, well, what choice did I have but to nip that in the bud right then and there? Before it got any further out of hand. Before it put asunder my planned future - cultivated like a Nero Wolfe orchid - as a reclusive, starving, misunderstood and potentially misogynist artist?
She didn't take it well, and I'll leave it at that.
It was weeks before we'd gotten back together, before I'd fessed up to the oh, so wrongheadedness of my ways, but despite her forgiveness - the generous product of her first real insight into my deep-rooted Jewrotic tendencies - it was years before I'd see that heart-shaped pan again. That would be my penance. No eggplant parm for me! No red sauce baked in love.
The Valentine's Days that followed were failed attempts to recapture the magic of the first, with each February 14 arriving as a glaring reminder of my bad judgment. While pleasant, all were somehow wanting. Where the first seemed effortless, the succeeding ones seemed strained, each an abashed, unspoken apology from me, an overcompensated attempt to bury the past, and the conspicuous absence of the heart-shaped pan was the 800-pound gorilla in our relationship.
The futility of this yearly exercise reached its nadir with a reservation for two at Aureole, Charlie Palmer's once hot restaurant. (For you young people out there, let this be a lesson to you. Listen up, and learn from my mistake.) Because what you do not want to do is book a table at a famous and famously high-priced Upper East Side restaurant on Amateur Night, which is what Valentine's Day undeniably is. It wasn't just the bridge-and-tunnel crowd with their heart-shaped Mylar balloons tauntingly floating above our heads. It was also our table, tight up against the constantly clanging waiter's station; the staff's inattentiveness if not outright disdain for all who entered that night; and the kitchen's utter indifference to what they were sending out to this huddled mass of dining dilettantes.
We both received an education that night, and the following year the heart-shaped pan made its long-awaited reappearance, this time for good. Or so I thought.
A dozen Valentine's Days later, we introduced our six-month-old son to real food with his first taste of red sauce, cooling atop a sensuously delicate Valentine's Day eggplant parm. He's grown up in his mother's kitchen, learning at her side. They have appeared in magazines together baking galettes. His palette is sophisticated and he can accurately identify when a dish is requiring a dash more cardamom. He'll be eight and a half this Valentine's Day, and now he's calling the shots. The heart-shaped pan, he says, is out. Apparently this dish does not hold the same significance for him as it does for us. Its history is merely an over-cooked anecdote from our life before his arrival. Eggplant parmigiana, in whatever pan, is simply too pedestrian for him.
And so the torch has been passed. Goodbye eggplant parm, hello lobster risotto. Because that's what he loves. I suppose I can live with that.