by Samantha Suarez • photo by David Specht
Eating is so much more than a way to satiate hunger. Food has even found a place in modern vocabulary. When we haven’t eaten yet, and we’re mad about it, we get “hangry.” When we’re enjoying what we’re eating, we call it a “foodgasm.” When we take a great photo of our food, we post it on Instagram and use the hashtag #foodporn.
Arguably the most important element of food beyond survival is the emotional component to it; eating can be a means to get to know a total stranger, show someone you care about them and is an integral part of major holidays. Bonding with family on Thanksgiving, for example, is just as important as the turkey and stuffing. A picnic in the park makes for a romantic date, despite the pre-packed food in Tupperware. Terrible meals can be remembered fondly because of the laughs that were shared about how overcooked the steak was. This Valentine’s Day, before you buy your partner that box of chocolate, dig deeper with us into the human relationship with food that dates back thousands of years.
Origins of Sharing a Meal
Once upon a time, the cavemen only ate smaller animals until they developed the tools and cooperation needed to take down bigger ones like mammoths, which resulted in plenty of meat to go around. Too much, in fact, and thus the feast was born. That’s probably what happened, at least, according to John Allen of the Creativity and Brain Institute at the University of Southern California. Somewhere along the way, our brains must have become wired to remember these food sharing events and the people associated with them.
Babies depend on their mothers and other people for nourishment. The effects of food as a form of soothing continue into adulthood in different ways: We offer culinary fare as a form of comfort and hospitality to friends, acquaintances and romantic partners. Food can help console someone when they’re down, like eating a pint of ice cream with a friend going through a breakup. It can even serve as a reward or form of celebration, like dining at a fancy restaurant because someone got a promotion. #TreatYoSelf.
Food and Courtship
In chimpanzee communities, meat is a hot commodity. When a male chimp shares his hunting conquest with a female, he is much more likely to get some action out of it. In more primitive human societies, the act of supplying food established a sort of economic partnership between a male and female, demonstrating how well they can provide for future offspring.
Craving Comfort Food
When we eat what we truly enjoy, our dopamine system becomes active and rewards us with feelings of pleasure. This same system becomes active when we look at someone we love. In that sense, food truly is connected to love and the feeling of well-being. This is likely why comfort food is extra “comforting” when the delectable item in question is nostalgic to us, through association with a loved one. Why else do you need mom’s chicken soup recipe when you’re sick, even if she’s hundreds of miles away?
The Science of Food Aphrodisiacs
If you think the association between chocolate and Valentine’s Day is a coincidence, think again! Chocolate contains serotonin and phenylethylamine, which are “feel good” chemicals released by the brain when we feel happy, loving or passionate. Other aphrodisiacs include oysters, clams and scallops, which contain compounds that raise testosterone and estrogen levels, translating to heightened sexual desire in many cases.
Dating VS Married Couples
Surprise, surprise—in the early stages of a romantic relationship, people tend to eat less because our bodies are already producing tons of reward hormones from the thrill falling in love. Married people, on the other hand, are twice as likely to become obese in comparison, since they are no longer facing competition in the dating world and have less incentive to stay in shape.
Sharing Food = Intimacy
One study found that when two people share food, observers rated their relationship as close. The same study found that two people sharing food by feeding each other were rated as even closer. Similarly, another study found that people imagining their partner sharing a meal with a potential rival experienced more jealousy than when they imagined their partner in a face-to-face interaction with a rival without a meal. Sharing really is caring, eh?
All that being said, discussions of brain regions and chimps exchanging meat for sex might not be the best way to get your date excited about food— unless they happen to be a biologist— so we sat down with Shelby and Julie Kibler, owners of the Field & Fire Bakery and Cafe in Downtown Grand Rapids. Spoiler alert: They are also married to each other.
Believe it or not, these bread connoisseurs met at an eight-hour long bread-making class at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor.
Julie: He was the teacher, and I was one of the students. I purchased the class as a gift for my friend’s birthday, and was not looking to hook up at all! I had rolled out of bed, was just in a pajama top and jeans, no makeup, my hair wasn’t even brushed. I was totally smitten though! I pursued him, gave him my business card, and e-mailed him like three times. He completely avoided it.
Shelby: I didn’t like her in the class very much. I had everybody introduce themselves, and she was like, “I don’t cook.” She was very persistent though! Once I finally agreed to go out with her, we fell in love with each other.
Since then, bread has continued to be a form of passion and intimacy between the two. On a trip to San Francisco, researching ideas for Field & Fire, the duo had what can only be described as a movie moment on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Shelby: We visited like twelve different places and this particular one, Jane on Larkin, was awesome and has fantastic bread. We had brunch there, and then we were going to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge afterward, so we bought a loaf of sourdough and brought it with us. We just walked across the bridge, tearing pieces of it together, and it was so good! The fact that Julie loved it as much as I did and our son was eating it with us was magical. That was part of falling in love with her for me in the first place, that she appreciated the things I value. We try to savor those moments when we can.
Today, Field & Fire makes authentic bread and pastries from scratch, focusing on local, organic ingredients and supporting sustainable farming practices. Their goal is to make the best bread in Grand Rapids. They do that by putting love and passion into their baking, their service, and even their food sourcing.
All in all, food has a long-standing history with love and intimacy and will continue to do so for years to come. So whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day this year with your partner, your friends, or alone with Netflix, you can at least celebrate humanity’s committed relationship to food. How? Treat yourself to some delicious bread, pastries or macarons from a bakery like Field & Fire, take yourself out for an A-Plus meal at a nice restaurant, or make a special dish for yourself at home! Happy Hearts Day, everyone!