Food is one of those things that instantly can tell me everything I need to know about a person. For example, if I’ve just been introduced to a new person and they tell me that they are on a juice cleanse or they exclaim “I completely forgot this was in here” upon unearthing a Twix in their handbag, then I know immediately that I have nothing in common with this person. We will never be friends. How do you just forget you have chocolate on your person? It baffles me.
Similarly I distinctly remember the moment that I knew The Man and I would spend the rest of our lives together. It was our first proper date and he asked whether I wanted Indian or Chinese. I shrugged, to which he replied, “Cool, let’s have Chinese – better portions.” And I knew. I knew right then and there that I would spend my life with this man.
To this day we still opt for Chinese over Indian and this homemade sweet ‘n’ sour chicken is our go-to date night dinner (see below for a tasty homemade version). Sometimes as we sit down to our neon feast, I find myself musing about all the meals we’ve shared as a couple and how our dinner plans have often said a lot about where we were at in our relationship.
The Lesser-Known Milestones of a Relationship as Told Through Dinner Plans
First Date: Inappropriate Cutlery Usage
If you are ordering chicken wings, a sandwich, a pizza or a burger in a restaurant with the intention of consuming said item with a knife and fork then you can only be on a first date. Despite my years as a waitress when I witnessed a lot of inappropriate cutlery usage, the first time I ordered chicken wings in front of my now husband I admit it, I attempted to eat the wing with a knife and fork in a bid to appear, well, less like a rabid animal. Is there anyone, man or woman, who can pull off chicken wings with out looking like a wild dog? Watching the prospective soulmate picking over chicken bones drowning in hot sauce is at best reminiscent of an over-zealous hyena or at worst even mildly cannibalistic.
First Anniversary: “We’ll never be like them…”
On our first anniversary, we were sick-making. Showing off our sparkling repartee and ducking our heads conspiratorially to exchange pity-leaden commentary about the couple on table eight who were glued to their phones and barely exchanging a word. Now that we basically are the couple on table eight, I realise that we were likely really pissing them off.
Three Years In: The Silent Couple on Table Eight
After three years of Broadchurch and “Will we have your mother over this week?” and Grand Designs and leaky roofs and occasional sex, we’d hit that phase of the relationship when you rarely bother exiting the house together. Instead we’d opt for eating, slumped on the couch, grunting barely intelligible things at each other about how they should never have tried to revive Arrested Development.
That’s not to say that we didn’t like each other, we did like each other, just in nice, unshowy companionable silence. And by the way, piss off First Anniversary People with your flirtatious banter and hand holding – we get it, you’re in love but wait till one of you has to ask the other to buy Anusol in the pharmacy, then we’ll talk commitment.
First Baby: AKA The Rise of Speed-eating
I’m at the table smashing the record for fastest ever consumption of steak. The Man is pacing the room, bouncing the baby and gnawing a fork-speared sirloin. In his other hand, he clutches a roast potato, which he is eating like an apple.
If you and your loved one have had to take it in turns to wolf down dinner for three months now then there’s only one thing that could possibly happened. You’ve spawned! Congratulations.
From here on out the pace of eating will become quite frenetic as you desperately try to feed yourselves before the bites are intercepted by the tiny hands of the domineering mini humans you made yourselves.
‘Til Diet Do Us Part: The Tandem Diet
“Now I understand why you’ve been a heinous bitch pretty much the entire time we’ve been together,” The Man snarled two days into our first diet as a couple. It’s not his fault, he needed a carb like NOW.
At some point deep into coupledom, we decided to embark on a health kick together. This. Was. A. Mistake. Tandem dieting is dangerous. Despite the we’re-in-this-together notion of solidarity, one person will inevitably become something of a diet-Nazi, intensely monitoring the progress of the other. The sugar withdrawals kick in and the solidarity rapidly devolves into intense competition. Our house became a claustrophobic environment of fork-watching not unlike the house in America’s Next Top Model, though with considerably less attractive occupants.
Date Night Post-Kids
I’m almost afraid to admit what "dating" has become now that we are parents. It’s not so much that we don’t get the opportunity to go out, it’s more that once we’ve packed the spawn off to the (barely willing) babysitter (my mother), we don’t want to waste the empty house. Instead, we tell her we’re going to a restaurant and then slink back to luxuriate for a few hours in our child-free living room, drinking good wine that we could not afford in a restaurant and generally enjoying a chat unpunctuated by tantrums. And, of course, this sweet ‘n’ sour chicken for old time’s sake.
The following recipes taken from Sophie's book Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown, out now.
Date Night Sweet ‘n’ Sour Chicken
Serves 2 (really greedy) people
- 1 432g tin of pineapple in juice
- Juice of 1 grapefruit
- 1 red pepper, deseeded and sliced
- 1 red chilli, deseeded and sliced
- 2 teaspoons five spice powder
- 4 tsp tamarind paste
- 4 tsp caster sugar
- 100ml rice wine vinegar
- 100ml water
- Oil, for cooking
- 2-3 large chicken breasts
- Pinch of salt
- 70g baby sweetcorn, roughly chopped
- 70g mangetout, roughly chopped
- 1 onion, peeled and sliced into chunks
- Rice to serve
- Pour the juice of the tinned pineapple into a blender along with half the pineapple chunks and blend. Set the remaining pineapple to one side. Push the blended mixture through a sieve into a medium-sized pot (it should be about 300ml juice, add a little water if needed). Add the grapefruit juice, the sliced red pepper and the sliced chilli to the pineapple juice. Bring to the boil, simmer for 10 minutes and then blend with a food processor or hand-held blender.
- Return the red pepper puree to the pot and add the chunks of pineapple, the five-spice powder, the tamarind paste, the caster sugar, the rice wine vinegar and the water. Simmer on low for 30 minutes stirring to prevent it sticking. Remove from the heat once it’s reduced and thick.
- Heat a little oil in a non-stick pan over a medium heat. Cut the chicken breasts into bite-size pieces and add to the pan with a pinch of salt. Stir-fry the chicken until it is cooked through.
- Add the baby sweetcorn and mangetout to the pan along with the onion. Continue cooking until the veg is slightly softened but retains little bite. When the chicken and vegetables are ready, pour the sweet and sour sauce in and stir together. Serve with rice.
DEEP-FRIED MARS BARS
This is a nod to my adolescent self. The Bitch Herd was never tempted by a deep-fried Mars bar, but we were always threatening to give them a go until finally my curiosity got the better of me. The result? Not as sickening as you’d expect … in fact, dangerously nice.
- 125g self-raising flour
- 130ml milk
- 1 egg
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Sunflower oil, for frying
- 10–12 fun-sized Mars bars
- Vanilla ice cream, to serve
- Place the flour, milk, egg and salt in a bowl and whisk thoroughly to make a smooth, fairly thick batter.
- Pour oil to a depth of 5cm into a small saucepan and heat over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until a drop of the batter sizzles and immediately pops back to the surface when dropped into the pan.
- Dip each Mars bar into the batter, then carefully lower into the oil. Fry in batches of two or three until golden, reheating the oil between batches, then drain on kitchen paper for 1–2 minutes.
- Serve with some vanilla ice cream and a good dollop of shame and self-loathing, as befits eating a deep-fried Mars bar.