Inspired by mating birds, Chaucer declared it the season of love, the Victorians commercialised it and, in the 20th century, US companies such as Hallmark – aka ‘the General Motors of emotion’ – triggered the avalanche of heart-shaped tat that swamps us every 14 February. This year, I’m giving it a miss.
Originally a commemoration of several beheaded third century saints named Valentinus (romantic, huh?), Valentine’s Day has always been an odd one, particularly for food lovers. All that pressure to spend big and eat luxuriously to demonstrate your love, with fine food dangled as the tantalising hors d’oeuvres to hot bedroom action, feels, as Yotam Ottolenghi once put it, ‘A bit claustrophobic.’
There is, undoubtedly, a kernel of truth to the idea that sharing food stimulates passion. Breaking bread together was said to open hearts long before Channel 4’s First Dates. According to his translator MFK Fisher, the legendary 19th-century food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin believed that: ‘Bluntly, happiness at table leads to happiness in bed.’
But that’s true 365 days of the year. On Valentine’s Day, rather than that process being allowed to follow its natural course, dining becomes fraught with undue expectation. Everyone goes OTT. On a freezing midweek February night (Thursday, this year), we cook too much and invariably choose too heavy a menu. Throw in two bottles of wine and, rather than jumping into bed, a drunken argument (hey, let’s uncork 12 months of simmering tension!) about whose turn it is to load the dishwasher (this isn’t really about the dishwasher, is it?), is just as likely to ensue.
Even worse than going the full candles and edible knickers route at home, is eating out. Normally, I would always urge you to support British restaurants but not tonight, my love. Only the most gullible amateur eats out on Valentine’s Day – an evening of panic bookings; rushed table-turning; packed-in tables; and dreary, over-priced menus for husbands who think choosing fillet steak asserts their virility and that sharing a soufflé is a grand, romantic gesture.
For restaurants, this is an annual payday designed around the least sexy of concepts: maximising gross profit. Kitchen brigades trudge through this void – yet stressful – shift, while the waiting staff are run ragged by demanding diners.
It could be worse: during the Roman precursor to Valentine’s Day, Lupercalia, half-naked men roamed the streets slapping women with the bloody hides of recently slaughtered goats. But it could be much better, right? In my 28 years with the long-suffering Mrs N, I have learned that the fires of affection need stoking continually, and that striking intimacy occurs spontaneously. No amount of flowers or champagne will turn 14 February into a day of romantic renewal. Buying a three-course supermarket meal-deal says nothing other than you lack imagination. Chocolate is no more an aphrodisiac than the sparrows’ brains the ancient Greeks ate as a kind of nose-to-tail Viagra (boring science bit: chocolate’s endorphin booster, phenylethylamine, is broken down by the killjoy enzyme, monoamine oxidase).
Instead, if you want to woo a lover with food, make them breakfast. Get up and put yourself out, and, hearts racing with caffeine and novelty, you may find yourself going straight back to bed. As for Valentine’s Day, give your partner the greatest gift this year: licence to ignore it.
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Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian