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On Love and Pie

The flaky pastry really is just too good to swear off for someone who couldn't appreciate it.
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I want someone who loves me as much as they love my cooking. As a culinary school graduate, I can impress with a linguine alle vongole, a hearty bolognese or a brisket that's been braised for so long that you can peel hunks off with your fingers.

I've cooked for many men, I suppose starting with my father. As "roommates" (which is what we liked to call each other after the divorce), we'd make bachelor pad stir-frys and cookies, Batman Begins blaring on the TV. Soon those stir-frys turned to Shabbat sweet and sour chicken, and rice noodles with black bean sauce for a kosher boyfriend in college.

There was another one from school, Jay, who loved my cooking, encouraging me spend time in the kitchen with his Russian immigrant mother. I flipped blinchikis and topped traditional brown bread with thick slabs of their finest Russian feta. It was with Jay that I tried frying chicken for the first time (unsuccessful), and with him that I really began to feast. He's long gone, but I still crave that feta and have no idea where to find it.

After college, where I pored over pages of Greek drama and Shakespeare, I refined my cooking with a year-long program at culinary school. It was then that I really began to date. Friends of friends, blind dates, and plenty of app set-ups that read in my phone like a who's who of Tinder. I can remember all the dishes I've cooked for these men: a rich lasagna with homemade bolognese and bechamel (which I had learned to make during my externship at Osteria Morini); fresh pasta with butternut squash, brown butter and hazelnuts that I crushed in my mortar and pestle. The memories of these dishes are fresh; the faces of those who enjoyed them gradually fade away.

Then I met Caleb. It was a bad first date. He was too hipster and the bar we were in was too bro and too loud. By the time he walked me to my door, I still knew nothing about him, except that he couldn't project his voice very well. But he dared to lean over for a kiss anyway.

In my room I lit candles, and we talked. Once I could finally hear him, I learned that he had a great job as an engineer and was an NYU alum like me, where he went for music. The desperate Jewish woman in me did the mental math: Jewish + smart + the spark. He symbolized the potential for a future where I'm not devoured by my own cat.

One night, we were on the phone (he preferred phone calls over texting, to my delight) and he explained that he was about to quit his job to start his own company. It was the wrong time, he explained, to be in a relationship. What that meant, I could hardly guess. Either he didn't want love, or he didn't want it with me.

A day later he called back, regretting his statement, feeling as if someone had "kicked a lamp plug out of the outlet before the party was quite over." So I continued to see him. Breakfasts turned into dinners. Whole days were spent cooking in his kitchen with bounty from the Union Square Farmers' Market and eating homemade halvah ice cream on his living room floor. There were car trips in the pouring rain with Rockaway tacos on the dashboard and bubble baths that still make me blush. I started to truly fall, and just hoped that he was along for the ride.

Another thing: Caleb loved pie. I think he loved pie more than he loved his father. And so, on the night before his birthday, I baked him a pie. He would never know that I scoured the market for the same European butter that he kept in his fridge, that I clouded my kitchen in a flurry of flour, that I feared for the fate of my crust more deeply than I fear global warming. I placed it in a brand new Le Creuset pie dish, one I figured we could use for all the future pies we'd make together.

To surround the fresh yellow peaches, I made a special caramel spiked with bourbon (because he also loved that). I stood over the pot, on tiptoe, swirling and sweating. I topped the whole thing with mounds of brown butter streusel.

In a torrential rainstorm the next morning, I delivered the pie to Caleb's office before he arrived. An hour later and soaked, I received a text that he loved it, that no one had ever done something like that for him. I truly believed it had all been worth it. A few days later, though, in recounting the story of how the pie was devoured in his office, he mentioned that he told his colleagues that it was baked by a "friend." A friend. The word made me feel more sick than any food could have.

Later, we were lying in bed together. He was on his back, staring at the ceiling, glasses low on his nose and I was snuggled in, my head on his chest, fingertips tickling his arm, listening to him talk about his work and his dreams and his plans. I gave him thoughtful, good advice about his company and his colleagues. Abruptly changing the subject, he asked if I was feeling okay with "how things were going." He said he didn't want me waiting around for him; that he still could only devote his time to his work--and not to me.

I sat up, tears rolling down my cheeks. He didn't embrace me. He looked scared, like the owner of a puppy who realizes too late that he's allergic, or an uncle holding a wailing newborn at arm's length.

A few days later, during the fast of Yom Kippur, I called him. In a moment of clarity that can only come from real starvation, I told Caleb that I couldn't do this anymore. I didn't cry and he didn't fight it. There was nothing left to say. He thanked me and hung up.

And here I am, back in the dating game. Eating pie doesn't upset me anymore, though it did for a while. I'd pick around the crust, grumbling about that fancy European butter. But the flaky pastry really is just too good to swear off for someone who couldn't appreciate it. There will be others. Other guys, other dinners, more hours in the kitchen than I can possibly predict. I'll keep cooking for the men in my life. And I imagine, some day, someone special will ask for more.