At 3am, this article idea was birthed during the interlude of a nightmare about old, saggy witches. I did not remember the idea’s arrival, and I would not have recalled it save a grammatically incorrect note on my laptop found the following morning. For the record, there is no relation between the contents of the note and the contents of the dream.

Was I initially convinced a shriveled hag had crept into my house and typed out some cryptic curse disguised as my own thoughts? Perhaps. But it is a good article idea, so we shall begin:

I would like to start with the concept of a date. Consider the prototype of its first iteration: the initial greeting; a meal; a post-dinner stroll, perhaps; and the proposal to “do this again sometime soon,” whether genuine or obligatory. Sure, there are some counterexamples, like 500 Days of Summer (romping through IKEA) or Hitch (jet skiing to Ellis Island). But we all know that Lady and the Tramp is the first thing that pops into our heads: almost invariably, food is the medium through which we first date.

But now what?

Dating has certainly been upended thanks to coronavirus. The traditional connection between food and dating is interrupted. Check out this graph I made (Figure 1).

Zack Tseng

Figure 1: Proving My Point

Figure 1 isn’t really constructed with real data. It’s a mistake I made in my economics problem set. However, I think it’s clear to see that food and dating are not like they used to be.

In fact, I propose that over these past few months, our relationship with food has been modified to blur the distinction between romantic and gastronomic interactions.

To understand what is in front of us, though, it might do us well to first look where we have been (#poet #truthbomb #smart).

Where We Have Been (or, Exes and Dirty Dishes)

Our relationship with food begins right away. Food is how we connect to our parents, and it is how we grow (lol). There is enormous potential for intimacy, whether via ancient family recipes or cut up fruit as substitutes for gestures of emotion.

But by and large, food was just a vessel for romance. We heaped our thoughts and emotions upon a plate in silent offering to our partners (unless you’re offering noodles—in that case: SLURPSLURPSLURP).

It mattered a little whether the food was yummy, yes, but even soggy burritos can become the foundation for good conversation. Our real focus lay in the subject across, not on the table. Doing the dishes was only special if you’re doing it for someone else as they sing high praises of your cooking. Chinese takeout alone? An act of despair and defeat. But add another individual to share it with? Suddenly you are a busy professional couple enjoying the fundamentals of companionship (see Two Weeks Notice for reference).

As we age, it seems food takes a back seat more and more. Sure, one may reminisce about dishes eaten in childhood. But Taylor sang Our Song, not Our Meal. For most, a dish’s edibility is not chained to the tide of a relationship. Romance and food were clearly divided, for better or for worse.

Now: The Way I Loved You

For food, the road from vessel to subject is a smooth one. Consider: the ingredient list for a healthy relationship includes clear and constant communication, patience, trust, and reserved one-on-one time (or so I’m told). Uncannily, the requisites for a successful baking session include the very same things.

As social distancing removes the physical presence of others from the equation, we are left only with food.

What to do, indeed?

It makes sense that our trusty sidekick has become the main dish. It is the classic story of best friend turned lover, epitomized best perhaps by the 2008 anthem You Belong With Me. “Hey isn’t this eee-ea-say?” the banana bread in front of you croons.

The signs of transformation are evident. The memes are abundant. And, tellingly, (when the world needed them most) flour and yeast vanished. The hands-on nature of cooking and baking step in to fulfill our need for physical touch. We yearn for warmth, something close and intimate, and in unison we have turned to food.

Obligatory Sourdough Tang(ent)

For a better analysis of this phenomenon, we can turn to the quintessential quarantine foodstuff: sourdough.

There is a striking, perhaps unsettling, parallel between sourdough and a romantic relationship. We begin both in a fragile stage that calls for nurturing. The blossoming of a romantic encounter dangles on a knife’s edge, sometimes swayed even by a stray text or an unbrushed tooth. For sourdough, this is a simple mixture of flour and water, fed regularly and eagerly. Sourdough starter is more a human companion than a pet. Starter holds our hopes for the future (will the bread be light and sour, or dense and lackluster? the suspense!) and, embodying the essence of a baking project many days from fruition, calls us to commit (@ing all of y’all).

When the dough is ready to be prepped, we eagerly caress it, pat it lovingly, and fondle it until “smooth and supple.” King Arthur Flour, is this a recipe or a 50 Shades fan fiction? (For the obligatory Taylor Swift reference, consider the possibility that yeast really does want to live forever.)

Attempts to cultivate a healthy relationship can take months or even years. Failures are discarded, and the work must begin all over again. With sourdough, a single attempt takes only a few hours of labor. Unsuccessful loaves can still be consumed (see Figure 2), and once the work flow for that perfect loaf is realized, it can be experienced and re-experienced at the baker’s desire. Also, there are no time-consuming discussions about “what are we” or “who is that other girl on your Instagram.” See Figure 2.

Zack Tseng

Figure 2: Bread is Bread

What Next?

When all this ends (see you all in 2023) what happens? Is sourdough the first step to Her or Ex Machina -like companionship? Will sourdough still hold a special place in people’s hearts, or will it be discarded like all the excess sourdough starters before it?

There may be a nice perspective that says people will come away from this with a deeper appreciation of self-love and a more patient approach to future relationships. I do not think this is accurate.

Sometimes, a moment establishes itself as special because it is just that: a moment. Peep in a moment too soon, and you find nothing. Pull up the moment after and it is business as usual. But in that precious, singular moment, minds and actions are transformed. Many things will change in the coming years, for better or for worse. (In a few years, one might even be able to proclaim that Everything Has Changed.) But when the flour settles, sourdough love will be gone.


Here is a poem I penned. Not based on true events. (Or maybe based on true events. Hard to say.) Please read it. Please enjoy it.

My Sour Girlfriend

My sour girlfriend is a queen

My sour girlfriend is the best

Although in times I must confess

She can become a great big pest


“I want, I want, I want, I want!”

I do not know how this could be

But certainly she must soon stop!

I hope she’s not the death of me


I date a hippo, this is true

It’s “feed me, Seymour!” every day

And love is lost where hunger starts

I am a fool, to my dismay


Ms. Swift does say to jump then fall

Yet falling, falling’s all I do

Good grief good God why have I done

This wretched act of starting you?