Farewell to salad days — dinner dates mean real food

I remember coming home from my first date with a boy.

There was my mother, waiting up in the buzzy fluorescent light of our kitchen. She was gripping a cup of already cold tea, her elbows propped up on the table. She would probably want to know everything–if I liked him, if he liked me, if we'd see each other again, if I thought he was a good person, if he made me laugh.

This was a big moment for her, a single mother watching her only daughter enter the potentially painful world of men. I waited for the onslaught of probing questions as she tightened the belt on her faded chenille robe and looked up at me excitedly.

"Well, what did you have?" she asked. "What did he have? Was it good? What came with it? Did you have dessert?"

An alien could have landed in our kitchen at that moment and have easily been able to deduce one thing about our family: Jewish.

Like many Jewish families, food was at the heart of our rituals, even though we weren't very religious. Every year, when the streets were deserted on Christmas, we ate chicken chow fun at the Hong Kong. The waiters began to expect us that day, bestowing my brother and me with wind-up Garfield dolls as holiday gifts. There were the usual Jewish soul food favorites, kugel and brisket and chicken soup. And there were rules: Two people should never order the same thing, so as to avoid culinary redundancy. Anybody's plate was fair game and the forks were always flying.

I was raised to love food. Still, on that first dinner date I inexplicably suffered from the fate of many young women of all faiths. I'll call it "Salad Syndrome." That night, and dozens to follow, I ordered nothing but a dinner salad, which I daintily ate as though the jejune meal was the most satisfying dish ever.

I am not a big girl, but neither am I small. Who was I kidding? It had to be pretty obvious that I was putting away more than artfully arranged radishes and oil and vinegar dressing. Make no mistake, however; this was no eating disorder. I ate just fine. Just not in front of him.

I don't know what I was trying to hide. Was it my appetite? Not just for food but for all of life's more visceral pleasures. Or was I simply trying to hide the food in the teeth, the garlic on the breath, the bread crumbs on the chin that would clearly define me as human. I guess I wanted to be more mysterious than mortal, more refined than ravenous, more lettuce than lamb chop.

Like fossils, I can look at meals past and see a distinct evolution in my life, from "Salad Syndrome" to a dinner date I had recently. I ate a generous helping of salmon with mushrooms as I would in front of anyone. The salad was only a starter, and I felt perfectly comfortable exposing the shocking fact that I, too, can clean my plate.

To me, a man who likes to see a woman eat is as good a catch as that salmon. And a man who feels comfortable sharing food? That's even better.

Recently, I fixated on a woman's plate at an all-you-can eat buffet in Las Vegas known as "Pharaoh's Feast." She was dining with her boyfriend, a beefy gentlemen whose muscles were popping out of a T-shirt shouting the slogan, "Failure is Not an Option."

I looked at her sparse array of celery sticks, garbanzo beans and small hunks of cantaloupe and felt I knew her. "Salad Syndrome," I thought to myself, sighing at the barren landscape of her lunch tray.

I wanted to lean over and whisper, "Why don't you have a little slice of cheesecake? The Pharaoh would want that for you. It's not going to kill you — at least not today." I wanted to tell her that food isn't always a guilt-inducing vice, an attempt to stuff the hungry inner child, a replacement for love or a sign of weakness. Sometimes, food is just a snack. And it tastes good.

I wanted to grab a fistful of her bitter celery sticks and let her know it was time for lunch, not a showcase meal for her meathead boyfriend. Because famine is no longer an option.