Love and Shakshuka

The man who taught me to make shakshuka, the man I thought I might marry, I do not love anymore.

I was still in love when I drank six vodka-sodas on my first date as a single woman, and I was still in love when my date came home with me, looping his arm across my back as I vomited into a trash can in my bedroom. But the next morning, when I prepared a skillet of shakshuka, alone, for the first time since our split, there began a transformation. This was his dish—our dish—and to make it myself was an act of defiance. Slicing open a fresh onion, I drove a stake between our shared past and my solitary present. This is mine now.

Shakshuka is easy to prepare. The way I like it, with the bare-bones ingredients only—tomatoes and tomato paste, onions, garlic, crushed red pepper, two eggs, olive oil—it’s ready and steaming within 30 minutes. The dish comes from the Middle East, like the half-Israeli man who taught me to make it. It was days before my move to New York, and he wanted to give me something: something I didn’t need to pack or write down, something simple enough that I wouldn’t screw up. He knew me well.

Before I fell in love, I’d been enamored of his hands. When he made me shakshuka for the first time, I lazed between the sheets in his one-room loft—the sheets smelling of cigarettes and his skin—watching his hands wield the kitchen knife. They were deft; as deft as they had been hoisting plates, dealing cards, and sliding across guitar strings. I admired the arms attached to them too: long and lean, with strong wrists, a peculiar dent in one from a teenage skateboarding accident and subsequent surgery. The wrists flexed as he sliced onions and minced garlic, browning them in a pan greased with olive oil.

“Slicing open a fresh onion…I drove a stake between our shared past and my solitary present.”

I made shakshuka for him only once.  It was Christmas, and he came to visit me in Brooklyn. Everything we ate that week was warm and soft and comforting, a way to battle the cold: ricotta pancakes, baked mac n’ cheese, hot toddies and french fries dipped in garlic aioli. A few months later, I would find a permanent job in New York and there would be no bridge across the icy distance.

I ladled the dish into my roommate’s bowls like a child eager to please. Both the eggs and the sauce had achieved ideal harmony: the poached eggs were firm, the corn-colored yolks bleeding just a little into the tomato sauce. Such moments of domesticity—our own ideal harmony—rarely happened in our long-distance relationship, were rare even when we lived in the same city.

To compare a dish to a relationship is futile—no culinary metaphor could approximate the anxiety and tenderness of our two years together. But I could, with little effort, compare the shakshuka to the sex: consistent, uncomplicated, satisfying, warm. Spicy, occasionally. But good sex, unlike good shakshuka, does not always make for real nourishment. Neither, sometimes, does love—even if you try as hard as you can to fill yourself with it.

Slicing tomatoes through the hangover of my first date, the dish became… a meal. That I had made it for a man I loved, and that he had made it for me, meant nothing to the Tunisian who first cracked an egg onto a bed of crushed tomato and called it shakshouka; means just as little to the cooks in restaurants and homes in New York and Montreal and Morocco and elsewhere who liven up the dish with pesto, feta, spinach, Merguez sausage and peppers; means little now even to me.

Love is bound by the same rules as any living thing: if you don’t feed it, it dies. When my love for this man began to wither, shakshuka—once tethered to the act of loving—no longer meant anything to me. I don’t regret that. The warmth and flavor of the dish, like the memory of loving, is good for its own sake.

Rebecca Hiscott is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She makes shakshuka at least once a week.