Since online dating became the mainstream way to find a mate, singles have been forced to agonize over exactly how to present themselves to potential suitors. Should they emphasize their vintage kite collections? Or disclose an abiding love for table tennis?
And with so many details available up front, they also have to settle on the characteristics they're seeking, since it's perfectly reasonable these days to narrow down a field of eligible bachelors to 5-foot-8-inch men who grew up in Nebraska, speak a smattering of Mandarin Chinese and scale tall peaks on the weekends.
The problem with approaching love this way is there are plenty of intrinsic qualities that aren't well represented by heights and hobbies. All of those things can potentially distract from figuring out a person's true nature, as someone who's gone on countless bad dates with mountain bikers can attest.
So where to look for better clues? Allow me to suggest the palate.
To be clear, there is zero science backing me up on this. But I firmly believe that it's indicative of something when a person can't stand spice or insists on adding salt to everything on the table, including a pint of cold beer. We can pretend to love ballroom dancing or the Atlanta Hawks for at least a little while, but just try foisting uni custard on someone who starts the day with Crispix and ends it with a Nestle Crunch.
I don't know if it's nature or nurture that dictates whether an eater likes her food served cold or hot. I suspect most food preferences are probably a combination of the two, arising from the genetics of flavor perception and cultural biases. And that's what makes it a pretty good way of accessing our essential selves.
Hang on, you're saying. I've been married to my beloved for 46 years, and we never order the same thing at a restaurant. But that doesn't necessarily mean your fundamental tastes diverge significantly: If your sweetheart loves McDonald's french fries and you're crazy for taramasalata (a Greek fish roe dip), you're both in the high-salt, medium-texture camp. Whether an eater is picky or adventurous is immaterial.
For years, I've been floating this theory at dinner tables. But this Valentine's Day, I decided to finally put it to the test. Using a set of seven spectra I'd first sketched out in a Memphis dive bar (where else would a culinary-based matchmaking scheme get its start?) I created an online survey for about three dozen very courageous Charleston area daters.
Initially, I worried I'd end up with lots of middle-grounders who'd equivocate on matters of body and funk. As it turned out, very few participants marked a “5” in any category. Consistent with my theory, people have very strong feeling about tastes. The results made it fairly easy to pair off couples, four of which are featured here.
The pairings were based exclusively on survey responses and sexual orientation. I didn't Google any of the participants, or require them to provide biographical information besides their ages. If a couple hit it off, they could credit their parallel taste buds for bringing them together.
Wait! Parallel taste buds? What happened to opposites attract? I weighed the Jack Sprat approach, which makes common sense when dealing with a bucket of fried chicken drumsticks and breasts. But after consulting a clinical psychologist on the University of Michigan faculty who specializes in relationship issues (coincidentally, Jerry Miller is also my dad), I checked out the scientific literature. The hard evidence is clear on this point: Like goes with like.
Each of the paired-off couples was asked to go to dinner, and then report back to the newsroom for portraits and debriefing interviews. Three of the dinners were generously provided by the host restaurants; the couple which received a prepaid gift card chose to take it to Tavern & Table.
So did it work? As participant Eric Gold wisely pointed out, the results were probably skewed by the self-selection process: Folks who volunteer to go out with a stranger about whom they know nothing are apt to be more outgoing and fun-loving than the average population (again, that's a guess, not a proven fact.)
Still, it's striking how well the dates went. Not one of the eight daters reported a single moment of uncomfortable silence. Almost all of them spontaneously shared their dishes, which is awfully cute, if nothing else. And when we met the daters, we were hard-pressed to imagine, say, the woman from couple one with the man from couple four. I'd put my system up against eHarmony any day.
Valentine's Day is three days away. It might be too late to get a restaurant reservation, but if you're still seeking a date, keep this pick-up line in mind: “So, do you like your food funky?” Good luck!
Name: Karen Ann Myers
Occupation: Associate director of the Halsey Institute and a practicing artist
Years in Charleston: I moved here in 2008.
Most notable characteristic: I guess most people would probably describe me as a workaholic. I have two full-time jobs: One as an arts administrator and one as a full-time artist. I like to get involved in way too many things.
Favorite food: I eat carrots and hummus pretty much every day.
What do you look for in a man? Sense of humor, I guess. Intellectual curiosity and creativity, which I define pretty broadly. He doesn't have to be a visually creative person.
First impression: I try really hard not to have first impressions of people, because I know how tainted first impressions can be. So I try not to be too judgy right off the bat. When we started talking, I was pleasantly surprised to find we had so much in common: Things that are pretty big deal breakers for relationships, like political views and religious views. We started talking about those things right away. So feeling comfortable with him and the casualness and ease of conversation was nice.
Could you figure out what brought you together? No.
What did you order? For my first course, I had a mixed green salad with lemon vinaigrette and figs. It was good; it was huge, like a dinner-size salad. And then for my entree, I had the mushroom ravioli, which was ironically smaller than the salad. I had two glasses of wine.
What did you discuss? We kind of just talked about how we got to Charleston; kind of like what we like and dislike about the city. We found we were both liberal people in a city that has a tendency toward conservatism and traditional behavior. So we both shared our experiences in finding friends; it's not always so easy.
Any awkward moments? No, not really.
How did the date end? I guess there was talk of having dessert or not having dessert, but we were both pretty full so we decided not to get dessert and then we shook hands and parted. Or maybe we hugged.
Your date's most notable characteristic? It's notable that while he would not identify as a Charlestonian, he has spent the majority of his life in Charleston, so to be not so Southern was notable.
Would you go out with him/her again? Probably not, but he's a great guy. I think he will find somebody else perhaps. I think for me he sort of lacks the creativity side. He deals with insurance claims all day long. So he would probably work out better with an data analysis data person, and I'm not that.
Name: J.R. Simpson
Occupation: Disability examiner
Years in Charleston: I moved here in 1987.
Most notable characteristic: Probably my memory. I have a degree in history, so odd facts will stick in my head. It came in handy when I was in college.
Favorite food: We have a family recipe for lasagna, my mom makes it and my sister can make it, so probably that.
What do you look for in a woman? Everyone always says a sense of humor, but that's important to be able to laugh at life.
First impression: She just seemed petite and very attractive.
Could you figure out what brought you together? Not really, because there were a couple of questions I couldn't remember.
What did you order? I had the butcher's block for the appetizer. The weird thing is I ordered it not so much for the meat, but because it had pickles on it. And then I had pork tenderloin with asparagus and mashed potatoes. Also very good.
What did you discuss? We'd talked about home, because neither of us are from Charleston; kind of what brought us to Charleston and then where we grew up, and that's how we got into discussing politics. We also talked about how she bikes everywhere, so she lives a green lifestyle. So we discussed that and the gallery where she works.
Any awkward moments? No, not really, not that I recall. On some dates you just find yourself staring at the wall, but until we said goodbye, I didn't realize how long we'd been talking.
How did the date end? We gave each other a hug goodbye and kind of left it open.
Your date's most notable characteristic? Creativity. I've never actually met a working artist who's made a go of it. It was fascinating to talk to her.
Would you go out with him/her again? Yes.
Name: Betsy Harper
Occupation: Mentor coordinator, REACH Program, College of Charleston
Years in Charleston: I've been here since 2006, with a short break.
Most notable characteristic: Cute and quirky.
Favorite food: Cheese fries with ranch dressing.
What do you look for in a man? He has to have a sense of humor. Someone I can just be myself around, but has a good character. Definitely a sense of humor.
First impression: I got there late. My GPS messed up, it wasn't my fault. OK, it was my fault. And he was already talking to a bunch of strangers, making friends at the bar, so he seemed outgoing.
Could you figure out what brought you together? I could, definitely. Once we were there, our food tastes were like exactly the same. We pretty much took a bite of our meal and then passed it to the other person. It was delicious.
What did you order? I had the she-crab soup and scallops.
What did you discuss? We talked about work; we talked a lot about his daughter. I do improv at Theater 99 and he's an actor on stage, so we had that in common that we talked about.
Any awkward moments? We both laughed it off, so it wasn't super awkward, but Ash dropped me off at my car, and as I was getting out, I went to give him a hug. His hand hit my teeth, so we now joke that I bit him, or that he punched me in the face. It's up to your interpretation!
How did the date end? After that, I kind of ran off, like what any mature adult would do.
Your date's most notable characteristic? Very outgoing. He's very much at ease with who he is. His confidence just shows. Very live in the moment.
Would you go out with him/her again? Definitely as friends. I really had a good time. I don't think it was anything romantic on either side.
Name: Ashley Starkey
Years in Charleston: 19 years
Most notable characteristic: I'm very full of energy. I run, I ride, I paddleboard a lot. I'm very competitive as far as that goes. I'm fun.
Favorite food: Foie gras.
What do you look for in a woman? The same kind of joie de vivre, I mean, obviously, physical attraction does come into play, but personality is a big thing.
First impression: Absolutely adorable. She is really, really cute.
Could you figure out what brought you together? We really didn't talk about our flavor profiles. We just sat down and started talking about other common interests. She does theater, and I did a lot of theater for many, many years before I became a single parent.
What did you order? OK, to start off, she had she-crab soup, which was absolutely awesome. I had the pork belly, which was really, really good, but I probably should have gone with the she-crab soup. Then for the entree, she ordered the scallops, which were really, really good. I had the grouper, which was fantastically cooked. For dessert, I went with chocolate, I was boring, but she had this goat cheese cheesecake, and it had pears, and it was just amazing. It was so fresh and light.
What did you discuss? We talked about our lives. I obviously talked about my daughter, because that's my shining star. We discussed plays and food.
Any awkward moments? Not really, we actually got along really well. I think we had a good time.
How did the date end? I gave her a ride to her car, and we went to hug, and she got caught in my jacket and she bit my hand. It wasn't really a bite.
Your date's most notable characteristic? She just had a really good vibe. She's very full of life. I enjoyed hanging out with her.
Would you go out with him/her again? I would, definitely. I hope she'd say the same thing.
Name: Lindsay Coleman
Occupation: Project administrator
Years in Charleston: Six
Most notable characteristic: I'm pretty outgoing and friendly. I'm kind of friends with everybody.
Favorite food: Probably anything Southern. I love grits and all the stuff that's bad for you.
What do you look for in a man? Certainly someone who can make me laugh, and also enjoy the playful banter. Mostly a personality that can handle my quirks.
First impression: He's very nice, polite; intelligent. The conversation was great.
Could you figure out what brought you together? Zero sweet: Neither of us wanted dessert. But we actually shared food; we decided to just pick a few things and share them. Everything sounded good. The only issue is that he had some dietary restrictions because he's Jewish so he didn't eat pork or shellfish.
What did you order? We had sticky wings to start, which were kind of like teriyaki-glazed chicken wings, and what they call burnt end mac-and-cheese, which comes out in its own little cast-iron skillet. Then we shared a steak salad as well.
What did you discuss? He's in med school, so one of the main conversations we did have was about modern medicine and school in general.
Any awkward moments? No, actually, the conversation went really well. I think the only awkward moment was at the end when you don't know what to say.
How did the date end? We hugged and said that was fun.
Your date's most notable characteristic? He's very intelligent and has a good idea of what he wants to do. He seems to be very motivated and driven. I would say his religion is a pretty big factor in his life, so I didn't know how that played in to our date. I was expecting him to be a little shy, but he wasn't at all.
Would you go out with him/her again? I would probably maintain a friendship with him but probably not in a romantic way.
Name: Eric Gold
Occupation: Medical student
Years in Charleston: Seven months. I came here in July from Brooklyn.
Most notable characteristic: I'm kind of a seeker, an adventurer. Since college, I've cycled across the United States; I lived in New Orleans, working as a waiter; I was in D.C. as a lobbyist; I was in Israel for three years as a teacher and peace activist. I like to do a lot of different things: I'm very passionate about changing society. And I have a very famous laugh. I have a loud laugh.
Favorite food: Sushi. I got turned onto it when I was about 8. I love the texture most.
What do you look for in a woman? Someone who has a really good sense of humor. Obviously, someone who's attractive. Someone who is caring and follows current events, and is interested in politics.
First impression: I thought she was very pretty. She was understated in a good way. She's a very comfortable person, but it took a couple of minutes for that to come out, and I liked that.
Could you figure out what brought you together? Neither of us wanted dessert.
What did you order? We ordered three dishes and shared them around. We got these teriyaki wings, which we thought was an appetizer, but they were absolutely gigantic. We didn't know what we were getting into. We also shared a steak salad. Then they have this very famous mac-and-cheese served in an au gratin dish. I had a beer, a Westbrook.
What did you discuss? We talked about where we're from, what we're doing now and how we got there. She told me she works in her family's business, which I thought was really interesting. I don't know too many people who work with their parents. She studied biology, so we talked about biology and anatomy and evolution. I remember speaking a lot about our science geekiness.
Any awkward moments? When she got there, she didn't know what I looked like, so the hostess came by and asked if I was on a blind date.
How did the date end? We said thank you and gave each other a hug and that was that.
Your date's most notable characteristic? That's a tough question. She seems like a loyal person.
Would you go out with him/her again? Um, maybe. The only thing is I wasn't sure if we had a lot of life experience in common. Not that we wouldn't have a good time, because we would.
Name: Arlene Felipe
Occupation: Designer for an accessories company
Years in Charleston: I grew up here; I moved back a year-and-a-half ago.
Most notable characteristic: I guess my friends would say I'm just sort of genuinely nice or sweet or creative. And adventurous, I like trying new things.
Favorite food: I like eating healthy and filling organic food that's locally sourced.
What do you look for in a man? I look for someone who is open-minded and flexible; understanding; funny. You know, thinks positively about the direction they're taking in life.
First impression: My first impression was, oh my gosh, he's tall. He just seemed like a cool, laid-back guy.
Could you figure out what brought you together? I have to ask if he and I were paired together as opposites? On the date, I remember him saying he has a sweet tooth, while I was more into salty-savory-crunchy; and that he was somewhat picky while growing up, while I am an adventurous eater.
What did you order? To start, we had the antelope carpaccio and as the entree, I had the elk osso bucco. Dessert was apple crisp.
What did you discuss? Our families and where we grew up, jobs, music. Just general, nothing too out-of-the-ordinary.
Any awkward moments? We first met at the photo shoot, and that was like, not painfully awkward, but like a new situation.
How did the date end? At the end of dinner, we walked to our cars and went our separate ways. I just thanked him for being a good dinner companion.
Your date's most notable characteristic? I think he seems like a nice cultured guy. I learned he's into playing music, so that seemed really cool.
Would you go out with him/her again? I think maybe not romantically, but it would be fun to hang out as friends or just, you know, casual.
Name: Jeff Feinman
Occupation: Tech writer
Years in Charleston: Four years
Most notable characteristic: I would say I'm fun, easygoing and loyal.
Favorite food: I would have to go with the generic answer of pizza.
What do you look for in a woman? I don't really tie myself down to traits, but in general, someone who's easy to talk to; attractive and likes to go out and have fun.
First impression: Arlene was very nice. It was very nice to be blindly set up with someone who's tall. She's smiled a lot and you could see she was a warm person, and just very positive.
Could you figure out what brought you together? No clue.
What did you order? We started off with an appetizer that we shared, which was an antelope carpaccio. It was something I usually wouldn't order on my own, because I'm not the adventurous type that would eat something as interesting as antelope. For my entree, I had the filet mignon. And I had a Malbec from Argentina, it was really good. For dessert we split an apple crisp a la mode.
What did you discuss? So she was born and raised in Charleston, so we talked about her life growing up in Charleston, and we talked a little bit about her job and her interest in the arts.
Any awkward moments? I don't think so, nothing more awkward than any typical first-date type stuff. I would say overall it was actually pretty easy to find things to talk about. Overall, it was a lot of fun, especially for a blind date. It was more easygoing than other first dates I've been on, so that was a nice surprise.
How did the date end? Well, it was a weeknight, so we didn't hit the town or do anything super exciting, but we exchanged numbers and we had a fond farewell and yeah, that's pretty much it.
Your date's most notable characteristic? Probably her smile. That's just a refreshing characteristic and certainly not something you see every day. In general, she's just a very warm person.
Would you go out with him/her again? Yeah, I would say yes. I think we had good chemistry and it was certainly a good time. To be honest, going into the date, I was more interested in the opportunity overall, and I wasn't even coming in with a mindset like “Oh man, I might get a good date out of this,” but I was highly and pleasantly surprised by my pairing.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Previous versions of this story had an incorrect age for Eric Gold.