personal essay

I Broke Up With My Boyfriend of Eight Years and He Ruined One of My Favorite Recipes

published Feb 12, 2020
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Credit: Emmy Lupin

Last summer when I ended a relationship that was going nowhere, I was prepared for it to disrupt my entire life — work, friends, hobbies and all. We’d been together for nearly eight years, and that sort of split isn’t easy. I did all the normal things one does after a break-up: I actively avoided songs, TV shows, and shared favorite places that might suck me back in or send me into a spiral.

What I didn’t anticipate was that the breakup would derail my cooking, although I probably should have.

When I first met my ex, I was a broke college student with a bare-bones pantry. My default dinner back then was overcooked pasta tossed in jarred tomato sauce, with a healthy sprinkle of the Parmesan cheese you get in a plastic container. He was older, a charming man with a fully-stocked kitchen and a checking account that could afford nice ingredients. The first time he came over to cook dinner at my place, he brought a box grater as a gift. “So you can grate your own cheese,” he told me.

A few Christmases later, we picked out a food processor to add to my growing collection of kitchen appliances. And when basil season rolled around months later, he taught me how to make pesto from scratch.

That summer, together in my tiny kitchen, we experimented with all kinds of variations: kale and walnut, Swiss chard and hazelnuts, mint and pistachios. We settled on a favorite alternative to the classic recipe: arugula and pumpkin seeds combined with a handful of basil. The vivid green pesto that was both herbaceous and spicy quickly became his go-to when he was in charge of making us dinner.

In the weeks after the breakup, I was continuously dealt a bounty of fresh basil in my CSA. It felt like a relentless attack, like the bad karma I thought I deserved, like a cruel reminder that, no matter how hard I tried to escape him, my ex would continue showing up in my life in unexpected ways.

For weeks, I let the basil go limp and slimy in my fridge before tossing it directly into the trash. 

More than any other recipe, pesto reminded me of my ex and who I was with him. Not only was he the person who taught me how to make pesto for the first time, we also traveled all the way to Genoa, Italy on a pilgrimage of sorts, hopping from restaurant to restaurant, eating plate after plate of pesto pasta. Pesto was our love language. Pesto also happened to be the last meal we shared together. He made it for dinner the night I asked for my keys back, the night I told him it was finally time to let me go.

And so, for weeks, I let the basil go limp and slimy in my fridge before tossing it directly into the trash. But, I finally reasoned, I couldn’t avoid making pesto forever; I decided to give it a try.

The first few times I attempted to recreate the recipe were disappointing. I added too much oil, or not enough cheese. Sometimes the pesto came out thin and oily, more forest green than the bright green I remembered his being. On multiple occasions, I cursed at the food processor we’d bought together — like the one time I forgot to cover the chute with a lid and it spat green liquid all over my countertop. The next week, I attempted to make it in the blender he’d also gifted to me; that resulted in a chunky, epic fail.

After screwing up the pasta-to-pesto ratio yet again one night last September, I balled up my fists on my kitchen counter and began to cry. I couldn’t replicate his seemingly simple recipe and felt frustrated. I had invested nearly all of my twenties into a relationship, and yet here I was, still making dinner for one alone in my kitchen. I was angry that I’d wasted all those years waiting for him to show me a love as reliable and consistent as his pesto-making skills.

I had invested nearly all of my twenties into a relationship, and yet here I was, still making dinner for one alone in my kitchen.

Just as basil was about to go out of season, I decided to give pesto one last chance. If I couldn’t nail it, I’d wait until next year to revisit the recipe. I gave myself permission to take a few liberties, supplementing the fresh bunch of basil with a handful of baby arugula, and deducting a garlic clove to account for its peppery flavor. In place of pumpkin seeds, I added the more traditional choice of pine nuts, which I had always preferred. I grated a half-cup of Parmesan using my new hand-held cheese grater, and then added the olive oil to my food processor a little at a time, instead of all at once like he did. Just in case I was too heavy-handed with the pasta I’d poured into the pot of boiling water, I made more sauce than I thought I would need. Every step was a step away from his way of doing things and a step toward redefining myself as a single person.

I was so relieved when I took my first bite and discovered I’d nailed it. The pesto was perfect — light and bright and alive, just like my newfound liberation. Yes, pesto might be linked to my ex in my memories, but I’m in control of what I attach it to in my future. As a friend wisely reminded me: “Pesto is a gift from god, not your ex. He was just a conduit.”

I have pesto — and myself — back now. Turns out I’m doing just fine, all on my own.