Love at First Bite

Chef Ina Garten may have hatched an idea when she featured a roasted chicken recipe in her 1999 “Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.” Garten’s chicken recipe riffed on the belief that one way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.

Foods that spark romance

The nuptial-prompting chicken tale originated in 1982, when a Glamour fashion editor roasted a chicken inspired by Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan and shared it with her assistant. The editor, Kim Bonnell, claimed that the chicken was “the most delicious she’d ever tasted.” Bonnell’s assistant cooked the dish for her boyfriend, who proposed a month later. After more Glamour staff made the recipe for their significant others—provoking three more engagements—Glamour dubbed the dish “Engagement Chicken” and published the recipe in its January 2004 issue.

Another romantic chicken dish captured the hearts of couples in 2016 after a Delish editor shared a video of a Tuscan-style chicken recipe that went viral. The recipe, titled “Marry Me Chicken,” has since resurfaced on TikTok as a revamped version flaunting succulent chicken breasts bathed in a creamy parmesan and sun-dried tomato sauce and topped with fresh basil. Reviews call the dish “marriage material.”

Many other foods are considered aphrodisiacs, even if chicken isn’t one of them. For example, the Aztecs believed that chocolate’s stimulating effects mimicked the excitement of falling in love. Aztec culture also revered avocados as an aphrodisiac that imparted fertility. “Ahuacatl” in the native Nahuatl language means testicle; that avocados resemble that part of the male anatomy isn’t coincidental. And then there are oysters: sultry, briny and full of zinc. Eating them supposedly increases sex drive.

Madeline and Charles Lammers making Grandma Bea’s stuffing.

Family recipes from the heart

In reality, it might be who you’re with and not what’s simmering on the stove that fosters love. And since cooking together combines being in the moment and focusing on the process, it’s a binding agent. Here, some Northern Colorado residents share how the myth of falling in love while preparing a meal is perhaps an inspirational recipe for romance.

Charles Lammers, of Fort Collins, is sure stuffing is the ticket. The first Thanksgiving Charles and his girlfriend, Madeline, spent together, they were alone in her Denver home. They’d been dating seriously for several months, and Madeline wanted to try making her Grandma Bea’s stuffing.

After shopping for the ingredients together, the couple went home to prepare the dish. That took three hours of filling the kitchen with tantalizing aromas and making phone calls to Madeline’s mom for guidance. Charles was intrigued by the recipe, which used apples, among other delights, and he now believes it sparked their love story.

“There’s white wine in the stuffing, so of course we were drinking it too,” he recalls. “We’d never had a holiday together; it was a catalyst for our relationship. We bonded over that unique, complex, flavorful stuffing.” Charles proposed in 2021, and they wed last September.

For Jim Doherty, community manager at desk chair workspace in Loveland, making his family’s “Grace’s Gravy” recipe with his new love interest turned out to be an effective wife-catching tool. He and his partner, Kelly, have been married for 18 years, though at first they were hesitant to begin dating.

Jim’s Sicilian tomato sauce—called “gravy” by those familiar with authentic Italian sauce—takes six hours to make. It incorporates browned Italian sausage links and beef meatballs with Romano cheese, dried oregano and parsley, garlic powder, tomato paste, generous amounts of olive oil and water. Jim simmers it for several hours to thicken it and then ladles it over spaghetti or makes baked ziti or lasagna with it.

When Jim met Kelly, a widow, he had been divorced for four years. Mutual friends who knew them pressured the pair to meet. Their first date was at Johnny Carino’s in Loveland, which has since closed.

Jim Doherty’s “Grace’s Gravy.”

“It’s funny we met at an Italian restaurant, knowing later he makes this fabulous gravy at home,” Kelly says. The first time he cooked it for her, she was swept off her feet.

The recipe is named after Jim’s grandmother, Grace Doherty (Calafato), who was born in New York City in what is now Harlem in 1907. Her parents immigrated from Sicily in the early 1900s, leaving their family behind for a better life in America.

“Grace learned the recipe from her mother but never wrote it down,” Jim says. “I have memories of going to my grandparents’ house in Brooklyn when she was making the gravy. The smell filled the house and lingered for days.”

Jim’s mother, Catherine, watched Grace make the recipe, taking notes so other family members could recreate it. Jim compares his grandma’s gravy to the one described in Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather.” 

“There was an Irish kid, Tom Hagen, who the Corleone family adopted. The first time he sat down for dinner and tasted their Sicilian gravy, Hagen couldn’t imagine how anything could taste so good. I’m three-quarters Irish; I can completely relate to him,” Jim says. “The sauce is magical, with the acidity of the tomatoes, the rich olive oil, the fat from the meat and the garlic.”

A wedding photo of Grace and Raymond.

Let others cook for you

Jim Edwards, owner of Door 222 Food & Drink in downtown Loveland, says restaurants can also be romantic.

“We’re cooking for you, and we have a special booth nicknamed the ‘Mafia Table’ that’s in a dimly lit nook. It’s quiet, but you can see the energy of the restaurant if you want, or focus on each other for a private experience,” he says.

Sharing bites or choosing a handful of tapas—lightly battered cheese curds with buttery, fondue-like cheese inside, a bowl of mussels or paper-thin slices of Black Angus beef carpaccio with arugula and aioli—creates an element of mystique.

“Our menu is mostly stuff people can’t do at home because the process isn’t easy,” he says. “Chef John Gutierrez came up through the ranks from Chimney Park in Windsor. Enjoying his craft meals gives people a reason for a special night out. You might fall in love over something new you’re learning about together.”

But quiet intimacy might not always do the trick, Bryan Jones says. He owns Henry’s Pub in downtown Loveland and thinks the lively vibes might give you more courage if you’re planning to pop the question.

“What if you propose in the middle of a fancy restaurant and she says, ‘no,’ or everybody starts clapping?” he asks. “Having a good meal, sharing a bottle of wine and then dipping two spoons into a brownie sundae; it’s the act of sharing that’s romantic.” 


Grandma Bea’s Stuffing

Yield: 10-12 servings

3-4 cups apple juice

1-2 cups white wine

3 pounds sweet Italian sausage

2 (12-ounce) bags Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Classic Stuffing

6-8 medium Granny Smith apples

2-3 celery stalks, diced

1-2 medium sweet yellow onions

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons dried thyme

2 tablespoons dried marjoram

2 tablespoons poultry seasoning

1 tablespoon rubbed sage

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1 teaspoon pepper (or to taste)

Preheat oven to 325°F. Dice celery and onion. Put in a bowl and set aside. Dice Granny Smith apples into ½-inch pieces; set aside.

Brown Italian sausage in a medium skillet (optional: rinse cooked sausage with hot water in a colander to remove excess grease). Set aside. In a large skillet, add olive oil and bring to medium-high heat. Sauté onion and celery mixture until golden brown. Add herbs and spices (thyme through pepper) to onion mixture and mix well. Add Italian sausage to the large skillet with the onion mixture and cook for three minutes, mixing well.

In a large bowl, add the Pepperidge Farm stuffing, diced apple, sausage mixture, beaten egg, 3 cups apple juice and 1 cup white wine. Mix until moist but not soggy. Add up to 1 cup apple juice and up to
1 cup white wine if it seems dry.

Pour mixture into a large roasting pan and cover tightly with a lid or aluminum foil. Bake for 20 minutes, then uncover (if stuffing looks dry, stir in additional apple juice). Bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, until the top is golden brown.