Crossing Divides: Love you... hate your food

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Tobi Vollebregt and Christa Lei Montesines Sonido share a pizzaImage source, Christa Lei Montesines Sonido

Our choice of food is deeply personal, affected not just by individual taste but culture, memories and ethics.

But one person's comfort food can be stomach-churning for others.

As part of the Crossing Divides season, BBC World Service podcast The Food Chain heard from three couples, with very different tastes, about how they avoid being locked in a perpetual food fight.

Spicing up married life

The dietary differences of Sheryl and Dharmesh Parbhoo, from Atlanta, Georgia, proved so extreme they contributed to the couple's divorce.

Happily, two years later, they patched things up. So how did they learn to live together?

Food had been a key element in the wider culture clash within the marriage.

Dharmesh, 49, was brought up on his mother's fiery vegetarian Gujarati cuisine. So after marrying "very southern girl" Sheryl in 1992, he initially found her cooking "very bland".

Sheryl, 46, was insulted when he'd "put masala - anything hot and spicy - on top of it".

During his mum's frequent visits she would put her food on the table alongside Sheryl's and "stand over his shoulder and wait for him to choose his first bite", says Sheryl. "It was very tense."

Image source, Sheryl and Dharmesh Parbhoo

Sheryl remembers feeling like an outsider during family gatherings, when the women on Dharmesh's side would prepare traditional Gujarati dishes. It all left her feeling she wasn't a good enough wife.

When the pair had children, five in all, Sheryl cooked them American-style food. So she and Dharmesh often ate separately. They drifted apart and, after more than 20 years, divorced in 2015.

When the "soulmates" remarried, they realised culinary compromises were required.

Sheryl says they now often eat different foods at the same table.

"Or I'll make a dish like we had fettuccine alfredo last night. I had mine with parmesan cheese and he had his with masala."

"We're just just happy to be in a kitchen cooking together and having family time," Dharmesh adds.

And does his mother still bring food?

"She'd bring it daily if I allowed it but we set some boundaries - maybe a few times a week," he says.

The vegan, the carnivore and the teriyaki

When Saj Ranmuthu, 33, and Rebecca Jones first met, while training as doctors, he said he could never go out with a vegetarian.

However, in the nine years they have been together, Rebecca has not just given up meat but become a vegan, motivated by her feelings about animal welfare and the environment.

Now the 36-year-old says she finds seeing someone eat meat "not just nauseating and a little bit gross but also profoundly hurtful, so it's even worse watching someone you love doing that".

Media caption,

She's vegan, he eats meat. How do they make their relationship work?

Their flat in south-east London has become a meat and dairy-free zone. So how do they make it work?

Had Rebecca been vegan when they first met, she reckons her "militancy" and his "intolerable" meat-eating would have ended the relationship.

But now, she says, Saj is "shifting more towards my way of thinking".

He agrees: "Her line is drawn in the sand and she cannot come towards me. So if I love her, then it's up to me to make sure that I can move."

But it doesn't stop Saj hankering after his favourite chicken teriyaki, and occasionally sneaking to a Japanese restaurant on his way home from work.

Does he confess?

"Erm... no, I usually don't. Just depends on how I'm how brave I'm feeling."

Balanced diet... and relationship?

Christa Lei Montesines Sonido, 26, and Tobi Vollebregt, 33, grew up more than 7,000 miles apart - she in Hawaii and he in the Netherlands.

And their dietary habits were just as far-removed. Christa's cravings for sweet and salty foods contrasted starkly with Tobi's balance of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables.

The pair met via a dating website and, after moving in together in San Francisco, quickly found themselves at odds.

Image source, Christa Lei Montesines Sonido

Tobi would get annoyed about Christa over-ordering at restaurants, and the amount she spent on food

"I also really hate seeing food being wasted. So I get annoyed if I see Christa buy a tonne of snacks," he said.

But a series of compromises has helped promote harmony.

Christa has responded to Tobi's "gentle encouragement" to eat more vegetables, while they now plan ahead and budget for weekly meals.

And Tobi is more relaxed if Christa wants to splurge when they're enjoying a meal out.

"We have reached an agreement that I pay for other things that are more easy to predict for me and now Christa often pays at restaurants," says Tobi.

As with most relationships, however, some things will always be a bone of contention.

"I like to eat on my 'little island' in the bedroom and he doesn't like that because obviously it gets scraps and stuff in the bed," Christa adds.

BBC Crossing Divides

A season of stories about bringing people together in a fragmented world.

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