January 2010

Charlotte Freeman


On Eating Alone

I spent the vast majority of my adult life living alone. During all that time, while I might not have cooked full meals every night, it never occurred to me not to cook for myself. My mother taught me to cook in middle school when she went back to work, and we grew up in the sort of household where the core set of assumptions were: You can make it cheaper than you can buy it, processed food is “junk,” and eating out is a treat, not an everyday occurrence. When I was a starving editorial assistant in New York during my 20s, cooking was just about my only form of entertainment. I mean, a girl has to eat, right? So you might as well get some fun out of that portion of your budget. On Saturdays I roamed Manhattan, from the Union Square Greenmarket to Little Italy, back up to the tiny shop just off Second Avenue where two old Italian men sold only olives and fresh mozzarella. I didn’t have any money at all, but I ate well. All through graduate school and my ski bum years, I cooked real meals for myself, and sometimes for my friends, and I never understood people like one roommate I had, who lived on cereal. Just because I was alone, I was supposed to eat badly? While I love cooking for other people, I’m with Judith Jones who says in her new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, that while she loves cooking for others,  “I can’t see taking in my neighbors every night.” 

Luckily I don’t seem to be cooking for one as much these days, but my frugal nature and ongoing interest in why people do or don’t cook at home, seems to have taken over this month. For some reason, it was the pile of books about what people eat when they are alone that called to me. I started with the Judith Jones, in part because she’s sort of a bridge between the present and that first generation of women food writers that I think of as the grandes dames, writers like Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David and Patience Gray. Jones’ memoir The Tenth Muse is a gem, and frankly, I erroneously assumed that The Pleasures of Cooking for One was another memoir. Even better, it’s a cookbook full of not just recipes, but lots of advice for how to deal with single portions in a world made for twos and fours and families. As she points out in the introduction:

Fifty-one percent of the population in the New York metropolitan area lives alone. Yet no one seems to cater to their needs. Supermarkets do everything they can to make us buy more than we need, and the food industry has for more than a century been selling the idea that it is demeaning for women to cook and a waste of time when they can buy ready-made products instead. So I felt compelled to write this book to share with you the strategies I have devised for beating the system.
While there are any number of recipes in the book, it’s this rebellious approach that really endeared her to me. Jones not only wants you to cook nice meals for yourself when you’re alone, but she wants you to make the most of your money, resources and time. In particular, Jones shares my love of leftovers, a mania that has my current swain somewhat terrified of my refrigerator (he seems to believe that all food has a built-in timer, and that it must be thrown out after what I think is a ridiculously short time period). Leftovers, Jones notes “are like treasures in the fridge that inspire me to do something imaginative” and many of the recipes in this book come complete with ideas for “second and third rounds.” There were years on end when I relied on a big meal cooked on Sunday afternoon, a roast chicken, or a pot roast, or lamb shanks, for instance to see me through the bulk of the workweek. I wish I’d had some of Jones’s ideas for second and third acts, even if some of them are a little old fashioned like mince on toast. And unsurprising from the doyenne of cookbook publishing, she’s tirelessly worked out small-portion recipes for unexpected dishes, like the beautiful cheese souffle that graces the cover, or -- astonishing though it might seem -- a small cassoulet.

In contrast, Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin’s What We Eat When We Eat Alone is a collection of anecdotes and recipes that the couple began collecting on trips with the Oldways Preservation and Trust foundation (a sort of slow food organization), and later, in a delightfully unscientific manner, from people they knew. As much as I love Deborah Madison’s other cookbooks, and rely on them, I found the conceit of this book problematic, that dining alone is some sort of secretive ritual that is essentially deviant from the norm, which is dining with a partner or family. The book is full of funny little stories of oddball things people eat when they are alone, but it is not until page 169 that the idea is even raised that there are people who dine “Alone Every Day.” I think what I hate is that they make dining alone every day sound like some sort of death sentence: “In these cases, solo meals are not the fruit of one of those rare and welcomed spells when a spouse is out of town or the kids are away. This is when every night is likely to be an eat-alone night -- unless something is done about it.” Ugh. Why does this feel like the pushy aunt has just accosted one at the third family wedding in a row wanting to know when you plan to settle down? There are some fun stories in this book, and some amusing recipes, and Madison’s husband, an artist, did the delightful drawings, but there’s just something that grated on me about the general assumption. The book seems to posit that eating alone is some sad state to be endured with humor, or self-indulgence, or even with a sort of stoic grace, but, nonetheless, a sorry state of affairs.

A more congenial middle ground can be found in Jenni Ferrari-Adler’s anthology, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. Ferrari found herself at twenty-seven, living alone for the first time ever, while in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. She ate her share of odd solitary meals, going through a series of phases “everything raw, then everything baked. I prioritized condiments. What wasn’t delicious with Siracha Hot Chili Sauce?” She turned (as do we all at some point), to M. F. K. Fisher’s classic essay “A is for Dining Alone,” and to Laurie Colwin’s “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” for company. Eventually, she decided to create the book she wished she’d had when learning to shop and cook and value the process of feeding herself. The anthology includes these two classics, as well as essays by established writers like Marcella Hazan, Beverly Lowry, and Paula Wolfert. She also commissioned essays by younger writers like herself, including one from Laurie Colwin’s daughter, Rosa Jurjevics. These essays run a larger gamut than those in the Deborah Madison book, and give a more nuanced view of what it means to dine alone, eat alone, or be alone for various periods of time. Perhaps its due to the fact that she solicited writers, oddball people who spend more time alone in rooms than the general public, but I’m glad to have Dan Chaon’s reminiscence about chilis he has concocted, or Courtney Eldridge’s meditation of food and class, or Colin Harrison's essay about the elusive perfect lunch joint in New York. These essays cover a large range, and indeed, could serve as the sort of dining companion one might want when trying to navigate the tricky task of learning to feed oneself in all the ways that are important.

But of all these books, it’s Judith Jones’s that sticks with me. Perhaps its because a few years ago I too had to learn to feed myself while grieving. She notes that after her husband Evan died, she “was not sure that I would ever enjoy preparing a meal for myself and eating it alone.” I spent one very long winter sitting on my couch with the dogs, eating baked potatoes with a fried egg inside, watching whatever was on TV and wondering how I was going to get through the rest of my life without the person who had been my stalwart companion. But like Jones, I too reached a point where I realized that “the pleasure we shared together was something to honor. I found myself at the end of the day looking forward to cooking, making recipes that work for one, and then sitting down and savoring a good meal.” It is a way back into the world, the kitchen. And whether you are cooking just for yourself, or for your loved ones, or for the folks at the local soup kitchen, it is one of the most elemental things we can do for ourselves and for one another. And for some of us, it’s a source of ongoing creative joy… what can I make tonight? What is there in the house and what can I do with it?  And perhaps when it comes right down to it, it is this courage and fortitude that I admire most in Judith Jones’ The Pleasures of Cooking for One. Life changes on us, and like those grandes dames who preceded her, she picked herself up, and made something useful and lovely out of her experience. Really, what more can any of us hope to do?