Monday, October 16, 2006

Table for one

In The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (the follow-up to the Moosewood Cookbook and one of the first cookbooks I ever owned), Molly Katzen encourages single eaters to treat themselves as they would company, offering this example:

I once knew an old woman who had lived alone for many years and had really mastered the fine art of eating alone.She would never eat while standing half-way into her refrigerator, poking her fork into random jars. She always set a place for herself, sat down, and dined elegantly, if simply. She wouldn't even munch on pickles without first arranging them on an attractive little serving plate.


I can't say that I've achieved anything like that woman's elegance in living alone, though on some level I do admire it. But when I eat alone, and I often eat alone, I tend to eat odd, disjointed meals, often spread out over an hour or two, particularly when it comes to dinner, a meal I'm never hungry for when I should be. Workday night dinner might be a pile of greens, steamed, then toast. A little later, an apple. A bowl of Grapenuts, a pear, two handful of walnuts, a piece of chocolate. Sometimes the meals are terribly imbalanced: toast and crackers and a roll; or cheese and ham and a yogurt. I figure it doesn't matter much, since my diet overall is fine. But I would never serve another person a meal like that.

Mollie Katzen would no doubt tell me that I don't value myself enough. She was a hippie, after all. But I don't think that's it. Generally, I like living alone, like spending time alone. I disliked being married in part because I never had any time to spend alone. I imagine being that old woman who has lived alone for many years without fear or sadness. But dining, versus eating, still does seem to me a social act. You can eat alone, and there can be great pleasure in that. John Thorne opens his great book Outlaw Cook with a description of the secretive pleasures of food consumed alone, out of sight, in bed at night or in the kitchen while the rest of the family remains at the dining room table. Regular meals, when you live alone, can have a touch of that transgressive appeal. You can eat your pasta from the pot. You can eat a whole pickle with your fingers. No one is watching! But go too far down this road, and things become depressing. You're left standing in your bathrobe, eating ice cream from the tub. So you try to maintain a degree of decency, sit at the table, eat from a plate.

But pulling out the crystal relish dish for solo pickles has its own pathos. To serve oneself as company feels like playacting. We cook ultimately for each other, as a way of nurturing each other, giving our loved ones pleasure in what is after all a bare necessity. Our need to cook is bound deeply to our need to nurture, to take care of those we love. I am not what one would call nurturing - I haven't a scrap of maternal instinct - but even I feel that.

All of this is by way of saying my boyfriend has been out of town, and I haven't cooked a proper meal in a week. I've made beef stock; I took a nice trip out to the great Armenian markets of Watertown; I cleaned out the fridge; I've eaten many excellent honeycrisp and mutsu apples, the first good pears, and some lovely market Brussel sprouts. But no real cooking, no meals to report.


Marsha said...

Yes, sometimes, even when Lucullus dines with Lucullus, it doesn't require the good china, and the preciousness of routinely making more of a fuss than is warranted is disturbing. Plus, there are more dishes to wash, so you are disturbed twice.

Yulinka said...

Nice post. I often eat by myself. I don't pull out the fine china, but I almost always make an actual meal and eat it at the kitchen table using silverware.

I'm probably more adventurous when I eat sans boyfriend because I experiment more with my cooking and try things he usually balks at. If a recipe doesn't turn out, no big deal, I don't have to apologetic about serving it.

The downside, of course, is that I always eat more when I'm alone. I remember reading an essay in some pop culture publication about how eating alone is tied to overeating and obesity.

Tokyo Rosa said...

Really nice post!

I also am a solo diner by temperament--and a lot of my meals resemble those you mention. I like the freedom to choose whatever I want and to eat it over hours if I want, standing at the fridge, sitting at the table, in front of the computer, wherever.

To answer the Katzen "this means you don't care about yourself" objection: In fact, I do care and it shows in my promise to myself to never eat crap (junk or fast food, for example) and I only eat off absolutely gorgeous plates. (I have many, since I am a potter.)