Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Eating alone

There's a bit of an online kerfuffle about a tumblr site called Table for One, which consists of nothing but photographs of people eating alone at restaurants Links have been posted to it from Metafilter and Andrew Sullivan both, and in both cases the posting has met with outrage. Most folks seem to feel that the site is mocking the people eating alone. It probably is, though it's hard to tell; no context is given. Maybe it's trying to give some sort of picture of 21st century loneliness? Who knows? Who cares? It's a pretty crappy site anyway; the photos are poor and in poor taste, given that the subjects clearly don't know they're being photographed.

The response to the site, however, is rather interesting. About half of the people who have commented on it seem to feel sorry for the people in the photographs and want to spare them further embarrassment. The other half don't see what the big deal is about about eating alone - particularly if they have a book.

Ah, yes, the book. I have eaten out along many, many times with a book. I worked as a temp in New York for a long time, and temps eat alone. But there is a huge difference between the lunchtime pizza with book in hand and actually dining out alone. The former is commonplace, but the latter can be scary. I suggest everyone try it - and don't bring a book.

One of the best scenes in the very food-aware movie Moonstruck comes when Olympia Dukakis's character, left alone for the evening while her husband is out with his mistress and her daughter with a new love interest, goes out to dinner alone at the local white-cloth restaurant. The waiter comes to greet her by name; she is known here. He asks whether anyone will be joining her. No, she replies, "I want to eat."

And she does. She orders a proper meal for herself, with a soup to start and a nice Martini. She doesn't pull out a book and hide in it. She looks around the restaurant. She watches people. She is completely and utterly self-possessed.

Many women of a certain age, having spent their lives cooking for others, are so relieved to have a night off from the obligations of the stove they would gladly eat cold leftovers standing in front of the fridge. That Dukakis's character chooses to go out and have herself a real dinner instead gives us enormous insight into the woman - she believes in doing things properly; she is sure of herself. As she tells us later in the film, she knows who she is.

I did quite a bit of business travel for one short period of my life. For a couple months, I ate endless subs and pizza slices and salads in plastic clamshell boxes. One night, unable to face another Formica tabletop or florescent light, I walked into the nicest restaurant I could find. I sat at my table for one near a roaring fire. I ordered a gin martini and a rare steak. I did have a book with me - a blank one. Now and again, I wrote in it. I got dessert and coffee. I lingered. It was a lovely evening, and I came away feeling like I had crossed some milestone of adulthood. I highly recommend the experience. It was as luxurious and self-indulgent as a massage, but more bracing.