For some, eating alone is a rare and exquisite pleasure. For others, a sad necessity. For most of us, it falls somewhere in between, depending on circumstances both within and without our control. Regardless, eating alone is something we’ve all had to contend with at some point or other in our lives, and how we deal with it can make for fascinating reading as well as a few good (and not so good) recipes.
U.S. writer Jenni Ferrari-Adler has compiled 26 such stories into an anthology just published by Riverhead Books (a Penguin imprint) called Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. The title comes from an essay by the late Laurie Colwin, from her book Home Cooking; the essay is the opening shot in Ferrari-Adler’s collection. Riverhead Books sent me a copy to review.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I cracked open the book. On the one hand, I’ve had plenty of practice dining alone. Loyal readers of this blog will remember that when I started writing about my meals in 2002 (more than a year into the life of the blog) my meals were simple, exploratory, and almost without exclusion taken alone. I was living in my Westmount apartment then, complete with its tiny kitchen that had a large window overlooking the elegant houses of people doing much better than myself. Even then, cooking and dining alone wasn’t new; but it was then that I decided I needed to take more time and care in preparing my meals, and to create, if I could, stories around them that I could share with anyone who ventured into blork.org.
It was slow going, but I saw every meal as an opportunity to learn something. By writing about them, it ensured I made an honest attempt to learn and develop my craft. Eating alone was the standard thing for me at the time – I did so at least four nights per week (the other nights I ate in pubs or restaurants, amongst friends).
But that was then. Now I rarely eat alone. So I wondered if this book would mean anything to me; and I worried that it would be little more than a collection of commiserations for lonely people. Fortunately it is nothing like that. Indeed, it is flush with excellent and very readable stories that cover the gamut of experience on the topic; eating alone as a matter of course, eating alone rarely, eating alone at home, and eating alone in restaurants. Some of the writers adore their time alone with their meals, and some loathe it. Some take exquisite pleasure in setting a proper table for themselves and feasting on their favorite elaborately crafted meals and others stand over the sink eating straight from the pot. Some see it as an opportunity for experimentation and culinary exploration and others hunker down with oddly concocted comfort foods that you or I might find repulsive.
So yes; good book. Fun, easy reading that in the end is less about food and recipes as it is about glimpses into the authors’ lives. Think of it as a book of memoirs, with food and solo dining as the hub from which the essays unwind.
I really enjoyed reading the book, as I’m a fan of the literary memoir. Plus I like food. Naturally, reading such a book caused me to cast my mind back to my own solo dining experiences, and I realized that I have almost no memory of cooking and eating prior to when I started blogging about it. I know that I’ve always had a fascination with the culinary arts, and I’ve always wanted to be a good cook, but I really have very little idea of how – or what – I ate prior to 2002. That is significant considering I was already in my 40s by then, and at least ten of my adult years at that point had been spent living and dining alone.
Surely it wasn’t all spaghetti and ham sandwiches. But as we age and accumulate memories, they start to compete for prominence, and apparently the meals I ate alone between 1985 and 2002 simply were not memorable enough to rate a seat in the front rows of the theatre of my mind.
But there is another side to this question; what about eating alone in restaurants? I’ve done that plenty of times, and I have never really come to enjoy it. I used to absolutely loathe doing so, but I have come to simply accept it as an occasional necessity. Lunch doesn’t count – I’ll eat lunch alone without a second thought, but evening meals are something else. Despite doing so dozens of times, I’m still not completely at ease going into a restaurant by myself and taking a table for one. The one thing that makes it bearable is to bring a good book – and Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant would be a perfect choice.