Keep on Keepin’ on: Some Advice on Eating Alone

| April 19, 2010 | 4 Comments
  • 4 Comments

Solo Cooking Books
What I’ve been up to lately

First I’ll begin by saying I’ve never been one to eat out at restaurants alone. I know there are people out there who are unphased by that sort of thing, but I’m not one of them. Now coffee or lunch is one thing–but sitting at a restaurant for a solo dinner isn’t my cup of tea. One summer when I was finishing up graduate school in Boston, I decided to treat myself to a week at a Bed and Breakfast on the Cape. It was going to be my solo, independent adventure–and during the day, it was. I lounged on the beach reading book after book, strolled the different little towns looking in antique stores and eating ice cream cones, and rented a cruiser bike to explore the marshy trails. And then the sun set and the anxiety kicked in: what to do for dinner? What to do that night? I couldn’t possibly go out by myself.

A friend gave me a little perspective, telling me not to be so taken with myself: you really think people are even noticing you or the fact that you’re by yourself. Everyone has to eat. No one cares if you’re doing it alone. In fact, no one in the restaurant cares about you period. Ouch. But she had a point. I was thinking that people would stare or wonder or feel sorry for me when, in fact, they were just enjoying their fish and chips like everyone else. So that helped. But still–I enjoy sharing a meal with someone else. Period. This goes for eating out in restaurants, but I’ve recently discovered it also goes for preparing meals at home.

And this brings me to the present moment–the moment in which I tell you that my relationship of twelve years recently ended. I’m thirty-one, so that was essentially my entire adult life. Suffice it to say, I’ve never really lived by myself for any extended period of time and here I find myself in a new apartment in San Francisco alone. Not exactly what I’d planned, but I suppose that’s how those things usually work. So once again I remain quite busy during the day, but then I arrive home and stare into the fridge. I’ve been getting creative with bagged salads, chicken sausages, soup, or pasta. Breakfast for dinner has been a winner lately as are quesadillas with heaps of homemade guacamole. And ice cream, of course. Oh, and peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread. I’ve discovered it’s kind of magical if you make it into a warm panino.

So when I wrote about the difficulties of cooking for one on my own blog recently, many of my readers chimed in with menu ideas, book suggestions, and general encouragement. These are the moments I cherish the time I spend on the blog–it truly is a little community. After seriously considering each comment, I decided to take their advice, checked out some of the books from the library and even purchased one that I really came to love. For this week’s post, I thought I’d share with you the ins and outs of some solo eating and cooking books so, in the case that you should find yourself alone in your painfully over-priced apartment, you won’t be staring at an empty fridge or relying solely on Trader Joe’s taquitos. Those can get old after awhile.

“Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam” –Laurie Colwin, “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” from Home Cooking

Solo Suppers: Simple Delicious Meals to Cook for Yourself by Joyce Goldstein
This book was recommended to me by my blogging friend Janet Gardner of Pretty Green Girl, and it’s downright likeable. Goldstein doesn’t lament the fact that you’re eating alone. In fact, the premise is simple: singles represent the fasted-growing segment of the U.S. population (7) yet there are few cookbooks geared towards actual gourmet recipes for one. We see many books geared towards young singles cooking on a budget, but Goldstein wanted to talk about sauces, and Sicilian swordfish, and risotto with mushrooms and peas. Leafing through the book, I found many dishes I wanted to try. And the ingredient list made perfect sense: the quantities were small; I didn’t have to sit down with my calculator and cut the recipe down by 2/3 (and often recipes don’t reduce all that precisely). Her section on Stocking the Pantry is useful and I loved her Sauce Chapter (Romesco, Peanut Sauce, Mango chutney…). She also mentions ways to recreate each meal into a “New Creation” using leftovers. This seemed a little too planned out and a bit depressing to me for some reason, but I get the idea. It’s just, how many days a week can a girl eat pork loin used in different ways? I giggled while reading her suggestions on looking for smaller bottles of wine. Really? Isn’t this a time when we should all be drinking more? Much more? While I’ll admit that my spinach sometimes will go bad, my wine never does. But all in all, this is a useful and relatively timeless book to add to the collection.

Going Solo in the Kitchen by Jane Doerfer
This book was written in 1995 and lets be honest: in many ways, you can tell. While there aren’t any photos and while there’s a lot of “fluff” at the beginning of the book (Selecting a Market, Dealing with the Butcher), it is a good basic primer for someone who is looking for quite simple, approachable recipes. Doerfer was also ahead of her time in that the focus of the book is on seasonally available recipes using good fats. She’s written an incredible Salad chapter with options ranging from Greek Salad to a Couscous and Sweet Potato Salad. And she also has nice entrée ideas that I have yet to see parceled out for just one–dishes like Turkey Pot Pie and Crab Cakes.

In her introduction, Jane notes, “We may begin solo cooking for different reasons, but we end up with the same reality: Nothing tastes quite as good as a meal you’ve thought about and taken the time to prepare and enjoy.” Again, I like the fact that she doesn’t judge or lament or become too emotionally invested in the fact that her readers are in a situation where they’re eating alone. Instead, she cuts to the chase. She does do the whole leftover rigmarole, too on recycling meals over and over. Not only does this seem like a bummer but it’s confusing: if you’re using smaller proportions to cook for one, why would you have so much leftover in the first place?

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
This book was recommended to me by my blogging friend Denise over at Chez Danisse, and it differs from the previous two books I’ve discussed in that it’s much more literary and much less a How-To Guide or Cookbook. Sure there are a few recipes scattered throughout, but what Ferrari-Adler’s done here is invite and solicit writers and food personalities to contribute to a collection dealing with the theme of eating alone. The back-story? Ferrari-Adler found herself living alone for the first time at twenty-seven while in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. She started cultivating a life of eating odd meals. Alone. But as she so quickly points out, “alone and lonely are not synonymous” (14). So in putting together the book, she notes: “Maybe I could break the silence and help men and women everywhere be less alone together” (8).

And I have to say, it’s worked. The essays are all quite different in subject and scope and there is a nice grouping of men and women of various ages. The collection starts with Laurie Colwin’s well-known essay, “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” originally published in her book, Home Cooking. If you haven’t read the essay, Colwin details life in her tiny NY apartment with a kitchen that consisted of a hot plate, a metal counter, and a kids-sized small fridge. Colwin began adjusting to cooking with two burners (soup, spaghetti, and eggplant were big hits). Ferrari-Adler also includes one of my favorite food writers, Amanda Hesser, and her piece entitled “Single Cuisine.” In it, Hesser writes about her last night home alone as a married woman and gives her recipe for truffled egg toast. There are lovely pieces by Dan Chaon and Steve Almond and a great essay by Haruki Murakami on “The Year of Spaghetti.” As an English nerd and a fan of many of these writers, this compilation was a treat. In a few short pieces, you get a glimpse into each writer’s personality, domestic space, and approach to food. A rich opportunity.

What we eat when we eat alone by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin
I was most excited to check out this book. I’m a big Deborah Madison fan and I’d heard it was lovingly illustrated (by McFarlin) with quirky pictures instead of traditionally photographed. I dove right in and with each flip of the page, was more and more disappointed. They begin by explaining what Patrick in particular began to discover as he spoke to people about their solo eating habits: “a portrait of human behavior sprung free from conventions, a secret life of consumption born out of the temporary freedom–or burden, for some–of being alone” (10). Hmm. Why did this passage leave a bad taste in my mouth? A secret life of consumption? Why so secret? It turns out the entire book is colored by this tinge of minor shame or embarrassment regarding eating alone–the last thing I want to read right now. There are odd tangents on gender differences: linguistically, apparently men use more active/violent verbs to describe cooking than women and women are more self-deprecating when talking about eating alone. OK, so what’s the point?

Patrick McFarlin's illustrations
Patrick McFarlin’s illustrations

The book seems to struggle for a unified personality of purpose. Along with the gender digressions, there is a really odd collection of recipes–many of which I found to be completely uninspired. Bachelor Tofu Sandwiches? How about Breakfast Burrito for Day and Night? Then as much as I wanted to like the illustrations, many of them were of men in their boxer shorts or slippers haphazardly preparing a meal or staring into the fridge. Again, kind of makes me want to throw in the towel and head out to get some take-out–not what Madison was shooting for, I’m guessing. There are even anecdotes on Eating in Bed and Negotiating Eating on the Couch with a Cat. Seriously? For a book with a presumed audience of many solo eaters, I can’t say that Madison or McFarlin have enticed us with recipes, the illustrations, or sentiment.

The Pleasures of Cooking For One by Judith Jones
And then, Judith Jones brings home the bacon. This book is sweet and substantial. It’s a keeper. She doesn’t judge (although she does use the word “live alones” which kind of makes me want to slit my wrists. Yikes. When did I become a live alone?). She doesn’t demean with lame watered down recipes. And that’s probably because the premise of the book comes from such a genuine place of experience. Jones’ husband passed away in 1996 and after his death, she’s struggled with cooking alone. Like Goldstein, she begins with numbers: 51% of New Yorkers live alone, yet stores packages everything large and restaurants don’t cater to single eaters (vii). Thus, her book was born.

The Pleasures of Cooking for One
Judith Jones’ perfect blend of apt recipes, general kitchen advice, and genuine sentiment

Like many of the other authors, she discusses stocking your cupboards (sugars, flour, broth, canned tomatoes), your freezer (pesto, cream sauce, pastry dough) and your refrigerator (butter, eggs, mustard, sausage, jams). While I mentioned above that I’m not drawn to discussions on ways to recreate leftovers, Jones does have a likeable segment on the Nine Lives of a Turkey, detailing ways to recreate leftovers (turkey tetrazzini, waldorf salad). But what I really loved about this book are the substantial, inspiring, and challenging recipes along with the lovely photographs and her encouraging and precise tone. You won’t find breakfast burritos here although you will find Beef Bourguignon, Red Flannel Pork Hash or a Filet of Fish in Parchment Paper. Now that’s the kind of cooking I’m talking about.

To close, I’ve taken the advice of my family, friends, and readers and decided not to be too hard on myself. Cereal for dinner? Fine. Now’s not the time to put the pressure on myself to make elaborate meals unless it feels right. But I’m also making a huge effort not to get too caught up in that anxious feeling I first met on a night in July in Provincetown when the sun began to set and I realized I was alone and hadn’t yet eaten dinner. Let’s just say I’m getting used to that feeling. In the introduction to her book, Judith Jones notes, “If you like good food, why not honor yourself enough to make a pleasing meal and relish every mouthful? (ix)” I’ll raise a glass to that.

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About the Author ()

Megan Gordon is originally from Eureka, CA although she's lived in numerous college towns around the country (another story altogether). A freelance food and travel writer, Megan has written for publications like Ready Made Magazine, The San Francisco Examiner, Edible SF and Edible Marin & Wine Country, Olive Oil Times and The San Francisco Bay Guardian. She writes regularly for Apartment Therapy's The Kitchn and maintains her own local food blog, A Sweet Spoonful. Yes, Megan even tweets @meganjanesf. In addition to writing and photographing food, Megan is the founder (and head baker) of Marge, a Bay Area baking company specializing in classic American pies and nostalgic desserts.
  • Diane

    I’m totally with Judith Jones on this one. I’m single, and I feel like I’m living a fake life unless I’m cooking real food for myself on a regular basis. Why should I treat myself worse than I’d treat honored friends? Don’t I deserve well-prepared, interesting food? I like to eat, and I like to eat well, even when alone.

    I think you are moving in the right direction. Relax and just enjoy the successes and failures, learning experiences and setbacks – it’s all OK.

  • http://www.wineaspects.com Julia

    I totally agree with you! I love to make elaborate dishes, but if I don’t want to overstrain myself – I just eat something simple, like a simple soup for dinner.

  • http://www.asweetspoonful.com Megan Gordon

    Thanks, Diane! Yes, I think you’d really like Jones’ book in that case (unless you already own it)–she’s all about really treating yourself well.

    And thanks for the comment, Julia. I’ve been tending towards the simple lately, but trying to do something more exciting at least once a week.

  • Linda Race

    Hi Megan-I just read your “advice on eating alone” and it make me laugh out loud. I think I am going to follow up by finding the Judith Jones book and also the one by Jenni Ferrari-Adler…thanks for reviewing those and sharing your thoughts…I eat alone at home and out, a lot…and you are so right about not wanting to do recipes by long division…
    !Linda Race