Over spring break, I borrowed What We Eat When We Eat Alone from my local library.
The concept intrigued me, as I eat alone more often than not. So what might others have to say about the ritual or the reality?
I was sorely disappointed. Most of What We Eat was about what people eat in the rare instances that they eat alone. The majority of the book involved tales of saltines and sardines or cottage cheese, and the joy of not cooking when there’s no one to cook for. The recipes were odd and strangely old-fashioned, heavily reliant on canned goods and tinned fish. I had to check the copyright at one point to make sure this wasn’t a reissue of a book from the 50s, with talk of “batching it” and painfully outdated gender roles. Women eat salad and men eat meat, right?
There was a single, thin chapter given to people who habitually eat alone, but it was told in almost a pitying tone, as if chronic eating alone is a transitory state that should be avoided. While the book celebrated beer and popcorn as an acceptable “eating alone” dinner, that’s not sustainable in the long run.
Looking for topic salvation, I picked up Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, and found much tastier food for thought. This compilation of 26 essays from foodies, writers and food writers spanned a wide range, from those who have eaten alone for years to those who do so only rarely. And while the latter share some of the same features as What We Eat, the stories felt more honest and interesting.
Most telling, though, was the split among the chronic alone-eaters, between those who philosophized about how cooking for yourself can be nurturing and empowering, and those who look at cooking as a burdensome means to an end. This resonated with me, as it’s a dilemma I face frequently.
Until about a year ago, cooking was a chore. I didn’t think I knew how. Cooking meant finding the quickest way to fill my growling belly after a long day at work, which often meant pre-packaged foods, pasta or grilled cheese. (Not that there’s anything wrong with grilled cheese.)
I’ve since grown to love cooking, as it keeps me healthy and fuels me so much better than the old stuff ever did. When I have the time, I love being in the kitchen, chopping and prepping and experimenting. Since joining a CSA, I’m enjoying planning my meals around the weekly baskets (though stumped by this week’s head of Chinese cabbage).
The reality is that I don’t always have the time to cook. In a packed day, sometimes I can’t take 30 minutes to cook, let alone eat, because I need to be out the door in 20 minutes and I’m not dressed yet. I try to cook proactively – and abundantly – so I have a ready selection of nukeable sustenance. That doesn’t always happen, or I’ll burn through my stock quicker than it can be replaced. And that’s when I have peanut butter and jelly or granola bars or piles of raw veggies.
I went through a phase where I religiously ate every meal sitting at my dining room table, pouring water into a real glass, rather than drinking from one of my omnipresent steel bottles. I’ve relaxed that – if I nuked leftovers or have a big salad or pizza, why not eat on the couch? And this time of year, I eat as many meals as possible outside at my little patio table.
What do you eat when you eat alone?
I sauteed our cabbage with olive oil, garlic..and a smidgen of Korean pepper sauce ;-), with chicken broth to add moisture for lid-on steaming. You could add cooked shredded meat or shrimps to make a complete meal (we had ours with homemade pizza – odd combo, but the cabbage was taking up a lot of ‘fridge space and needed to be cooked down.) We will eat leftover cabbage for a couple more days.
I did a variation of this with the cabbage, but instead of Korean, I went for a more Mexican bent, with some leftover barbacoa pork, black beans, bell peppers and cilantro. I wish i had some good cheese in the house, but it was pretty good – the cabbage cooked down nicely and added a good texture and flavor.