Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

I love to eat alone. At home, in a restaurant, outside in a park - wherever. The only qualifying factor is that I must have a book with me. (In a pinch I've been known to listen to a book on my iPod, but it's just not the same.) It's funny how some people love solitary dining as much as I do, but others find it depressing, lonely - even embarrassing, when they have to dine alone in a restaurant. I find it so relaxing. It gives me time to recharge, and given a morning when I am able to start my day with a book and a quiet cup of coffee, I am a more patient and loving wife, mother, and librarian. I call that precious morning time my "respite" - and my family has come to respect it on weekends. I have to admit, I find it a bit amusing when one of my girls comes tentatively into wherever it is I've managed to hole up and asks, "Mommy, are you done with your respite yet?" One of them actually called it a "rest pit" for awhile, which I thought was charming.

Some might doubt that enough could be said about dining alone and cooking for one to fill a whole book. Not I. When I saw this one reviewed on Fyrefly's Book Blog, I immediately put a hold on it at my library, and I savored each and every one of these essays. From Ben Karlin's hilarious essay on how he learned to cook a delicious salsa rosa pasta sauce when he was a student in Italy to great acclaim to M.F.K. Fisher's account of often having to eat alone because people were too intimidated by her expertise with food to ever invite her over for dinner, assuming she wouldn't like their cooking, each one of these essays took me into someone's mind - their food mind, which is endlessly fascinating to me. The included recipes are an added bonus, and I'm sure I'll be trying a few of them - not just for eating on my own.

I don't eat to live and never have - food is so much more to me than fuel - it is something I love to share with others - a form of communion, really; it is wrapped up in scents and memories of childhood, of particular times in my life, of people I've shared meals with. My husband jokes about my food memory - I am capable of recalling meals I've had literally years ago, with friends, at particular restaurants, at friend's houses, and, of course, eating alone. I will never eat a pierogi without recalling the many solo meals of caramelized onions and pierogies I ate when I was in graduate school in Chicago. Or a raw green bean without being transported back to the sultry mornings picking beans in my grandmother's garden. Or a delicious hazelnut gelato without being whisked back to that little gelateria on a cobblestoned side street in Bologna where I ate my first one amazingly delectable one. In the film Ratatouille, the scene where the taste of ratatouille transports the restaurant critic back to the farmhouse of his childhood actually brought tears to my eyes because I could so completely identify with the powerful nature of food memories. Go ahead and laugh - I'm used to it!

I know I'm supposed to be mindful while I eat, and focus on the food and the experience and taste of it - but I swear, it tastes way better with a good book in hand! Ever since I was old enough to sneak cereal boxes upstairs to my bedroom on weekend mornings and curl up with a book, munching dry cereal and reading a good mystery or adventure story - with no unwelcome interruptions - I have loved to eat and read. I never turn on the the television when I'm eating alone - it never even occurs to me.

What about you? Do you enjoy eating alone? Avoid it at all costs? Make yourself something special, or just quick and easy? What's your favorite thing to make when you're on your own?

Here's one thing I love to eat when I'm by myself in the summertime. Most people wouldn't consider it a meal - but when I'm on my own, it's a meal if I say it is! I toast a bagel (whole grain is healthier, but sometimes I splurge with an everything bagel), spread it with Boursin cheese, and slice a big fat slice of a fresh homegrown tomato on it, add a little salt and sprinkle it with a few leaves of torn-up fresh basil. Yum! And in the wintertime, pasta either tossed with fresh ricotta cheese and a little salt and olive oil, or pasta tossed in melted butter - if I'm feeling ambitious, I might steam some frozen peas and toss them in, too. Add a quick salad (I love those bags of mixed baby greens - add a little crumbled bleu cheese, some balsamic vinegar and olive oil for a quick and delicious serving of veggies), and there's dinner. I'd love to hear some of your favorite recipes for dining alone!

I truly enjoyed this collection of essays with their varied tones and wide range of subject matter. It has been added to my list of favorite food books.

The contributors to this collection are the following: Steve Almond, Jonathan Ames, Jami Attenberg, Laura Calder, Mary Cantwell, Dan Chaon, Laurie Colwin, Laura Dave, Courtney Eldridge, Nora Ephron, Erin Ergenbright, M. F. K. Fisher, Colin Harrison, Marcella Hazan, Amanda Hesser, Holly Hughes, Jeremy Jackson, Rosa Jurjevics, Ben Karlin, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Beverly Lowry, Haruki Murakami, Phoebe Nobles, Ann Patchett, Anneli Rufus and Paula Wolfert.

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler (Riverhead Books, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Azuki's Book Cafe: "What a delightful read! Sweet, bitter, spicy… all the flavors stewing in one pot. Plus a few dashes of international flavors: Japanese dashi, Thai chili…"
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "This was fantastic; a treat for the senses, and a balm for the soul of someone who habitually eats alone."
Shelf Love: "This book is charming, funny, wry, and well-put-together."

9 comments:

  1. What an interesting-sounding book, and what an amazing review. Thank you Darla!

    I'm not as comfortable eating alone out in a restaurant, but if I can take a book with me that changes everything. But I enjoy being home for dinner by myself because it means I can experiment (more radically than I would if cooking for others), or make things my husband doesn't like, such as gazpacho or even a simple toasted tomato sandwich. I find the act of cooking alone to be very meditative and relaxing.

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    Your summer home-alone meal sounds a lot like the meal that got me through two years of college: Toasted bagel, topped with chopped up roma tomatoes and basil, drizzled with half a spoonful of olive oil and topped with a slice of provolone, then stuck back into the toaster oven until everything's warm and the cheese is melty.

    ...Man, that sounds good. Guess I'll be going to the grocery store after work. :)

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  3. Kiirstin - there's a very funny essay in there about how the author fantasizes about cooking alone because then she could have things her picky family won't eat - she goes on to describe them all in mouthwatering detail :-)

    Fyrefly - your melty tomato bagel sounds lovely. Wish you lived closer - I'd pop by after you get home from work (and the grocery store). :-)

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  4. your bagel sounds fantastic!

    i usually like eating lunch alone. if i'm at home or work, i usually eat in front of the computer, reading articles or blogs. if i'm out alone, i try to have a book with me.

    breakfast i'm so-so on the solitude. but supper alone depresses me. i, too, feel like eating is a communal experience. having grown up in a house where supper is family time, unless we've got separate appointments, which necessitate separate dining, i can't bear the thought of eating alone.

    i'm really curious now to read the essay by the chef/foodwriter for whom no one wants to cook. i feel sorry for that person, but i also understand the intimidation others must feel.

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  5. Molly - I think when it was just the two of use (before kids) I felt more lonely at dinnertime. Now if I'm on my own and he's off somewhere with the girls at dinnertime, it's a chance to eat something no one else wants me to cook! Although if it went on for more than a night or two, I'd miss them too much to enjoy myself. :-)

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  6. I now have a hold on this, too. Between your review and Fyrefly's I can't resist. Just like I can't resist food. I love to eat it, I love to cook it, I love to feed other people. My Mom's maiden name means "house providing food." There was no hope for me, LOL!

    After I get through the hectic morning routine, get the kids off to school or onto their chores during the summer, I'll cook up an omelet. With fresh herbs and fresh tomato. A little onion.

    It's funny how many of us use tomatoes in our comfort food.

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  7. Fuzzycricket - That is funny about your mom's maiden name! That omelet sounds delicious (particularly as I'm ravenous right now!). I usually eat after I get the kids off to school, too, so I can have an uninterrupted "respite." :-)

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  8. I'll have to take a look at that (came over from your link to my review of 3 Willows) - I often eat alone, and I ALWAYS read. If I weren't a reader, meals alone would be much bleaker. Some foods transport me back to specific times and places, too - I have exactly the same experience with hazelnut gelato, down to the cobbled side street in Bologna!

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  9. Hi, Jess - thanks for stopping by! That's funny about the gelato - wonder if it was the same gelateria? I can't think of the name of it, but my first taste totally blew me away. I also loved the bacio ice cream. Yum!

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