Saltines crumbled in milk or oyster crackers in coffee
Roast leg of lamb with a bottle of old vine Zinfandel
Mashed potatoes with herring, caramelized onions, and sour cream
Sardines out of the can
Polenta smothered with greens
A stuffed, rolled, grilled flank steak
Rolled oats with fleur de sel
What could saltines, sardines, luxurious meats, and vegetarian fare possibly have in common? They're all foods that people confess to eating when they eat alone, and that's what this book is all about. That, and people, and what a funny bunch we are — or can be, when no one is looking.
What We Eat When We Eat Alone began when my husband, painter Patrick McFarlin, and I were traveling to Mediterranean countries as a part of the food think tank Oldways Preservation and Trust. Perhaps a little bored with much of the food talk, he started asking what the chefs and food writers on these trips ate when they were alone and not on stage. He had no particular intentions of doing anything with the notes he took, but when I discovered them, I was immediately intrigued. Wow! People do what? They do that? How appalling! How wonderful! Mostly, how curious.
Eventually, we both started talking to people of all sorts, not just food professionals, and collecting their stories. It was a completely unscientific survey, but after a year or so a book began to take shape. Through their responses, people sorted themselves into groups. Men and women. Young people. People in search of a seductive meal to share. Older people. Those who ate alone nearly all the time. Those for whom it was a treat.
Once Patrick retreated to his studio and started to produce the artwork that fills these pages — a family of tater tots, the free hand salad toss, a woman standing in front of her huge, empty refrigerator, the Quaker cowboy with his chili, and others who had begun to people our lives — we were on our way. It was just too much fun to stop.
Ask people what they eat when they eat alone, and we can promise you that you'll get a huge variety of answers. Also, people can't wait to tell you what they do. How people feed themselves when no one is watching is completely up for grabs and often quite entertaining. There are those completely bizarre "dishes" like margarita mix poured over bread, or a sandwich made of leftover spaghetti and salad — personal foods one would never ever share with another. But more often than not, there were good ideas, which, with a little tweaking, ended up in the book's 100 recipes. The Herring over Mashed Potatoes with Golden Onions and Sour Cream, which "satisfied the 100% German in me," its author confessed, was really very good. And so was Chicken Soup Almost, a lovely dish to eat off over a few days, making changes each day. And in case you think lone eaters are wedded to cereal and popcorn, they're not. They hardly came up.
For sure, there is no one way, no universal like or dislike, or one utterly predictable behavior among lone eaters. Yet, people do end up falling into groups, depending on a variety of circumstances. For example, men are different from women, though not always. And women who eat alone all of the time are likely to approach the solitary meal differently than those who find themselves suddenly unburdened of children and husbands. There are leftover lovers and those who disdain them; those who cook for themselves as if they matter and those who simply lose heart when they find themselves alone. Some enjoy their solitary meals; others flee from them, inviting a friend to share dinner at home or in a restaurant. Some of us delight in eating alone in a restaurant, while others would consider it a horrible way to spend a meal.
Take a look at men and women. Men, we found, are generally quite happy to eat the same thing over and over again when eating alone; women far less so. Men stick, stab, slap, and throw foods on the grill or in the pan, while women use verbs that suggest more care and actual cooking, like slicing, dicing, and stirring. Men swig scotch; women sip wine. Women easily confess to their choice of comforting foods, eating on — or even in — the bed. Not guys. They might slouch over the sink or stretch out on the couch with a newspaper spread over their chests to catch any drips. But eating in bed or confessing to a comforting cup of hot chocolate? Never!
Consider a woman who is free of children and spouses for a spell. You can practically feel her joy when she finds herself home, alone, at last! No need to please others, no necessity to cook for others — or clean up after them. Such a woman is not going to cook a whole meal for herself — it's time to take a break from all of that. She might delight in a single sweet potato for dinner or a bowl of steel cut oats with fleur de sel. As one woman said, "Basically it's about comforting carbs and salt." But a man, marveling that he had a Sunday afternoon all to himself, took on making crepinettes — a complicated little sausage — for himself. You just never know.
The woman who eats alone pretty much every night probably has a number of menus under her belt that she turns to on a regular basis. Those who are cook-types or just interested in food can easily improvise meals for themselves and enjoy doing so. Others approach cooking with less enthusiasm, but still they make actual meals rather than turning to a bowl of cereal or pint of ice cream, unless they just darn well feel like it, of course.
A college graduate, facing yet another meatball sub, finally called his mother and said, "Help!" Within weeks of Mom's Sunday afternoon classes, he was stirring up risotto, throwing together pots of minestrone made the way he likes it ("with lots of corn, sausage, and ravioli in it"), and cooking meals for his friends. We heard a number of such stories from some of the younger people we spoke with. Not surprisingly, they all had mothers who cooked, and some had a mom who made them prepare at least one meal a week when they were still living at home. The self-confidence those early experiences gave these young people reaffirmed the importance of having a parent (or two) who can cook, and/or the importance of having some great kitchen-garden program in schools. They enjoyed a kind of independence that their friends who couldn't cook couldn't imagine. Thus the chapter: "What Boys and Girls Need to Know Before They're Men and Women."
Eventually, single eaters harbored the desire to share a meal, maybe a night, or even a lifetime with another. In other words, there were, it turned out, Meals with a Motive. Curiously, those who appeared not to be able to fend that well for themselves become pretty sophisticated when a menu is intended for seduction, and they definitely have a menu in mind. Is it always steak or oysters? Absolutely not! Consider a pimento cheese panini washed down with a flute of Veuve Cliquot, or a soufflé surrounded with sautéed chanterelles. As writer Peggy Knickerbocker pointed out, "There can be many meals — for the same woman." Or man.
"I'd have to do my spaghetti with red sauce," said one young Minnesotan, "because that's all I know how to make."
"Oh, but cooking for another says you care," said her friends.
Indeed it does. And cooking for one's self says the same thing, that you care for your well being, your life, and being present in your world, whatever it brings you come dinner time.
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Deborah Madison is the author of nine cookbooks and countless articles on food, cooking, and farming. Currently she blogs for Gourmet and Culinate.
Books mentioned in this post
Deborah Madison is the author of What We Eat When We Eat Alone: Stories and 100 Recipes