Sitting at the end of a crowded lunch table with my brother on our first day, barely able to hear myself think over the din at our new high school cafeteria, I first tasted a new dimension of eating alone. Although the cafeteria tables’ fold-down benches were weighed down with the plenty of students of similar size and age, I didn’t connect with any of them: I certainly wasn’t eating with them. My brother and I were not about to share that moment too readily–he was hardly my dining companion. The crowning moment of that comically sad, lonely meal came when our table filled up; the PALS arrived. The Peer Assistance and Leadership team, clad in matching red shirts announcing their role as friends of the friendless, sidled up beside us. Oh crap, I thought. My place on the bottom of the high school food chain was as sealed as the bottles of preserved peaches in my grandmother’s pantry. I had never felt so desperately, definitively alone at the table.
Eating alone means different things to different people. When we say ‘I am alone,’ we mean different things. The phrase is descriptive: we are by ourselves, and yet the words when used have an emotional trajectory. They imply loneliness (a negative state), vulnerability (a limitation), or solitude (a sought condition). Isolation, limitation, and desired separation, can be either physically or emotionally alone at the table (as was my first meal at a new high school), and have a direct impact on just what we eat alone .That is, if the meal is even at a table; or desk; or in bed. This is probably the point where I should confess to eating a napkin-wrapped sandwich or even a bowl of oatmeal in the car while I drive to class- it has happened. And I appreciate the lack of audience to witness the gracelessness of those meals.
Eating alone is just a fact of life. I appreciate the lack of judgement for the meals I eat alone. But the truth is as M.F.K. Fisher once declared: “People are alone. Everyone has to eat alone.” While we don’t all take our meals alone everyday, a few times a week, or as for Siamese Twins, never; most of us will spend time eating alone no matter how we feel about it.
However, what some of us eat alone hardly qualifies as a meal. In a simple and unscientific survey, I recently asked a few people what they eat when they are alone and why. Real meals are not something a lot of people confessed they can’t bring themselves to do when it is just them. They merely mitigate hunger by whatever they can scrounge: leftovers, peanut butter sandwiches, or as one respondent said, “The. Most. Random. Crap.” Take-out was another common answer. Many people, my own husband included, would rather eat in the car or take their food home, as it slowly sags, steaming in styrofoam to-go containers, than sit in a restaurant, at a table, alone. For them eating out is awkward and lonely, they only sit-down or dine-in socially. Whether staying in or picking something up, the isolating loneliness of eating alone keeps many people from eating the same kind of meal they would eat with others. The usual explanation was: “I don’t enjoy putting forth effort to cook a nice meal unless it is being shared with and enjoyed by someone else.” Not everyone feels that way.
In recent years I have had more frequent occasions to travel and dine alone and I have been growing rather fond of the time I’ve had to cook, dine, and eat alone. This last week was one of them. For a plenitude of reasons I ended up with five days on my own, alone at my grandparents house so I could work on writing project (one I’m certain I’ll be telling you more about later). In those many meals alone I noticed a few things about myself and considered about eating alone in general.
Here it is: whatever you choose, you choose it. Eating alone forces a deliberate, independent choice different from the ones we make when cooking for others or being fed by them. Yes, we may pick the menu or decide what we’ll eat from the common table, but we do so under the scrutiny of others. Knowing others are watching, and maybe judging your craving for peanut butter dipped pickles might make you think twice about indulging with an audience (my sister has confesses to only eating them solo). Beyond what you choose to eat or not eat, singular dining deliberateness extends to the freedom to choose what to make of the experience.
Lone eaters have the freedom to eat in the Green Eggs and Ham manner—in a box, with fox, here or there, really you could be eating anywhere, though some of the most common are really just over the kitchen sink, in front of the computer, or in bed. What better time to pander to an inclination to eat dessert first, make a meal of nothing but perfect pommes frites or go all out on a lobster dinner for boil for one.
I am among the number that enjoys dining alone. Yes, I love family dinners, entertaining and cooking with my children, but when I’m unaccompanied, and unburdened of the daily pleasure and constant need to feed the bottomless bellies in my family, I welcome the reprieve. Without the distraction of conversation or social politeness I become a much more mindful eater, so long as we aren’t counting the hurried meals I’ve sometimes eat on the way to class. I don’t worry about eating too slow (what I always do when talking at the same time) or eating too fast (what I do with my kids); I do whatever pleases me best. Those moments are for communion not with others, but with my self. I eat what I really want, and need.
For those meals, I most often cook simply, but savory little meals. Slick a medium hot skillet with a drizzle of oil, and toast a whole, peeled clove of garlic, slowly, so not to burn it, but to cook the sides of the garlic until deeply golden brown. The oil will infuse with the golden garlic that will be used to carry flavor through the dish. Add chopped greens, with the stems minced to speed cooking time, (I favor chard, but kale, beet and spinach others are nice here are well) and saute them until tender. Pile a thick mess of them on to a slice of toast, and top with a soft poached egg and sprinkle of fresh herbs (thyme, chives, or parsley are good) or a dusting of smoky paprika, flaky sea salt and just-ground pepper. Or lid the greens with grated gruyere or smoked, aged cheddar and another slice of good bread and make my favorite version of a grilled cheese sandwich. Simple, rich, and satisfying food. Pull up with a good read and tuck in.
Perhaps it is the stolen moment that tastes so delicious, or maybe it is the food. But after a week of that pleasure on repeat I was happy to be with others again, eating alone for longer than I have before made me so grateful to dine with companionship, a good conversation, and even cutting up food into bite-size pieces for my kids, the extra mess of cooking for others, the clatter in the kitchen and the bustle at the table.
I’ve been isolated and left alone, I don’t like that. I’ve been forced alone, snatching meals alone on the go, and then there are those welcome moments of reprieve. While I love it on occasion, it is the communion with others, the shared table that I love best, but I don’t doubt I will again welcome the reprieve of eating alone when the chance comes around again, except for those meals in the car, I’ve willing to let that indignity go. . .
How about you? What is your experience with eating alone?