The only thing we have real control over these days is what, when and how much we eat.
That shall thus receive our full attention.
I live in a household of one person, which means that my responsibility for sustaining a human life is limited and clearly defined. Not being Mediterranean, I am not genetically inclined to search for an extended congregation to gather around a communal meal each night. I sometimes eat out, sometimes in, sometimes in a company, but mostly, especially this year, I eat home alone.
This means that I mostly also cook for one.
As is the case with many people, also my pandemic gastronomic being has had its highs and lows, ranging from manic Martha Stewartian stewing of meats and spices to subsisting on truffle-flavoured crisps and rosé. The middle ground is roughly somewhere in between.
With people finding themselves with more time to cook and with less new clothes to photograph for Instagram, it was inevitable that food-porn took over social media in the spring when everybody thought ‘this’ was a quickly passing period of hygge. There was the Focaccia-art craze that had us marvel at sprigs of thyme, cherry tomatoes and edible flowers assembled on Italian flatbreads so as to resemble little rustic, Provencal gardens.
Banana-bread was definitely having a moment. Never have bowls of overnight oats and other sprouts that need to be soaked forever been decorated as fancifully as around April. Pancakes were no longer round but the shape of bunnies and other baby animals.
Food was (maybe still is? – I haven’t checked what edible fad is trending right now) a pandemic performance art. And this is the thing. What happens when you have no audience to perform to?
“Certainly cooking for oneself reveals a 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.“
The inside of my fridge looks like a place where foodstuffs go to die and wait for the afterlife. I know every basic ingredient that the Jamie Olivers and Nigella Lawsons of this world insist we keep in our larders so that a simple, yet delicious feast à la Pa amb Tomàquet (Spanish bread with tomato) can be whipped up whenever fancy takes us. It’s just that it doesn’t work like that in the real world. I have all sorts of condiments stinking up my fridge, but as soon as I would need any of them, they stop making any sense.
It’s not that I can’t cook fancy and complicated things. It’s that I’m too fucking exhausted to eat them once the hours-long schwitzing over the stove is finished. It is a genuine pleasure for me to prepare food for friends, though, mainly because the eating-part takes much longer and thus evens out the time spent in the kitchen.
(I am also not entirely a stranger to trying the oldest trick in the book: a way to a man’s heart via his stomach. One particularly desperate case included, but was by no means limited to, fixing a casual weekday post-work snack of a fully-fledged Danish smorgasbord, pulling out all the stops on the toppings-department. Apparently my message was that a life spent with me was not only a perpetual Sunday morning, but a perpetual Sunday morning with paper-thin slices of radish, splattered with blood from my freshly cut fingertip, nestling in flower-shapes on his rye bread (what the fuck was I thinking).
Even without doomscrolling the Internet while I dine, eating alone doesn’t take very much time. Therefore a laborious preparation of the meal usually doesn’t seem justified. This is not to say that I don’t consider myself worthy of delicious food just because I’m not cooking for (or being cooked for by) other people. Not at all. Very often this is a positive non-issue: because I live alone, I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want, without ever having to explain my choices or take other people’s recommendations into account.
Dining alone and cooking for one are things I hadn’t really thought about that much (except maybe dining alone in a restaurant – few basic activities are as romanticised as a woman eating in a restaurant alone. She’s not lonely. She’s eating.) That is, until the depths of Internet guided me to this book: Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant. It’s a collection of very funny essays about solo cooking and eating by writers (incl. Nora Ephron, Haruki Murakami, Ann Patchett) and foodies. The book is edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.
Here’s a disclaimer, though; the essays are mainly by American writers, intended for mainly American audiences. If you are French or Italian, do not read this book. It will make you want to kill yourself. For you, it’s like Emily from Emily in Paris squealing “It looks like Ratatouille!” as she arrives in Paris.
For the rest of us with slightly less fundamental views on all things culinary, the book is an entertaining companion on solitary eating. It is not a recipe book, but does contain some. I enjoyed its literary take on solo-cooking, without the usual “freeze any leftovers in individual ziplock-bags” -nonsense, because really.
(I have a such bags of cauliflower-fritters sitting in my freezer from sometime in 2019 when I was on a short-lived batch-cooking spell. I sometimes think about them, but haven’t really considered bringing them back to life, because that would entail some made-from-scratch salsa on the side and, well.)
“There are few people alive with whom I care to pray, sleep, dance, sing, or share my bread and wine. Of course there are times when this latter cannot be avoided if we are to exist socially, but it is endurable only because it need not be the only fashion of self-nourishment.“
All quotes are from Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant.