There seems to be lots of contradictory ideas about eating alone. Every so often, I’ll see some statistic about a high percentage of Americans who now eat dinner solo. These articles often take the tone that this is a sad 21st century turn: we are all tied to our phones, we aren’t making real connections, we are buying way too much take-out and horfing way too many bagels standing at our kitchen counters. Too many of us eat our meals alone too often.
There’s the counter argument to that, which I can sum up in Daniel Halpern’s “How to Eat Alone”, a poem I love. Here, eating alone is a sensual luxury. An homage to self-love. He drinks both red and white wine. You know, I guess if you have the means to justify that, knock yourself out, but to my Midwestern sense of frugality it seems a bit excessive. But I digress: drink your wine and eat your lamb Daniel.
I’ve had lots of experience eating alone, since I’ve lived by myself for nearly a decade. Cramming bagels into my mouth while scrolling through my phone at the kitchen counter is a scenario I know well. But I’ve also made attempts to be more intensional about the way I eat, even and especially when I’m by myself. Rituals like drinking a glass of wine while cooking myself pasta in a walnut cream sauce or making an individual pot pie from crust to finish have become comforts to me in the past several years. Even setting the intension to sit at my kitchen table, which faces the doors to my balcony where I can look out at the daylight or the darkness, can have a soothing effect.
I think of my mother, who cooked for us most nights when I was growing up. From the time I was about 9 or 10, Sunday evening was the one night she didn’t cook. Sunday night, you were on your own. I made chicken-flavored ramen in the microwave, tuna salad heavy with mayonaise and brined with pickles, or buttered popcorn which I washed down with a Coke over ice. I can’t remember what my mom made for herself, but I do know it wasn’t ever fussy. I didn’t consider it much then, but now I wonder if that was her small, perhaps unconscious way of eating alone: cooking or not cooking whatever she wanted, just one serving, no need to think about her kids’ opinions, all and only hers.
Eating alone has given me the freedom to figure out what I like. WHAT I like most is strong flavors: vinegar, garlic, spice, and heat, and I can bask in those flavors until I am sated. I do love cooking with and for others, usually with a little less vinegar and heat.) When I do find myself eating alone, I try to think of it as less of a lonely experience and
more of an experience where I am joined and guided by my palate and my senses. Not actually alone at all.