30 March 2008

Tasting Notes: Alone in my kitchen with an eggplant

I've been reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant over the past week, and though I'll do a post with a review and a recipe from the book after I finish, I felt a need to share my own thoughts on eating alone with you. Though there are certainly some alone-positive stories in the book, quite a few of them are about overcoming being alone, or how eating alone is a poor substitute for eating in company, or a similar theme – in other words, being alone is being lonely. What?

I was a bit baffled, maybe two or three years ago, when someone heard that I lived alone (and alone at the time meant a single in a dorm room where I shared a bathroom with three other people) and said "wow, I'm so sorry." I kind of stared at her – come again? But I've come to realize that a lot of people really do view living alone as a bad thing, a sad thing, a thing to take pity on. That blows my mind. For me, living alone is absolutely joyous! Anytime I consider doing something that involves spending a night or two (or longer) with a roommate, I cringe a little. I feel like after all these years, I've earned the right to be alone.

Now, that may seem a little odd once you hear my background. After all, I didn't exactly grow up with a house full to the bursting that I needed to escape. My parents were typical baby boomers, my Daddy with two brothers and his parents making your typical American Storybook Family of Five and my mother with her brother and two sisters. I was born in the eighties, and they were into the whole zero population growth concept (as am I), and so for eight years we were a family of three, and then once they divorced we became two families of two, so to speak, though my parents remain best friends to this day and we still do holidays together.

Clearly, I wasn't lacking in alone time. I used to spend weekends with Daddy, and for a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years he was a very quiet person. We had great conversations, but we also spent a lot of time together, but silent, staring at the walls and lost in thought. When I was about fifteen I went on a trip to DC with a high school club, eight of us in a fifteen passenger van so that two could sit on either side of a bench seat and spread their legs across the middle. The group of us became intimate friends for the space of the six hour drive back to Raleigh, as happens on late night van trips, and we started asking each other the ultimate secret question – what do you think about when you're alone? I started into a monologue about how I imagine new lives for myself and what I do and who I'm with and where I go, and then realised everyone was staring at me. I suppose it isn't normal to have such a well-developed relationship with yourself.

Though I had plenty of chances to be alone as a teenager, most of these were alone with one other person in the house – alone but not alone. There was something thrilling, at first, about traveling by myself when I got old enough. By now I yearn for a friend on airplane trips, instead of the inevitably weird seatmate, and it's a bit depressing sometimes when you arrive at the airport and walk by all the hugging and kissing people and straight for the taxi queue. But even though this is clearly a world meant for groups, couples, friends, and family, I still like being alone.

When I lived in Ireland, I went on a weeklong trip to the south of France. I had lived before in Montpellier, and so I went back, along with my housemate who wanted to visit a friend who was studying abroad in the city, but from there I trekked on, doing my own little three-day tour of the southwest. It was the ultimate in indulgence. Not that I spent a ton of money, but I definitely did what I wanted to do. I ate when I wanted to eat, I saw the things I wanted to see, I had an extra glass of wine and didn't feel guilty. When I returned to Montpellier the night before my flight back, I walked through the city square at sunset, munching on my cheese and herb gauffre and feeling utterly at peace. Street food, I think, is made for single people. (I took this picture, incidentally, after I got back to the hotel, showered, and got ready for bed. Only alone could you pull off eating your second gauffre, slathered in Nutella, in bed, and then going to sleep at eight pm just because you feel like it. The first picture was taken that morning in the Bordeaux train station. Another single person indulgence is eating two pastries for breakfast because you can't pick just one.)

I should point out that being alone to me isn't just being single. I'd be fine having a girlfriend or a partner or whatever the politically correct term is these days, but I wouldn't want her living here. When I was a teenager, my mom said that if she remarried she'd want to live in separate houses and I thought she was insane. Now, I completely agree. There's something about having your very own space that is absolutely marvelous, even if you aren't doing much with it.

So that brings me to what was ostensibly to be my topic – cooking and eating alone. Reading this book, I'm appalled by some of what people eat when they're on their own. I don't think I ever really thought about it before, but now I realize that my mom has really good taste. Before I went to college I was familiar with couscous, pierogis, knishes, falafel, and several types of fancy cheeses. Daddy is big on fresh vegetables and balanced meals, so Saturday suppers were simple but always delicious. When I come home, I literally salivate when I start thinking about how I'm going to get to have tofu lasagne and kale for supper. Really.

When I was a kid, I had a lot of friends who ate EZ Mac and Spaghetti-Os, and I wondered if their parents were taking care of them. I felt a certain amount of pity. Reading about adults who really enjoy eating that kind of thing makes me wonder. I know I sound like a snob, but it isn't that I'm eating gourmet meals all the time. I have a lot of different ways to make simple pasta and casseroles. It's just… Spaghetti-Os? Really?

When I'm alone, I like to eat a variety of things. In the summer, I do spinach salad a lot with a fruit, a nut, a cheese, and a dressing. I tend to really cook one or two big dishes a week and then eat them for the next meals (another benefit to living alone). If I'm in a hurry, I'll make the world's easiest quesedilla (dump cheese on tortilla, fold, toaster oven, add sour cream and salsa). Most of my guilty pleasures are store bought – ice cream, mozzarella sticks or fried mushrooms, and lots and lots of chocolate. Also, I love to bake, but it takes a long time to eat a whole cake.

Obviously, this blog has made me experiment more, but I love it. Living with my mom, I couldn't wait for the chance to buy what I wanted and try all the recipes in the cookbooks I used to read for fun. The sad thing is that I'll never get through the thousands of recipes I have typed up in a file, but it's a lot of fun trying.

On a final note, though, I realize perhaps the greatest pleasure these days in eating alone is that no one's watching. Friday night I went with a friend to my favourite Chinese delivery joint. I've never actually been there in person, and I realised there are a number of downsides. When you get ten cream cheese wontons, if you're in a restaurant, you'll eat all ten. You'll never be able to wait for the box to come. You'll be a little embarrassed when the waitress arrives to bring extra plates and you're sitting there with a pancake in one hand, shoveling moo shoo vegetables onto it with gusto. You'll be a little more embarrassed when your friend sees how long it takes you to calculate a twenty percent tip in your head. There's just something wonderful about sitting in your own kitchen, by yourself, eating your food however you want to.

Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant, frankly, sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

(Pictured: some favourite alone foods)


Carver said...

Dear Judith,

I enjoyed this post. Thoughtful and well written. I'll tell you something funny. I used to do the same thing about imagining these different lives when I was young. I had apartments in major cities (London, NYC, Paris) and country homes. I imagined having clothes in each place so I didn't have to pack. I bet you never knew your mom had such a materialistic fantasy life as a young person. I had people in the daydreams too. Something else. I know I told you I had come to like having my own place and I do but there are advantages both ways. The older I get the more I can imagine myself happily sharing a house with someone again (you probably know who I mean and I'm not saying I'm not happy living alone because I am). Anyway, that someone I won't name here has a lot in common with you and he's also well suited to living alone but once for a time lived happily with you know who and who. Love you, Mom

Thew said...

Many people don't have the imagination to be alone. I feel sorry for them.

Kat said...

I felt the same way about that book! 1. who has trouble eating at a restaurant alone anymore? It feels like a problem from 30 years ago or something...
2. Who wouldn't welcome the opportunity to eat what you wanted (rather than the compromise required)

I used to travel for work and I would find that having to be with people all day at work and then after work was just...tiring. It made me thankful to get back home and alone.

Really enjoyed your essay. thanks.

Judith said...

Thew - Me too! Thanks for stopping by :-)

Kat - Thanks for reading it! I can see where they're coming from - occasionally when I'm in a certain sort of restaurant where it's all groups and couples and I don't have anything to read I feel strange until my food arrives, but if I bring a book it's fine. Usually there are others eating alone, and I've never had waiters treat me strangely like some of the essayists! Then again, some of them are writing about ten or twenty years ago, so perhaps "these times they are a changing" (for the better!)

Holler said...

Hi Judith,
That was a really good read! I think you are right, you have to be comfortable with your own company. Even though I live with my husband, I still enjoy going walking, shopping or going to the cinema on my own.

Lore said...

I've experienced both sides of the story and I've come to realize that how you feel in one situation or another ultimately depends on you. I enjoy both living alone or with a partner. I won't argue against not having the need to spend some time on my own, but that's doable even when I'm not living alone.

Tartelette said...

Great post, very collected and mature. I married a divorced-10 year bachelor almost 20 years my senior and I was in my ealry twenties. It might seem like the oddest combination of a couple but he loved his alone time and I was craving what I subbed "together-independence". We do a lot of stuff separately but we find togetherness in the middle of that without infringeing on each other's time. Two things that ruin living with a roomate or a partner in my opinion are expectations and relying on them for entertainment. Your alone food is nothing short of delicious!

LisaRene said...

Wonderfully written, thank you for sharing a bit of yourself.

I too appreciate being alone with just myself :) I often tell people that the thoughts in my mind are far more interesting then anything Hollywood can come up with. When driving in the car I seldom put the radio on, instead I just day dream and appreciate the silence. Same at home, I never have music or the TV on - I like it quiet.

Having a partner and two individual homes is becoming quite common. My neighbors have been living together for 5 years but have 2 homes, his and hers. They spend most of the time in his and when she needs some space she goes to hers. His rules apply in his home (shoes on, feet on the coffee table, getting crumbs on the couch...) and her rules apply at her home (no shoes, never put your feet on the coffee table, eating only in the kitchen...) I like the idea of being together yet keeping your own space.