Alone in the kitchen

I wanted to write about this book yesterday but decided it merited its very own post and more attention than I could give it in the wee hours of the morning. Quite simply, it is one of the most engaging food books I’ve read this year (the others being Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), and while not necessarily life-changing like the others, it’s stuck around in my head the past few days. Specifically, these essays about what people cook and eat when they’re alone made me think about what I cook and eat when I’m alone. And while I had expected this to be full of empowering manifestos for the solo diner, it turned out that most people eating alone are lonely. At one point I found myself marveling over just how many of these stories were about post-breakup eating habits.

And I’ve been thinking about that too. My most memorable period of party-of-one cooking and eating was in my first year in Italy (so many of these essays also seem to deal with being a hungry stranger in a strange land, not unsurprisingly) and also dealing with (or reeling from) the implosion of a relationship (the double-whammy seems to be the most common thread, of course). And that’s about as personal as I’ll ever get here. If you don’t consider the minutiae of my eating habits personal, that is.

That first year, before I had any real friends or any real life to speak of outside of knitting and feeling sorry for myself in the ugliest apartment I’ve ever lived in, I indulged in some serious alone-time eating habits. I already have the tendency to take a new food discovery or flavor I love and run with it, but there’s some special comfort in returning day after to day to the same thing when you’re feeling sad or lonely (at least one author in this book agrees), and so I found myself eating, for weeks at a time:

– a chicken thigh (the butchers in my small Italian town always sold the entire leg, so there was thigh AND drumstick), divested of skin and poached. Poaching meant barely covering the leg in cold water and adding maybe half an onion, a carrot, and celery stalk, bringing the pot to a boil and then turning it off. Through trial and error, I discovered this yielded the most succulent, flavorful result — especially if you let the chicken rest in the water until the whole thing was cool. Eating the chicken while still hot was generally a mistake, since the flesh was not only seized up from the heat, but inevitably it wasn’t as thoroughly cooked and needed to be dropped back in after a bite was taken out of it. That and it was dang hot. Oh, but I left out the most important part: I would pull all the flesh off the cooled, cooked leg and shred it and then drizzle the best olive oil I had in the house over it, sprinkle the chicken copiously with Maldon, squeeze a little lemon juice on, and then attack it with gusto. I hardly ever ate it with anything else.
– black beans (just like Jeremy Jackson! Whose essay made laugh out loud right from the opening. Laugh and run around making everyone else in the room read it too.), made into a soup with the liquid from the poached chicken (fortified with more aromatics/mirepoix) and lime juice and buzzed for just a little bit with the immersion blender. When I could find cilantro, that was added too. Usually some chile pepper and nearly always a dollop of yogurt. I would usually alternate these two things, the chicken and the black bean soup, so that I would always have chicken-y cooking liquid for the beans and wouldn’t be eating so much chicken (which seemed sort of unhealthy).
– pa amb tomaquet (just like Paula Wolfert! There must be something universal about eating-alone foods). My version required picking up a loaf of the pane di campagna (which I think they called pane dell’acqua or something like that) from the good bakery (there were so few, strangely, and yet so many butchers in this town) on Via Pollenzo and a perfectly ripe, juicy-to-bursting tomato from the town market. I would lay thick slices of the bread in the oven to toast, ideally till they reached 97% dryness. I would then take a thick end slice of tomato and scrub the toasted slices all over (but only on one side, unlike Wolfert), drizzle olive oil on it, sprinkle Maldon on it, eat. Repeat with another slice. This was largely inspired by this book, though I remember a New York pa amb tomaquet phase when I read about it in a John Thorne book too. They tasted totally different though.
– boiled potato. Preferably a floury one. I would just fish out the spud once it was done (too many times before it was done, even), break into it and inhale the earthy, mineral-scented steam wafting up from it, and then drizzle olive oil on it and sprinkle Maldon on top. (Methinks I see a pattern.) This is probably the saddest of the eat-alone foods, but it’s definitely the one I love most.

Weirdly, it’s not until I’m at my happiest that I cook up a storm for myself. Who knows why this is? Maybe it’s a tiny act of rebellion, a show of self indulgence to NOT eat a square meal like I was taught to. Or maybe it’s another way of pitying one’s self. Either way, just thinking about these is stirring up a craving. I can’t wait for a poached chicken thigh night.

You should definitely, definitely read this book. Especially you, Joyce. Now I want to know what everyone’s eat-alone food is. What’s yours?


10 Responses to “Alone in the kitchen”

  1. 1 Anthony September 6, 2007 at 11:48 pm

    I saw that book in the bookstore… also in Santa Fe… but didn’t buy because my suitcase was already heavy with books. Looking forward to reading it. I must say, after reading through your archives (I found out about your blog from your little feature in Ganda’s blog which I read from time to time), that your passion and commitment to this (food) is dizzying, almost frightening, and totally inspiring. Wow.

  2. 2 winyang September 6, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    Why thank you, Anthony. I definitely aim to frighten and inspire. And if I can make the world spin a little beneath your feet, that’s a bonus. For you, of course. Thanks for reading. You should get a copy of the book stat. And in the meantime, you should tell me how/what you eat when you’re alone. Because inquiring minds want to know!

  3. 3 daisy September 7, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    when i eat alone . . .

    1. grilled cheese
    2. chocolate bars
    3. hot dogs, only to accompany my corn relish
    4. beans, currently cranberry beans stewed in tomatoes and cinnamon, a la oleana.
    5. ice cream. always makes me happy.

  4. 4 winyang September 7, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    Grilled cheese. Yum. Wow, I haven’t had a grilled cheese sandwich in ages, and it’s because I’m not in the habit of having bread in the house. Will have to rectify that immediately. This is going to be the fall/winter of bread baking. Any specific kind of chocolate you diggin’ these days, D?

  5. 5 Anthony September 7, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    i definitely second the grilled cheese. that was last night’s meal: a grilled cheese (young manchego/monterey jack) on ezekiel bread, in the pan with salted butter. and some local heirloom tomatoes and burrata from basilicata with a little olive oil and salt. and a good monastrell rosé from spain.

    the night before, solo meal was spaghetti with local cherry tomatoes, a little bit of good bacon, garlic, chili flakes & reggiano.

    i have some nice chile peppers from NM which will make a good chile relleno lunch.

    i’m just home from being on the road for three months, so i’m a little sick of restaurants and enjoying just making little simple things. i have a good tuna salad that i make with red onions, pine nuts, golden raisins, pepperoncini, basil, & vinaigrette that might be fun to fix up this weekend.

  6. 6 winyang September 7, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Where do you get your burrata, Anthony?

  7. 7 Anthony September 7, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    silverlake cheese shop stocks some from a producer called “caseificio voglia di latte.” i just go over to the shop and grab one or two. it’s really good. nancy silverton told me that the same importer brings in one from campania too. she is using both at her place osteria mozza.

  8. 8 daisy September 17, 2007 at 12:02 am

    flyer chocolate bars are great. solid, standard bars. also just tried 3400 phinney bars (they make a bread and chocolate bar). next time you go to montreal, get chocolates and bars from chloe chocolatier. if you see banane, get it immediately. also just polished off a bag of peanut m&m’s. oops.

    also . . . homemade popcorn is very good for solo eating.

  9. 9 jk September 20, 2007 at 10:49 pm

    yessss it’s such a lovely collection, of course one of the great things being the self-reflection it inspires. another great thing is that it provides the opportunity to read laurie colwin. i notice no one has mentioned the alone food fantasia known as : BOWL OF CEREAL for DINNER. or PINT OF FRO YO as DINNER.

  10. 10 Ganda October 1, 2007 at 12:40 am

    I love the black bean essay too. And the ramen one. Lots of unexpected delights in that book.

    I have many alone foods because I am always alone (cue cello solo). Lately, my fave alone meal is rice, som tam style kirby cuke salad, and pernil from the dominican place around the corner.

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