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?