A is for Dining Alone

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I finished In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and for the most part, I thought it was good, but I have some concerns with the “rules” he gives in the end. I may do a post with full comments on that, but for now I’ll just tackle the one I really hate:

Try not to eat alone.

I’m sure this is perfectly good advice for people who live with other people, but as far as I’m concerned it’s terrible advice for people who live alone — at least some of whom would probably rather not be living alone. So in case they didn’t feel bad enough already, they now get to think there’s something wrong with them every single time they don’t go out of their way to make plans to eat with other people.

So I am here to say… Don’t listen to Michael Pollan.

There’s nothing wrong with eating alone and no one should ever feel bad or self-conscious about it.

And to counter that bit of bad advice, I will herewith provide an excerpt from M.F.K. Fisher, who started her Alphabet for Gourmets (published serially in Gourmet magazine beginning in December 1948, when she was 40 years old — seven years after the death of her second husband, the love of her life, and while she was in the middle of her third marriage, which lasted from 1945 to 1951), with “A is for Dining Alone.”

A is for Dining Alone

…and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself. This misanthropic attitude is one I am not proud of, but it is firmly there, based on my increasing conviction that sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

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 to are exist socially, but it is endurable only because it need not be the only fashion of self-nourishment.

There is always the cheering prospect of a quiet or giddy or warmly somber or lightly notable meal with “One,” as Elizabeth Robins Pennell refers to him or her in The Feasts of Autolycus. “One sits at your side feasting in silent sympathy,” this lady wrote at the end of the last century in her mannered and delightful book. She was, at this point, thinking of eating an orange in southern Europe, but any kind of food will do, in any clime, so long as One is there.

I myself have been blessed among women in this respect — which is of course the main reason that, if One is not there, dining alone is generally preferable to any other way for me.

It took several years of such periods of being alone to learn how to care for myself, at least at table. I came to believe that since nobody else dared feed me as I wished to be fed, I must do it myself, and with as much aplomb as I could muster. Enough of hit or miss suppers of tinned soup and boxed biscuits and an occcasional egg just because I had failed once more to rate an invitation!

I resolved to establish myself as a well-behaved female at one or two good restaurants, where I could dine alone at a pleasant table with adequate attentions rather than be pushed into a corner and given a raw or overweary waiter. To my credit, I managed to carry out this resolution, at least to the point where two headwaiters accepted me: they knew I tipped well, they knew I wanted simple but excellent menus, and, above all, they knew that I could order and drink, all my myself, an apértif and a small bottle of wine or a mug of ale, without turning into a maudlin, potential pick-up for the Gentlemen at the Bar.

Once or twice a week I would go to one of these restaurants and with carefully disguised self-conciousness would order my meal, taking heed to have things that would nourish me thoroughly as well as agreeably, to make up for the nights ahead when soup and crackers would be my fare. I met some interesting waiters: I continue to agree with a modern Mrs. Malaprop who said, “They are so much nicer than people!”

My expensive little dinners, however, became, in spite of my good intentions, no more than a routine prescription for existence. I had long believed that, once having bowed to the inevitability of the dictum that we must eat to live, we should ignore it and live to eat, in proportion of course. And there I was, spending more money than I should, on a grim plan which became increasingly complicated.

That was when I decided that my own walk-up flat, my own script-cluttered room with the let-down bed, was the place for me. “Never be daunted in public” was an early Hemingway phrase that had more than once bolstered me in my timid twenties. I changed it resolutely to “Never be daunted in private.”

I rearranged my schedule, so that I could market on my way to the studio each morning. The more perishable tidbits I hid in the water-cooler just outside my office, instead of dashing to an all-night grocer for tins of this and that at the end of a long day. I bought things that would adapt themselves artfully to an electric chafing dish: cans of shad roe (a good solitary dish, since I always feel that nobody really likes it but me), consommé double, and such. I grew deliberately fastidious about eggs and butter; the biggest, brownest eggs were none too good, nor could any butter be too clover-fresh and sweet. I set in a case of two of “unpretentious but delightful little wines.” I was determined about the whole thing, which in itself is a great drawback emotionally. But I knew no alternative.

I ate very well indeed. I liked it too — at least more than I had liked my former can-openings or my elaborate preparations for dining out. I treated myself fairly dispassionately as a marketable thing, at least from ten to six daily, in a Hollywood studio story department, and I fed myself to maintain top efficiency. I recognized the dull facts that certain foods affected me this way, others that way. I tried to apply what I knew of proteins and so forth to my own chemical pattern, and I deliberately scrambled two eggs in a little sweet butter when quite often I would have liked a glass of sherry and a hot bath and to hell with food.

I almost never ate meat, mainly because I did not miss it and secondarily because it was inconvenient to cook on a little grill and to cut upon a plate balanced on my knee. Also it made the one-room apartment smell. I invented a great many different salads, of fresh lettuces and herbs and vegetables, of marinated tinned vegetables, now and then of crabmeat and the like. I learned a few tricks to play on canned soups, and Escoffier as well as the Chinese would be astonished at what I did with beef bouillon and a handful of watercress or a teaspoonful of soy.

I always ate slowly, from a big tray set with a mixture of Woolworth and Spode; and I soothed my spirits beforehand with a glass of sherry or vermouth, subscribing to the ancient truth that only a relaxed throat can make a swallow. More often than not I drank a glass or two of light wine with the hot food: a big bowl of soup, with a fine pear and some Teleme Jack cheese; or two very round eggs, from a misnamed “poacher,” on sourdough toast with browned butter poured over and a celery heart alongside for something crisp; or a can of bean sprouts, tossed with sweet butter and some soy and lemon juice, and a big glass of milk.

Things tasted good and it was a relief to be away from my job and from the curious disbelieving impertinence of the people in restaurants. I still wished, in what was almost a theoretical way, that I was not cut off from the world’s trenchermen by what I had written for and about them. But, and there was no cavil here, I felt firmly then, as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality. If One could not be with me, “feasting in silent sympathy,” then I was my best companion.

6 Responses to “A is for Dining Alone”

  1. Marcia Says:

    boy I can relate! Even though I’m married with a child, I had several years of being alone and it got to be really difficult to eat out alone with the strange looks and attitude.

  2. Susan Says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! Though I agree that ideally meals should be shared, if you are alone as I am you’re just going to have to learn to enjoy eating by yourself most of the time. It does no good for those with families to rub it in and (probably unintentionally) make us feel worse about our situation.

    I have In Defense of Food on hold from the library and I can’t wait to read it, despite this section. As I read somewhere recently about another mostly good book with a few patches of bad advice, “Eat the apple but spit out the seeds.”

  3. Kate Says:

    I’m with you on this, but as a member of a family with many alcoholics, I have to comment on the second to last paragraph. A sherry and a couple of glasses of wine around dinner is HEAVY drinking.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, it’s true, though I think that may be like the Three-Martini Lunch, sort of a generational thing. It’s one of the reasons I think it’s so interesting to read diaries (and novels … and even cookbooks) written in past decades — you get an unfiltered look at how things have changed. So often people read books that are set in a particular time period, but written much later (I’m thinking of things like Ian MacEwan’s Atonement or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain) and no matter how much research the author does, some things are just wrong because things are so different now. It’s like the difference between watching Mad Men and watching a movie that was actually made back then.

    One of the most painful things to me about reading M.F.K. Fisher’s journals was reading about her husband Dillwyn Parrish, known as Timmy, who lost his leg to amputation as a result of an autoimmune condition called Buerger’s disease. It turns out that Buerger’s disease is triggered by smoking, but they didn’t know that at the time, and he’s forever off having cigarettes. It’s so hard to read.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    I like the “Eat the apple but spit out the seeds” idea! Thanks for that.

    I liked the beginning of In Defense of Food very much, and it has bolstered my conviction that I can make pancakes and eat chicken legs instead of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and it’s not “unhealthy.”

    Basically I really liked the whole discussion of Nutritionism and how our society’s over-reliance on reductionist science is counter productive. Just didn’t love the eating rules so much. And the one about eating alone really hit a nerve since I feel like a lot of people who live alone are already bad about cooking for themselves and making sure they’re taking care of themselves, because they feel like it’s not worth the trouble or too much effort or whatever. The last thing they need is for someone to specifically say they shouldn’t be eating alone.

  6. Zenzele Says:

    I have always eaten alone, whether I’ve been in a relationship, or single. I don’t care about other people staring, because if they’re not paying for the meal, they don’t matter. As much as I enjoy dining with companions, sometimes I just want to read a book, or just go out spontaneously. I really don’t understand why so many people are so self-conscious that their day-to-day activities are dictated by folks they’ve never met. That’s ridiculous to me. So what if you get snotty glances – how does you daring to eat solo ruin their meals?

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