Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2009, Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence explores the many pleasures and complexities of eating alone.
I recant. For many years, I’ve said that if I lived alone, or were in a situation in which I had to eat alone often, I would subsist on Wheat Thins and plain Stonyfield Farm yogurt, purchased in the large container, and occasionally eaten with in-season fruit or a pickled green bean.
But I recant, and this is why. Several months ago, I received a letter from my sister-in-law Katie. Knowing my interest in food, she recommended a book to me, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. She also wrote,
My point in recommending this book is that I think more thought must be devoted to those of us who have spent most of our 20s (and perhaps our 30s?) cooking, preparing, and eating alone. Sometimes it’s beautiful—one can create weird concoctions that no one but you would eat, but also it is difficult as the very essence of eating is about sharing and being a part of something bigger than oneself.
Katie’s words were convicting to me. I recalled stating my alone-menu (above) to her, and possibly others, wondering aloud how one could possibly imagine eating alone in a restaurant, and feeling self-righteously thankful that, besides the lunches I ate at my computer during days working from home, I did not have to bother with the issue of eating alone. Please forgive me, friends and family.
So, I took her advice. I read Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant on a solitary Amtrak trip to Chicago, and it changed the way I’ll view eating alone forever. Eating and dining alone became an act of personal (and sometimes culinary) growth for the contributing writers, growth that I wondered if I missed because most of my memories of eating alone come from my last three years of college when I subsisted on sandwiches, rice, pasta, and sometimes frozen soup from home. Because I married a few months after college, most of my meals since then have been well-spent with my husband, and I feel out-of-the loop in this dialogue, as if someone else should speak from her personal experience.
So that’s what made space for: I asked questions of others who have eaten alone much more than I to learn from them because, as one of my friends pointed out, there’s a high likelihood that, at some point in my life, I’ll be eating alone again. It’s sad to imagine, but it’s also realistic.
I taught a class on food at Calvin College this past January. The first assignment was for students to write an essay answering the question, “What is my relationship with food?” I received many well-written stories, most of them revolving around the themes of community, family, celebration, and friends. “Food is a social event for me,” one student wrote. But what about when it’s not? What about when you’re alone and hungry and what about when this happens on a daily basis? What do you do?
I asked several friends some questions about eating alone. Five answered—all women—ranging in age from 28 to 50-something. These are some resonating themes that came through in their answers. If you don’t eat alone on a regular basis, listen and learn. If you do eat alone, remember that you’re not alone in this activity.
The first theme is the importance of self-care in feeding oneself. “Be as kind and hospitable to yourself as you would a guest,” Linda said. She recommended taking time to prepare a good meal, setting the table, lighting a candle, and pouring a glass of wine. “Don’t rush through your meal, try to do work, or eat out of the pot you cooked the meal in!” In other words, remember that you’re a person of worth.
In Christian theology, we talk a lot about imago dei, the understanding that the human being is created in God’s image. Often, imago dei comes up in discussions about the other, the outcast, the person it’s difficult to like. But you or I, standing in the kitchen, eating out of the saucepan with the wooden spoon, are also imago dei, and we must not forget to also treat ourselves as images of God.
To Katie, self-care had to do with the act of planning and preparing a meal for herself:
Somewhere out there exists is the idea that if you are alone (read: single), you don’t have eat real food. Somehow I think some individuals still assume single people eat junk food and microwavable dinners because they wouldn’t possibly cook an elaborate meal for only one person to enjoy. It is important for those who eat alone to believe that they are worth spending the effort by shopping, creating and enjoying a colorful healthy meal.
The second theme is the necessary confidence required to dine alone at a restaurant. Katie says,
I have learned that it is a social anomaly to eat alone in public and others still think it is odd. As such, I have learned that if one is to do this they must learn to do it well. When the host asks with those questioning eyes, “Just one?” say “Yes, one,” with confidence.
Linda mentioned the same thing. “Usually, the host greets me by saying, ‘Just one?’ ‘Isn’t one enough?’ I want to respond.”
Heather mentioned, “Women in particular look almost sorry for me if I’m by myself in a restaurant. I find that other women are also the quickest to say, ‘Oh, I can’t go out to eat by myself!’ when the subject comes up.”
Attention, restaurant hosts and hostesses: people can tell when you feel sorry for them, even if you only imply the word just when you ask, “One?” Dining alone is a perfectly sensible thing to do. Other patrons: don’t give the individual dining alone sad, sympathetic looks. If you see a friend dining alone, you may invite them to join you, but if she prefers to read her book, don’t be offended. Other solitary diners prefer to watch the dramatic action restaurant settings provide. As Colin Harrison wrote in his essay “Out to Lunch” (from Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant), “I still prefer, if given a choice, to eat by myself. It’s not that I fancy my own company so much as I enjoy the company of complete strangers. I like the communal anonymity of watching people as they go about their lives, and a restaurant is a good place to do this.”
The third theme is that when one eats alone, one can eat whatever one desires and no one is there to judge. This is both good and bad. Take me, for instance, writing this essay during lunch, and not following Linda’s advice. I ate El Matador tortilla chips (a delicious local product), homemade salsa, and a small square of dark chocolate with candied ginger bits in it.
And here are the confessions of others: Nancy likes to eat cold pizza for breakfast (when it’s around), popcorn for dinner, and celery with cream cheese. Katie likes a meal of dill pickles, cheese (usually Brie or smoked Gouda), a perfectly ripe pear, and beer or wine. For the record, Katie, I’d share that meal with you. It sounds delicious.
The dark side of having no one around is that one can eat embarrassing foods one wouldn’t in front of others. Annie (a pseudonym) noted,
I know that when I am eating alone I will be tempted to eat quantities and types of food (comfort food, indeed!) that I would not eat around other people. It feels natural to me to eat the tastiest (and often unhealthiest) food when I am alone. It feels like a great victory when I eat a vegetable when no one is watching. (That’s a bit of a hyperbole. But not much of one.)
Linda also admitted to eating “a meal composed entirely of junk foods. I would eat this on the rare occasion when I was not just eating alone but also feeling very depressed or needy.”
The idea of eating junk food or sweets alone is common to the contemporary mind. And it’s not just what one eats alone, but how much, that matters. Nancy said that the most important thing to master about eating alone is portion control. British cook and author In the introduction to the “Chocolate Fudge Cake” recipe in Nigella Bites, Nigella Lawson writes, “This is the sort of cake you’d want to eat the whole of when you’ve been dumped.” Ah, alone in the kitchen with a homemade chocolate fudge cake.
Fundamentally, the fact that we’re discussing eating alone within the Christian community, can help us realize the couple/family-centric society we’ve created that often overlooks the legitimacy of single people.
For many years, the church honored single, celibate people who entered into monasteries or convents in order to serve God. Unmarried celibacy was, in fact, considered a higher calling than fidelity in marriage based on 1 Corinthians 7. However, during the Reformation, Martin Luther and other reformers began writing on and practicing life with the family as a sort of miniature spiritual community. Today, in contemporary Protestant Christianity (and, I’d argue, also within much of the popular Roman Catholic and Orthodox culture), marriage and family is still seen as a strong indicator of one’s success. “Isn’t she married yet?” people ask one another. We’ve swung to the opposite extreme and this is wrong.
Historic Christianity offers us many examples of unmarried people: Jesus, for one (I realize that some suggest Christ was married, but this argument is not easily supported by Scripture or church tradition) and Paul. There’s a weird story in Matthew when Jesus’ family comes to speak to him. “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” This is obviously not a statement that prioritizes the family. It prioritizes the kingdom of God.
So how does one celebrate the kingdom of God while alone in the kitchen with a bit of pasta salad? Perhaps the contemporary act of eating alone can share some similarities with the desert father and mother tradition, when saints spent months and years alone seeking God and learning self-discipline. Being alone can provide times of silence, prayer, study, and reflection unavailable to those living in busy households. Finally, being alone reminds us (even me, alone in the living room with an empty jar of applesauce) that we are never alone. I keep icons in my home to remind me of that-the constant presence of God and the prayers of the saints. One icon, Rublev’s Trinity, is of three figures around a table with the side closest to me open. That’s where I sit.