Saturday, March 14, 2009

Table for one

"Everyone eats alone at one time or another." That's common knowledge. What's not so common is just what people eat when they don't have to worry about anyone but themselves. For the past week I've been reading and enjoying What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin, a forthcoming book from Gibbs Smith that dares to ask individuals about their private personal menus. One woman reveals a love of the all Tater Tot meal and is quietly resentful that her husband has developed a fondness for it, too. Quite a few admit to bowls of cold cereal (one guy specifies Life Cereal with Coffee-mate creamer). Many folks prefer "one unit" meals: a potato with particular toppings, a tin of sardines, an entire bunch of roasted asparagus dusted with parmesan. And an awful lot of people break out the baking dishes, fire up the grill, start peeling and chopping, and create genuine homecooked meals for themselves. The book includes 100 recipes for people's private foods, some of which sound weird (Tofu Sandwich with Fixings) and others that sound delicious (Flank Steak Stuffed with Mushrooms and More, the "more" being bacon, cheese and spinach -- I may have to try that one).

Reading this book got me to thinking about my own solo dining habits, and I pondered my friends' as well. Preparing a meal for yourself is different when you only do it every once in a while as opposed to most of the time, and I couldn't help wondering if my idiosyncratic habits were very different from others'. The best way to find out, of course, was to ask, and I thank everyone who responded to my inquiry:

ALANNA (manager): As a single woman working 2 jobs, I find that I cannot devote as much time to good food as I would like. Generally speaking, my standard breakfast is cereal and coffee, which I pretty much only deviate from if I'm running late (which means an Egg McMuffin on the run) or I'm having breakfast out with friends (my favorite thing). While I often pack a lunch for work, lunch is one of the only meals that I really enjoy eating out alone. I almost relish the time that I can spend at a sandwich shop or, more often than not, outside on a bench, reading and enjoying a quiet lunch with myself. I work at a restaurant, so there is an occasional pre- or post-work dinner alone, but, for the most part, if I'm not eating out with friends, I'm eating dinner at home. Unfortunately, by the time I get home from work, I'm rarely in the mood to stand over the stove for an hour. When I do cook, which tends to only be a couple of times a week, I generally make something quick and easy, like pasta. Sometimes I will get creative and do tacos or make a homemade pizza, but that's pretty rare. I almost always try to cook something that will produce leftovers for the next day's lunch. As a novice cook, I don't want to get into anything too complicated unless I have loads of free time on my hands. If it's too late or I'm too tired to throw something together, then dinner can be anything from a sandwich to cereal to chips and salsa. In the meantime, I indulge in my near obsession with cooking shows and dream of a day when I have the time and energy to really learn about food and treat myself regularly to great, home-cooked meals.

CHRIS (mortgage broker): If I'm alone at breakfast, I'll graze. At lunch, I love to go out and eat by myself. I get to choose what I want, where I want, and I take reading material. It's very relaxing. For dinner... and sometimes for lunch... I will whip up something that is a homecooked meal. I do that because I can often eat something that no one else in my family will eat. So as you can see, my "eating alone" is definitely ALL ABOUT ME!!!

CURTIS (filmmaker): I have of late, and wherefore I know not, returned to the habit of making myself a box of macaroni and cheese to eat when I'm alone. I think a box is meant for four people.

ISABEL (manager): For breakfast alone: I'm very boring. I usually eat Honey Nut O's with blueberries and some tea or Trader Joe's Mango Juice. If I'm feeling really crazy I like to have toast. Lunch alone: Usually a tuna fish sandwich or soup. Easy stuff! Sometimes I'll venture out to The Corner Bakery! Dinner: I have created a scrambled egg dish that sounds terrible I'm sure. Scrambled eggs with tomatoes and parmesan cheese. Sometimes I add mushrooms. I also like stir fry or a casserole which works well as there will be leftovers for the next day! Once in a while I'll take myself out to dinner, usually Daphne's Greek Cafe or The Only Place in Town here in Sierra Madre. I forgot to mention that when Mason's [her boyfriend] gone I often cook myself a chicken breast or hamburger (he's a Veggie, you know). I say go crazy, meat every day while he's gone.

JANINE (writer): I tend to eat the same thing when I'm alone for a week at a time, call it a routine. For lunch all last week I made a plain lettuce salad with leftover homemade balsamic vinaigrette and microwaved a small pasta dish. On the rare occasion I eat out, I almost always go to Euro Pane in Pasadena for a goat cheese and red pepper sandwich on olive bread and a latte. They make their own bread which makes their sandwiches some of the best I've ever had in Pasadena. Your question is timely because just yesterday I was reading the Nutrisystem diet support BB and quite a few women (no men) wrote about how hard it is for them to eat out alone, something that I have never had trouble with. They wrote about what a triumph it was to go out and be brave enough to sit alone and order a meal. I found that interesting since I had no idea this was an issue for some people. My favorite meal out, alone or not, is breakfast in the afternoon or evening. In fact, I think breakfast tastes better at night.

JEN (promotions director): Breakfast: Cereal. Lunch: Whatever strikes my fancy that can be bought within walking distance from work or delivered to work. Dinner: It will probably sound weird but I find cooking to actually be relaxing so it's usually homecooked meals for me in the evenings. I like the process. I've gotten better at portions so I rarely have leftovers. If I do I bring them for lunch.

JENNIFER (elementary school teacher): When deciding to dine, I make sure I stop at Trader Joe's for a little weekly shopping. They have fabulous prepared foods that are easy to pop in the microwave oven. I also like to be creative and cook on my own. Not really a receipt follower. Just a little of that and a little of this. I then have it at work for lunch. Usually after working all day I'm not really interested in cooking anything. I do like to cook on the weekends and use the food throughout the week that I may freeze. Finally, I must confess that it is a pleasure after working with the tots all day to go out and have adult conversation so I admit to going out 2 to 3 times a week for a meal.

KAREN (claims adjuster): I like to cook once or twice a week, so I make two dishes and freeze them in single containers, and then I eat leftovers during the week. I eat cereal for breakfast, and sometimes I go through a drive-thru for lunch and take it home to eat alone. I don't eat out alone, only with friends, but I make sure we go out to eat a lot, too!

LINDA (writer) : I almost always eat breakfast alone, thank God. The rest of my day is noisy and chaotic and I hardly sit down to eat any other meal before someone is asking me to refill their milk or telling me they don't like noodles with all that stuff on them. My breakfasts are usually simple: oatmeal with brown sugar. Toasted slices of homemade bread. Fruit & cheese. Always tea. My favorite tea: PG Tips. I write early in the morning and my first cup of PG Tips is usually in a travel mug at my desk, but when I have my quiet breakfast, I brew the tea in my grandmother's teapot and drink it out of a real teacup. I sit by my woodstove or in front of the window. I eat in the quiet. Breakfast is the best meal of my day.

LUCY (manager): It really depends on if it's a work night or not. If it's a work night I lean towards whatever is quick and easy. Leftovers are a favorite. Last night, for instance, I ate the pork chop I opted not to eat the night before (I had a big lunch and just wasn't hungry. Mom had kindly made an extra pork chop for me but I just wasn't hungry enough). I scrounged around for a side dish. It was a tossup between a Trader Joe's packet of pre-cooked brown rice or a WW pasta sample I got a while back. I was feeling adventurous so I tried the WW pasta. It wasn't bad. I added some fresh strawberries and that was dinner. If I'm starving and have little time I'll do "breakfast for dinner." Sometimes this means scrambled eggs and toast other times it's shredded wheat with fruit if the right kind is around. I'm also not above the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich if I'm really desperate. A more recent favorite is smearing light cream cheese over slices of deli ham. I roll them up and eat them with a few crackers. If I'm really lucky there might be some leftover asparagus in the frig so I roll a spear up in the combo and it's great! And then there is always the freezer. The freezer is always full of Lean Cuisines and frozen things I've made in the past. Mostly soups. If it's a weekend, I might make a meatloaf or a soup or a tamale pie. I tend to make things that freeze well for later in the week.

MARY (kindergarten teacher): Well, you know how I eat when I am alone. I tend to eat badly (very badly), such as Tops' chili cheese fries or zucchini sticks with ranch dressing. Oh my God... so bad! Not every day I'm alone, of course, but I'm sure it's more than I ever should. I also still love to have a bowl of cereal for dinner. No fuss, and always on hand. If I ever think, "Okay, it's time for lunch," I will look for whatever is in the fridge/pantry and just eat them as is. For example, turkey, cheese, olives -- I will just eat them one by one and not bother with "making" anything with them. I also don't think much about eating 3 meals a day. One of those horrible meals from Tops will easily keep me full for 2 meals. Of course when Cameron [her daughter] is with me I always keep the 3 meals in mind. I just don't make taking care of myself a priority when she's gone. Sad, huh?!

PATRICK (webmaster): There are certain things that my wife doesn't really like to eat, like pizza and, formerly, shrimp (she's come around on the shrimp issue a bit). I usually try to eat one of those things when I'm on my own. Getting a bottle of decent yet cheap red wine and a pizza from one of the local places is pretty much the perfect meal-in-isolation to me. For awhile, my wife was working in Ohio while I was living in LA. During that time, I found myself gravitating towards simple, rustic cuisine. A piece of grilled meat, some mixed greens with a simple vinaigrette dressing, and some crusty French bread on the side. I suppose whipping up some elaborate French sauce seems pretentious when I'm eating alone, like getting dressed up in a suit to watch TV.

SEAN (college professor): I prefer not to eat alone. When I do eat alone, it's usually a situation where I don't have the time to do otherwise, and I end up eating fast food. If I'm alone at home, it's usually leftovers or something quick to prepare. To me, though I enjoy cooking, the most satisfying part of preparing food is sharing it. If I'm not going to share it, I streamline the preparation.

SHARON (sales rep):
I do eat pretty well by myself and decided a long time ago that living alone was no reason not to pamper myself when it came to dining. While I use to cook more involved recipes, now I usually just eat what is easiest. I'm pretty good about going to farmer's market on Thursdays and will buy fresh lettuce and arugula, some veggies and fruit, and fresh fish. I often will just get the Ahi tuna since I can eat that raw (can't get any faster than that) and combine it with the yummy fresh greens. Sometimes I'll buy the scallops which take about 2 minutes to cook (with lots of garlic, too). Other times, I'll just take home whatever fresh fish is suggested for the week. I do buy the gourmet olive oils and marinades also found at farmer's market. So, for about 3 days I'll eat really healthy and then on Sunday, as everything is running out from the market, I have to make some more choices. Do I cave for fattening comfort food or stay on the relatively healthy route? This varies from week to week. Every now and then, I have a hankering for some Southern fried chicken with the very fattening milk gravy like my grandfather use to make. I at least will use olive oil rather than lard -- the gravy still comes out just as good, but the chicken definitely is not as crisp. I'll usually cook brown or wild rice rather than potatoes, as we use to have. If I'm really too tired to cook, I'll go to Zankou Chicken for take-out or sometimes the Oinkster (which I always have a craving for). Sometimes I'll go for a bbq run (Zeke's in Montrose) for the pulled pork. I also like to make soups and in particular a Greek Lemon Chicken with Orzo recipe. This is hearty enough, but still relatively healthy. I have tried to stay away from cooking red meats on my own, but do like a good juicy red steak every now and then. (For a while I was in the habit of throwing a filet mignon on the grill almost every week but started to notice a difference in how I felt.) I have become more of a foodie over the years and find myself at Bristol Farms or Whole Foods a lot. Bristol also has this dreamy homemade mushroom cream sauce for pasta which I may have to make a run for... Whenever I eat out, I love having the leftovers the next day, too.

STEVE (buyer & storyteller): I eat all of my breakfasts and about half of my dinners alone. On work days, I put together lunches around the same time I'm eating breakfast; on days off, I mostly eat the same stuff, spread out over a longer period. Breakfast is almost the same thing, every day: A slice of some kind of multi grain bread folded over a fairly thin slice of cheese (cut from a block o' cheddar; not those waxy American singles), some kind of oaty-grainy cereal (no sugar or sweetener), a big-ass cup of water mixed with an inch or two of aloe vera juice, a fistful of vitamins, and either an apple or an orange (I never compare the two). Lunch is also pretty much routine: Some kind of microwave entree (I can only eat Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice; no more Hungry Man for me, thanks to my middle-age metabolism). I have to keep anything with soy to a minimum, so that eliminates 90% of the snacks from the breakroom's vending machine, or even the treats I brought from home; now I bring baggies of dried fruit and peeled baby carrots. On my days off, I'll open up a can of soup, or microwave some jasmine rice and dump a can of chili or some Indian goop on top of it; basically because I'm too lazy to carry the extra containers to and from work. If I have to go on walking errands, I'll stop in Subway, or our local Chinese place, or whatever's on the route. My parents and I live in separate houses on the same property. If my mom's cooking dinner, she'll offer a serving (and she'll charge me a fair restaurant rate for it). I'm often offered the opportunity to raid their fridge for leftovers. If they get fast food, I'm usually invited in on the deal. Whether I eat with my parents or alone is determined by what they're planning to watch on TV. I live behind a GREAT little Mexican restaurant (and I'm surrounded by fast food burger joints that are within walking distance), so I can go crazy for dinner, thus completely negating all the healthy crap I eat during the day.

SUSAN (hairdresser): Breakfast at my house when it's just me always, and I mean always, starts with a good cup of coffee. For me, that means fresh ground beans and my personal favorite, Coffee Bean mocha powder. To go with the coffee, I usually have something like toast or an English muffin. Lunch is usually on the go when it's just me. Sometimes when I am at home I will make 'the dip' [a family favorite made with canned chili and cream cheese, served with Fritos] and pig out. Other times I am actually 'good,' and eat things like a sliced apple or a banana. Dinner on my own is the worst of all. Usually it is cereal, and a sugary one at that. Occasionally, I will feel like 'cooking' for myself and make another personal favorite: egg noodles with gravy. I'm big on nutrition, as you see.

VERONIKA (actress and nanny): I HATE thinking about food. I will waste time doing mindless things just to put off having to make decisions about food. I feel guilt with every piece of food I put in my mouth. So I usually eat whatever takes the least amount of time to prepare and ingest so that I don't have to spend a lot of time agonizing over it and feeling guilty. Plus, I have to lose 20 pounds in order to be considered in the same way as the other actresses and I don't know how I am going to do that unless I really set up an eating regimen and an exercise program, and I am way too lazy to do all that. But I really just miss the days when I used to feel ok about how I looked. I have NEVER had a good relationship with food, but it used to be easier to deal with. I have always hated thinking about food, but I used to like myself more. So, that said I think I'll walk down to Taco Bell and get some nachos. Probably the WORST thing in the world for me to eat, but I love Mexican food and I can't eat it with Curtis [her boyfriend] cause he hates it, and it'll be fast and easy and I can eat some of it and forget it.

As for me: I eat breakfast alone almost every day. While I enjoy both breakfast foods and having that time to myself, breakfast is rarely a pleasure because I'm usually in a hurry. I always seem to have laundry to fold, plants to water, and/or lunch to pack before I leave the house. So breakfast is usually a cup of black coffee (the coffee is nonnegotiable), some vitamins, and a Clif Bar, which is like chewing on a sticky grain brick but is fast and will hold me for a few hours. If I do have some extra time, I like to make myself some old-fashioned oats with nuts, dried fruit, brown sugar and a splash of soymilk, or a whole grain toaster waffle with yogurt and sliced fruit or a dollop of jam.

I usually eat lunch alone in the break room at work. I will almost always eschew the communal table in the middle of the room and opt for the counter that runs around the perimeter so I can sit with my back to everyone. This may sound unfriendly, but it makes it so much easier to read my book without distraction. Lunch is usually either leftovers or something frozen -- a Lean Cuisine or an Amy's burrito. Sometimes I'll heat up a can of soup. If I'm eating lunch alone at home on my day off, it's almost always in front of the TV or with a book, and it's usually something weird like mismatched leftovers, or sardines with crackers, or chips & salsa with ice cream for dessert. Just whatever is around. At lunchtime I tend to elevate side dishes and snack items to entree status and eat far more of them than I would if they were serving in their usual capacity. On the rare occasions that I go out for lunch alone, I bring a book to read and never feel as if I'm dining by myself.

Dinner is the one meal I'll put a little effort into making for just me, but even then I don't go whole hog. I tend to heat things, I've noticed, rather than cook them. I'm also more likely to prepare something that requires a spoon rather than a fork to eat it, and almost the only time I use a knife when dining alone is when I'm spreading something on a piece of toast. I tend to use up aging refrigerator items at dinner time, melting some gorgonzola on a piece of pita bread under the broiler, or throwing that quarter of a bag of leftover edamame into the Trader Joe's fried rice I'm stir frying. Dinner, although it's almost always my biggest meal of the day, is also the one meal I don't mind skipping every now and then. Sometimes, when I'm not very hungry, it all seems like too much work.


No one who knows me should be surprised to learn that one of my favorite preoccupations is food. I not only love to eat, but I also love to cook, dine out, talk about food, read cookbooks and food-related memoirs, watch food being prepared on TV, and even grow a little of my own food. It has been especially gratifying the past few days dragging friends and family into the conversation, and I must again thank everyone who contributed.

Just this morning, after a whole week of thinking and talking about dining alone, I discovered a new cookbook, The Pleasure Is All Mine: Selfish Food for Modern Life, on a cart at work. Here I've gone on about about wanting solo meals to be simple and not caring if they're composed of weird, disparate elements, and along comes a cookbook that makes me think I'm shortchanging myself: Suzanne Pirret's approach is that you should be "cooking for yourself, decadently." Her writing is amusing, she doesn't require any fancy kitchen equipment, and her recipes (all scaled to serve just one discerning palate) sound divine: Braised Lamb Shank, Butterscotch Panna Cotta with Roasted Macadamia Nut Praline, Zucchini Fritters with Dill, Homemade Naan Bread. For the first time in my life, thanks to this book, I'm considering trying to make duck confit. Now I've just got to figure out where to get my hands on this Maldon salt she keeps mentioning.


~ Lucy said...

Thanks for the great post. I'm not sure why it's so interesting to learn what others dine on while alone but it is. Now I want to know what people do in their spare time. When nobody is around, what are people up to?

kb said...

Sorry I missed your deadline, but I totally enjoyed reading this. I agree with Lucy...what do people do when they find themselves totally alone for hours? As for me, it usually involves either food or a book.