And now for something completely different! A book club.

1 Sep

Last month I had the good fortune of stumbling across a foodie book club, The Kitchen Reader, via a blogger I follow (Jules of stonesoup), on another blog I follow (Write to Done: 7 Reasons Why Joining a Book Club Will Help Your Writing).

book club

I’ve many times blown off invitations to book clubs, in part because I was worried the selections wouldn’t interest me, in part because I’m dodgy about committing to projects in general, and in part because I’m dodgy about finishing books in particular. (I like to think of these as the torments of the terribly brilliant and creative.) But Jules managed to convince me, especially since this club is centered around food – a subject I love writing and reading about.

alone-in-the-kitchen-with-an-eggplant

If the coincidences in the first paragraph weren’t enough for you, this month’s book selection was Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone – very a propos for the recent change in my relationship status.

So without further ado, my review!

Since this is a book about food, I suppose it’s appropriate to compare it to a restaurant. Or a diner, to be exact. Eggplant is written by several authors, so there’s a variety. You can have pancakes at 6 p.m. And like any compilation, I liked some of these stories more than others. A few left me cold, I passed through them onto the next. A few felt secret and conspiratorial, like a wink to my inner voyeur. And plenty made me laugh out loud.

One thing I can say about all these stories is I was impressed by the authors’ level of introspection on a subject that happens daily, but can easily be overlooked. Some seemed to feel that eating is an activity meant to be shared, and for them, solo dining is viewed as temporary – even if it’s actually the norm. Others outright embraced their aloneness, as an act of rebellion, to people-watch (or waitress-watch), or just not bother with the bore that company can be.

In Que Sera Sarito, Steve Almond says so many things I can relate to, it a funnier and franker way than I would say them. For example, on how he learned to cook: “It is certainly true that cooking is therapeutic, creative, and all those other faintly creepy self-helpish words. I would love to tell you that learning to cook was part of my journey toward actualization. I would love to tell Oprah this. I would love to tell Oprah this while weeping. But I learned to cook for a much simpler reason: in the abject hope that people would spend time with me if I put good things in their mouths.” In my About page, I wrote something high-brow about giving people a gift through the fundamental act of nourishment, or some such. But basically, we’re saying the same thing: feeding people makes you friends.

I also related to a story called Thanks, but No Thanks, which is curious for this compilation as it’s pretty anti-foodie. Courtney Eldridge makes no bones about her distaste for food snobs and food snobbery. And reading her words just made me think of my best friend and me, how we grew up without much, with single parents, in a small town. We both live in big cities now, we cook and we go out dancing. We appreciate foreign films and fancy shoes. But we’ll never forget where we came from, and can just as easily listen to mariachis as Mozart. There’s a sort of stubborn pride in humble beginnings, and if you’re not from our town, you might not understand. But I felt like Eldridge did, and that meant something to me.

The story White-on-White Lunch for When No One Is Looking just made me laugh. Anneli Rufus’ mother was an avid Atkins Dieter, and her dutiful daughter avoided starches for the first half of her life. My own mother was no fanatic, but I grew up on my share of dietary doctrine – the food pyramid, no fruit roll-ups and such – and I, too, feel its influence at every meal. If I could bring myself to eat a Pop Tart, only a Pop Tart, and call it breakfast, I’m sure I’d feel guilty for the rest of the day!

Some stories, especially Colin Harrison’s Out to Lunch, made the daunting act of eating alone in a restaurant seem like an adventure. I really liked these, because if I ever plan to eat alone, I make sure I’m armed with a book. But outside his New York City office, in his well-worn, back-corner window seat, the world is a stage. Harrison watches people hurry about their days, fascinated, from his “voyeuristic fishbowl.”

But back to cooking at home, Dan Chaon put my adventurous notions to shame. His Wild Chili has variously included any of the following: “African bird pepper, alligator jerky, artichokes, beer, beets, bourbon, carrots, celery, elk, epazote, fennel, garbanzo beans, green bell pepper, harissa, horseradish, hot dogs, Kahlua, jicama, lavender, lobster, mango, red wine, spinach, turkey breast, vinegar, yeast, yogurt, zucchini.” I’m not even sure what some of those are!

And finally, there were the authors who relished eating one food obsessively. In Asparagus Superhero, Phoebe Nobles is completely attuned to the seasons, when Michigan spring yields only one crop. I’d tell you what it is, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise…

When I’m alone, I’ve been known to call my dinner a can of warmed Ranch-Style beans (original flavor), popcorn drizzled with rosemary oil, and a glass of wine.

What are your guilty pleasures when eating alone?

happy eggplant

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15 Responses to “And now for something completely different! A book club.”

  1. Sarah (@simplycooked) September 1, 2011 at 3:47 am #

    Wow, thanks for these great thoughts. I found plenty of the essays in this book to be funny – I think in part because when we eat alone we feel free to indulge in our weird food ideas. The things that can pass for dinner sometimes are amazing!

    When I’m alone I usually eat any vegetables I can find, combined in a pan until warm. Maybe with an egg on top. And I eat prawns, because my husband hates them with a passion. Sometimes if he comes home later that night he won’t even kiss me!

    After reading this book I realize there are a lot of food authors out there that I want to read more of. MFK Fisher, for one. What about you?

    • Jen September 1, 2011 at 10:04 am #

      Sarah, your story about prawns reminds me of my parents. They used to get Chinese take-out almost every time I went out, because I never wanted to eat it. I’d come home and the smell would still be hanging in the air, or I’d open the refrigerator and find the “evidence” of leftovers in those little paper boxes. They seemed to get a thrill out of it… I wonder if Chinese food is as much fun today. I’ll have to ask!

      Definitely, there were other authors I’ll need to check out. Must skim through the book one more time before the librarians come knocking!

  2. Anni September 1, 2011 at 6:13 am #

    what a fabulous review! welcome to the kitchen reader. :)

    my food habits are definitely shaped by my upbringing, too. like you, i do not come from money (not even close) nor food elitism. we ate what was cheap, healthy, and filling. in the summer, we ate what came from our backyard garden (which, at the time, i thought was disGUSTing!). i still try to get the most bang for my buck a the grocery store, buying the least harmful (read: non-pesticide-y), on sale produce and bulk beans, rice, etc. during my teen years, my mom became a vegetarian and now i’m one too. i liked how so many writers in this book touched on the family influence in their solo cooking – for good or for bad!

    • Jen September 1, 2011 at 10:07 am #

      Anni, isn’t it funny how little we appreciate things as kids? So many people are advocating fresh food these days, apartment-dwellers and busy people aching to have gardens of their own. I’m so glad my mom endured my eye-rolling so that I could have good sense about what I put in my body!

      • anni September 1, 2011 at 11:22 am #

        truth! now that i am struggling through a garden of my own, i appreciate all of her hard work. i would be so pissed if a kid turned up her nose at the tomatoes i painstakingly grew! no wonder she was so stubborn about me eating them.

  3. Stacy September 1, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    Welcome fellow foodie and San Diegan! (Make sure you follow #sdfoodbloggers news on Twitter!)

    Wonderful write up. I totally agree with the Steve Almond quote. Also, “introspection on a subject that happens daily, but can easily be overlooked” is spot-on. It’s interesting what a good writer can do with a topic that many of us face all the time and don’t even think about.

    I’m really looking forward to reading next month’s Laurie Colwin book after her essay in this collection.

    • Jen September 3, 2011 at 8:07 am #

      Hey neighbor, thanks for the Twitter tip!

  4. teaandscones September 2, 2011 at 5:15 am #

    Very nicely written review. And welcome to the club!!

    I have found I am a very eclectic eater. Since I grew up military and traveled a lot I tasted a lot of different foods so now I like to experiment. And I do that when I eat alone. Hubs is a meats/potatoes guy!!

    • Jen September 3, 2011 at 8:07 am #

      Thank you for the welcome! I’m enjoying it so far! Looking forward to September’s book.

  5. Kimberly Taylor September 7, 2011 at 4:18 pm #

    What a great idea!

  6. The Good Greatsby September 14, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    This sounds like an interesting read. I’ve often thought how strange it is that we can spend so much of our life eating and very little of our life reflecting on all that time as a significant experience.

  7. Hannah September 26, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    Good review, Jen. :) When I’m alone, I usually make a black bean and cheese burrito and/or chips and salsa if we have them.

    • Jen September 26, 2011 at 10:58 pm #

      Thanks Hannah! Your habit sounds tastier than a lot of the recipes described in the book ;)

  8. Stanley October 10, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Hello! Egg Plant can be such a wonderful thing to make for any meal during the coarse of the day! Thank you

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: August Round-Up | The Kitchen Reader - September 1, 2011

    [...] Jen from Put a Spork in It [...]

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