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).
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.
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?