What We Eat When We Eat Alone

What are the quirky dishes with which we comfort ourselves when dining solo?

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A well-crafted meal creates a space for all kinds of wonderful things to happen – family ties can be strengthened, a sense of community nurtured, and love welcomed in. Hours of hard, careful work in the kitchen may reap the rewards of appreciative smiles, warm feelings, and good conversation.

But what happens – if anything – when no one is there except you? In 2000, the Utne Reader featured a short essay that described this kind of day-to-day existence as being “quirkyalone,” meaning subsisting without a partner but not necessarily as a social recluse.

Quirky or otherwise, feeding ourselves remains a daily problem, an unavoidable necessity with or without a companion with whom to break bread. Cookbook guru Deborah Madison and her artist husband Patrik McFarlin explore this question in What We Eat When We Eat Alone with stories from solitary cooks accompanied by 100 recipes. McFarlin’s doodle-like drawings add whimsy to the peculiar confessions.

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To a single person who often eats alone the title may seem compelling. But lest you think this might be your go-to book for coming up with yet another meal that you share with yourself – not so fast. Many of these recipes reflect highly specialized, private tastes. In other words: Food that one might serve to no one else.

The authors polled almost anyone they met over a period of years and the answers to their question range from the absurd and weird (a baked potato covered with cottage cheese and a smashed up hard-boiled egg) to the sublime (mushrooms in paprika cream over egg noodles). Some recipes satisfy hunger with the speed of a text message (toasted English muffin with Ragu and sharp cheddar), others roll out over an expanse of empty hours in a quiet kitchen (jerked chicken breasts, marinated overnight, grilled over wood smoke).

Not surprisingly, women and men have different solo habits. Men would never curl up on the sofa with a mug of hot cocoa; women rarely would pick up a nice big, piece of steak to grill at home. Both men and women admit that they have eaten standing up, over the sink, or in front of the refrigerator. A few take the time to set the table, light candles, and pour a favorite beverage.

Madison lives and cooks in New Mexico and while many of the recipes involve wrapping all manner of things in tortillas, chilies, and salsa she claims that she, too, was surprised at the number of Southwestern-style dishes that Americans turn to when they eat alone. Sardines, unexpectedly, are a favorite of solo eaters either on toast or saltines. Eggs in many forms are a trusty staple for a meal that “serves one.”

Solitary eating has its many reasons and seasons and the chapters do a good job at addressing the different life stages when this experience occurs. “Alone at Last,” for the busy householder; “What Every Boy and Girl Should Learn to Cook Before They are Men and Women,” for young adults; and “Meals with a Motive,” for those wishing to not eat alone much longer.

Whoever you are – and whatever you eat – you’ll relate to something in this off-beat look at gastronomy because you are bound to discover that your eating habits aren’t as unusual as you’d like to think. “Quirkyalone” just got a little less so.

Kendra Nordin is a Monitor staff editor.

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