Although I’ve been married three times, I have lived alone most of my adult life. While living alone gives one a degree of freedom: you can play whatever music you like without annoying anyone; and certainty: you can leave the toilet seat down and expect, with considerable assurance, that you will find it down the next time you go to pee; it also has its drawbacks, and finding yourself alone at meals can be one of them.
Whether eating in or out, doing it alone can be a challenge. Many people don’t want to think much about it and simply eat the same thing day after day, usually something fairly simple to prepare – like scrambled eggs on toast or baked beans out of the can. I like to vary things so usually, whatever I make, I make enough of it to last several days, because I like to eat more than I like to cook. But when that batch is finished, I make something else. My standard repertoire includes some form of chicken fricassee, lentils, spinach lasagna, a potato, sausage, and spinach casserole and the most recent addition, mashed potatoes with sautéed onion and garlic, tuna, and anchovies. When you cook for only yourself, you have only yourself to please and that can sometimes lead to the satisfying of strange tastes or unusual cravings.
Many people who eat alone don’t want to be bothered to cook for themselves. It seems like too much work and for what? Cooking for yourself doesn’t seem worth it. But if you are on your own for more than just a weekend or a week, and can’t afford to eat out everyday, if you don’t make enjoyable meals for yourself, your daily life is going to be missing one of life’s pleasures.
I have worked out a system where I cook about every five days. If I make lasagna, it lasts for four; if I make lentils, it can last for six and so can my potato, spinach, and sausage casserole, or chicken. I never freeze anything. I make it and then eat it until it is gone, then make something else. The fact that I can be bothered to cook for myself is not a result of any self esteem but rather the fact that for me, eating should be a pleasure. And actually I think cooking is fun, as long as you don’t have to do too much of it or do it too often.
Lentils (serves 4)
This is usually made with chorizo sausage, but I prefer a plainer sausage called botifarra. You can use any good quality fresh sausage (I used to like the Bruce Aidell sausages when I lived in California). For the typical Spanish flavor, you would use a mix of sweet and smoked paprika instead of the cumin and curry, even if you used regular rather than chorizo sausage. All measurements are approximate as I don't measure. And the curry you find here is not hot, so I use lots.
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, put through a press or chopped
fresh sausage, about the amount of three hot dogs, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tomatoes, chopped
1 potato, cubed
2 carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
¾ cup lentils
1-1/2 cups boiling water (or more)
1-2 tsp cumin (approx.)
1 tbsp curry (approx.)
Salt and pepper
Saute onion on low heat and after about 10 minutes (or more), when it gets soft add the garlic, then the spices. Cook until blended. Add the sausage and cook until the sausage is no longer raw, about 5-10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook about 5 minutes. Add the potato and carrots and mix. Add the lentils, then the boiling water to cover and a little extra because the lentils will expand. Cook about 40 minutes or until the carrots and potatoes and the lentils are done. Add more water if needed. Season to taste.
Yet one cannot always eat at home. Although I enjoy what I make, my repertoire has its limits and sometimes I want something beyond. At some point I like to go out and have something different – something I don’t make and that doesn’t taste like my own cooking.
For many people, dining alone is a contradiction, dining is something you do with at least one other; alone, you are merely eating. But I want the freedom to enjoy both, dining (not just eating) out too, especially when I travel to France. The problem of cooking for yourself can easily be solved when you go into the kitchen and make something. But the problem of eating out when you live or travel alone is more complicated. In order to go out to eat, you must have either someone to go out with, or be brave enough to do it on your own.
The other day I went out to eat but couldn’t get myself to enter the restaurant. Just a little earlier, I had gone to the Ajuntament (city hall), looking for help with what seemed like an insolvable problem. When I arrived at the Ajuntament, by mistake I knocked on the door of the mayor, who told me he didn’t have a moment to speak with me and that I should address myself to his assistant who happened to be at a meeting but would be finished in a few minutes. Forty-five minutes later, after having watched several people going in and out of the assistant’s office (ignoring me standing there in the hallway) and having stopped one who I knew from the library, asking if Rafel would ever be free and eventually being told that no, no time soon , I finally left in disgust.
All that waiting had made me late to start cooking my lunch (lentils!) so I decided to go out to eat. There is a modest restaurant nearby where I had eaten once, that is unusual for its lovely view of the sea, so I decided to go there. When I pulled up into their parking lot, I saw a large group entering, among them the mayor and his assistant, the very busy Rafel. And seeing them, for some reason, made me too shy to park and enter too. It would have been one thing to go alone where I wasn’t likely to know anyone and a whole other thing to go where I had some acquaintance with many members of a group. Why? I could kick myself. It was where I wanted to eat, but I couldn’t get up the courage to go in.
So I ended up driving further, up to Miami Platja, and eating at a place called Rally Pizza that I had heard of from people I know who all seemed to like it, located right on the highway strip through town. The place was decorated nicer than most with pretty embroidered gauze curtains bordered by damask drapes in lovely warm pastel colors of beige, muted pink, green, and yellow. It was a good first impression albeit the view, filtered by the gauze, was of the cars and trucks passing by on the highway instead of the Mediterranean Sea. And although it didn’t have a no smoking sign on the door, there were no ashtrays on the tables and no one inside was smoking, so that was promising as well. The food turned out to be another story.
For my first course I chose fish cannelloni what came bubbling hot to the table. But cutting into them, it was only the surrounding béchamel that was hot. The fish stuffing was cold (and tasteless). For my main there was the possibility of pizza. When I asked what kind of pizza, because on the menu it only said pizza, the waitress told me in a rather scornful way that it was Rally pizza, as if all the world would know what went into it. So I prompted her with, and what is on a Rally pizza? Ham, mushrooms, artichokes. I’ll take it. While eating it I eventually discovered that the puddles of what looked like water sitting on tomatoes were the ham. For dessert I chose profiteroles, always a safe bet. But I hadn’t figured on Rally’s ingenuity. They managed to drown the three custard-filled puffs with so much chocolate syrup that it was actually disgusting.
Going out to eat, much less to dine alone is something I began challenging myself to do many years ago, when I was living in California. I didn’t want to be victimized by not always having a partner or company to go out with. I wanted the freedom of going out when it suited me, whether with company or alone. So I pushed myself. Of course the first time was the hardest, and eventually it became more comfortable, but it never really became easy. I found it much more comfortable to go back to places I had been rather than venture into someplace new, taking a book to read (and hide behind) helped but I don’t like to read while I eat, and I wanted not to feel the need to hide. But whatever I did, it was always somehow a little embarrassing to ask for a table for one and then to sit there, uncomfortable with what people around me might be thinking. Why should I care what they think?
Here in Spain I have only seen a woman eating out alone once (that I can remember), although I must give her credit for going the whole nine yards. It was in a restaurant in Girona. She had no book, she ate three courses, then had coffee followed by a brandy. She was a well dressed woman of a certain age and I still think of her from time to time as one of the great exceptions here in a culture where you do things in groups and where they sometimes make paella for 500.
Hopefully, having drummed up enough courage to go eat out – on occasion even dine out – alone, in the future, I will be able to manage to go to the restaurant of my choice and not be frightened off by the idea of what kind of impression I might make on people I don’t know. I will think of the lady in Girona.
If the topic of eating and dining alone interests you, I recommend reading Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. Contributors include Laurie Colwin, Nora Ephron, MFK Fisher, Marcella Hazan, Haruki Murakami, Ann Patchett, and Paula Wolfert among others.