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Eating alone

(article, Deborah Madison)

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There’s nothing like holding a new book in your hands, feeling the paper, turning it over, then cautiously opening it. You take a peek at one page and then another. Gradually you work up the courage to read a few words. If it’s been a year or so since you’ve last seen your manuscript, they may surprise you. “Are these mine?” you ask. But if it’s been a matter of only six weeks or so (as happens when a book doesn’t go to China to be printed), you might not have the proper distance to really appreciate your efforts. “Oh, this again?” 

Seeing a book in print gives one a sense of accomplishment and the desire to share regardless. You think, “I can’t believe I did it!” and that bottle of Champagne is finally, truly in order. 

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In the case of What We Eat When We Eat Alone, it’s “I can’t believe we did it!” This was a joint effort and a long time in the works. It began when my husband and I were traveling to the Mediterranean with a think tank of chefs and food writers who were gathering under the auspices of Oldways Preservation Trust. Patrick, who is an artist and not that interested in food, started asking all these food people what they ate when they were alone. He jotted down notes and tucked them away. I found them, read them, and laughed. This would make a great book, I thought. 

I kept bringing it up, and then one day Patrick disappeared, not returning until he had these funny, goofy drawings of people eating alone. When I saw them. I knew we had to do this book. 

And we did! We spent a good year talking to everyone about what they ate when no one was watching. We compiled notes and listened to stories, and sure enough, categories started to form. We cooked what people talked about and found some pretty tasty dishes to share. We also found some that were best ignored.

What people eat when no one else is watching is all over the map. Men and women; young people and old; wives with kids getting a breather as distinct from those who eat all their meals alone — there are wildly different responses to the eat-alone question depending on where people are in their lives. 

Some answers are shocking (disgusting, even!) and refer to foods that can’t be shared with anyone else. Many are pretty passable with a little help, and a few are just plain over the top, like the bartender who stuffed a flank steak with a package of bacon and a pound of cheese and then grilled it (it was pretty tasty, I admit).


h1.Elsewhere on Culinate

Two short excerpts from What We Eat When We Eat Alone are on the site: on leftovers, and on the gestalt of food.


Some people love leftovers and others loathe them. Only one woman mentioned pasta, and there were no boneless, skinless chicken breasts, we’re happy to report. We also talked with young people and found that they really do eat alone (a lot, sometimes) because their mothers are working late. We were happy to find some young people who cooked quite well and were taught by, of all people, their parents! 

Finally, there may be times when a seductive little meal is in order because you really don’t want to eat alone, or live alone. That’s when we found that all those sardine-and-hamburger-toting bachelors and bachelorettes really could pull out the stops if someone else was at the table.

But what was truly surprising was how few people cook for themselves as if they’re really worth it. Most give up and make do with ersatz meals. Somehow the spirit just disappears. Like my dentist, who said he doesn’t even bother to eat when his wife’s away because it’s just not worth it.

I doubt this is true for any Culinate readers. Let us know what you do! 
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p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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