By Deborah Madison · Illustrations by Patrick McFarlin
Editors’ Note: For the tenth anniversary of Deborah Madison’s What We Eat When We Eat Alone: Stories and 100 Recipes, we asked the renowned author and chef to reflect on how the book came about and why the subject remains important. The book, which was co-written and illustrated by her husband, Patrick McFarlin, details the varied habits and food choices of a wide range of solo eaters.
My husband, Patrick McFarlin, and I conceived of the idea for What We Eat When We Eat Alone on an Oldways trip to Europe with fancy (that is, well-known) food people. Patrick found that he couldn’t really ask what someone did (we already had everyone’s bios), so he asked our fellow travelers what they ate when alone. He took notes and later, when I found them, I was amused and intrigued. Why not talk with lots of people and ask them what they liked to eat when alone? As Patrick, who designed and illustrated the book, says about these initial inquiries: “The research was entirely unscientific. I simply asked people about their closed-door food practices. Some were ordinary, some were quirky, and others credible and civilized.” But once we started to talk with a lot of people, chapters began to form by themselves.
While there are many books on the subject of eating alone, at the time Patrick and I set out to write What We Eat When We Eat Alone, most seemed to address people who were recently bereaved. We were saddened by what we found in our own research about the lackluster note in the voices of people who seemed to feel they weren’t worth a good home-cooked meal or a set table. They were reluctant to talk about what they ate because it was so minimal—a carton of yogurt, half a sandwich. They were often women and often in low spirits, but as writing this book illustrated to us, plenty of people are upbeat about eating alone. Many of those people we spoke with enjoyed cooking for themselves, regardless of whether it was all the time or just on the occasion that they found themselves alone. Clearly eating alone wasn’t a subject of shame, but humor.
One thing I learned from those interviews is that eating alone is much more common than I’d thought. There were widows and widowers, of course, but also a lot of singles who had to figure out how to feed themselves every day. There were moms who found that eating alone gave them some rare relief from their kids and husbands, or busy working people, like doctors, who suddenly had a chance to cook a meal for just themselves. There were kids, too, who ate alone, and we wrote a chapter for them titled, “What Every Boy and Girl Should Learn To Cook Before They’re Men and Women,” in hopes that more young people would experience the power of cooking. And for readers who hoped to not always eat alone, we included “Meals with a Motive”—a chapter of recipes for meals for seduction.
As a former editor of mine put it, “Solo meals can be all corn and tomatoes if that’s what you like.” And often they are that simple. We also found that some dishes are solo meals because they consist of foods that are unshareable—meaning they are personal, and sometimes gross. Examples included a baked potato covered with cottage cheese and smashed hard-boiled egg, potato bread with margarita mix, a mustard sandwich with reworked coffee, fried Spam with grape jelly, and hot dogs boiled in cheap beer. Such personal favorites may not be for sharing, but that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoyed by more than just one or two odd souls.
Were men and women different? Yes! (And no.) We found that men were generally more predictable, having the same breakfast five times a week, the same hamburger for lunch, and dinner themes that were a lot like lunch—in short, many identical meals. Women were less predictable, but one consistent observation was that women who regularly cooked for their families or customers were not too inclined to get out the pots and pans for just themselves. When such women were alone at last, they could be happy eating Frito pie or a Creole tomato salad with black pepper and hard cheese, or even having oatmeal with coarse salt for dinner. “Basically,” said writer Amelia Saltsman, “it’s about comforting carbs and good salt.” Saltsman’s go-to solo meal? A baked potato, dressed with butter and salt.
Other women reported enjoying foods from their past, such as Kate Manchester’s Johnny cakes or writer Rae Paris’s tater tots. For Manchester, making Johnny cakes became a stolen moment when she could cook for her own palate. Paris wrote that tater tots reminded her of fourth-grade crushes, lunch lines, and that oddly warm and comfortable cafeteria smell—like wet concrete in a warm Los Angeles rain. Joanne Neft said that when she’s alone she gets the urge to make bread and then take a two-hour bath while listening to opera. Loud.
Sometimes it was sentiment that drove a menu—a grandmother’s favorite frying pan for cooking eggs, or a grandmother’s recipe for salmon, noodles, and Russian salad eaten on her dishes from a Duz detergent box. Other times it was about cooking the foods their spouses didn’t care for—like kidneys.
We also found that men often preferred meat and lots of it. A bartender in Santa Fe gave us his recipe for a flank steak, stuffed with cheese and bacon, rolled up like a football, secured with toothpicks, and grilled. We made his dish (adding some mushrooms and spinach for some vegetables) and it served seven people, yet he made it just for himself and ate it all week. We also interviewed ranchers and artists and chefs, some of whom added a salad, but all of whom liked large quantities of meat.
Women tended to prefer the simple egg, prepared in all kinds of ways, to large pieces of meat, though not just women recognized that eggs are a friendly food. Mas Masumoto, a peach farmer and writer, talked about eggs as signifying the beginning of the day, regardless of the time—and as a writer and a farmer, he had several beginnings to his day. He also said that eggs were simple, warm, and fairly quick, which indeed they are.
Sometimes people were saved from hunger by pantry staples, featured in the chapter called “Saved by Sardines, Rescued by Pasta,” which includes some rather sophisticated recipes for both sardines and pasta. Others staved off the wolf at the door with grilled cheese sandwiches, panini with mustard greens and roasted peppers, and “meat and toast”—that is, peanut butter, bacon, and pepper on toast. In the chapter with those recipes, “Getting a Body Fed with Rough and Ready Foods,” we also included a wonderful rustic asparagus salad from a cook in Santa Monica. Foods people admitted to eating were varied and often refined and delicious—as well as strange from time to time.
I loved interviewing kids. Those whose parents had insisted that they cook at least once a week before they were overbooked with school activities really benefited from that experience. When they get older they might be able to feed themselves well or to share a home-cooked meal with someone else—a friend, a colleague, a potential lover, or even their parents. One very shy eight-year-old told us he liked to cook for his sister. Said his mother, “Being in the kitchen has given him his own area of expertise that he’s very happy to have. When he’s cutting up broccoli he feels in charge, and he feels creative as he tries cutting it one way then another.” Another mom said that though her kid’s cooking forays lasted only a year, they made a lasting impression: they’re not scared of the kitchen.
One young man told me that he started cooking partially because his parents insisted, but also because they told him he could cook whatever he wanted to eat. He began tweaking their meals so that he could end up with something tasty, avoiding those parts of their recipes that he didn’t like. One of my favorites was a medical student who, when he realized that he simply could not eat one more jumbo meatball sandwich over a period of four days, called his mom for a tutorial. Soon he had three friends over for dinner and served a complex risotto, a green salad with homemade dressing, and chocolate-peppermint ice cream cake. He said it wasn’t hard to pull off. “Working in labs isn’t that different from kitchen work. It’s all recipes. So the multiple things going on in the kitchen were never overwhelming. At one point I was tending all three dishes at once—no big deal!”
We decided the recipe section for younger cooks and eaters needed certain parameters: ingredients that were relatively inexpensive, meals that provided something to eat on for a while, and foods that weren’t super involved to make. In particular, a green salad, a roast chicken, a frittata, a confidence building pot of rice, a tofu curry, mashed potatoes and variations.
It was so interesting to hear what people had to say about food and eating solo. Some ideas were quite good and we made them into recipes. (Others were quite strange, and we did not.) We experienced some sadness, too, in the notion that some people felt they weren’t worth the effort it takes, however small, to set the table, cook a meal, and sit down and enjoy it. Although we also found that others, in fact, did value themselves and their solitary meals, and always set a table and cooked, however simply.
Some years after writing this book, Patrick had a painful tonsil cancer that prevented him from eating at all. After what felt like a summer of solitary dog walks and gin-and-tonic dinners, he finally announced that he thought he could join me at the table. I was overjoyed! I cooked a big meal and we sat down together for dinner. He was done after two bites. I was disappointed, but still crazy-happy that we had been able to sit down at all. The summer Patrick was ill was extreme, and I realized that I don’t always do so well at eating alone. But we all have to do it sometimes, and what I learned from the individuals in our book is that we can make it as meaningful and delicious as we want it to be.