The subtitle for this post might be “an antidote to Thanksgiving.” Or it might be “the opinions stated here are entirely Maria’s and do not reflect the opinion of the management of G3.” Because this is the deal. I just Don’t. Get. That. Excited. About. Thanksgiving. I’ve been trying the past couple of years. How could I not like a holiday that is all about celebrating the intimate connections between community, cooking, and the realities of physical survival? Last year, I participated in deconstructing and brining a turkey, and I roasted parsnips and turnips with rosemary. And it was all good. But not that good. Somehow I can’t shake a snarky cousin once muttering that Thanksgiving was a memorial to unknown root vegetables. Or I remember how a hard-drinking Chicago Irish family — with whom I at one time spent many festive evenings — eschewed partying on New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day, dismissing them contemptuously as “amateur night.” That’s the feeling I get about Thanksgiving. Amateur night. Lots of pressure to perform, lots of expectations about the way to do things, lots of not so great results. Pass the grilled cheese, please.
Mostly though, Thanksgiving makes me feel claustrophobic. Too many associations of too many people in too small, overheated rooms, and way too much food. It’s all just really . . . crowded.
So back up a week, and I’m just starting to think about Thanksgiving, and I’m home with Nick and his runny nose and persistent fever. He goes to sleep, and I consider taking the respite to finally get out of my pajamas, but instead settle down to a moment of quiet and a book. I hustle up some lunch and open up Jenni Ferrari-Adler’s edited volume, Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant, a book I picked up at the district library because I liked the title and because I’d been sort of seeing it around. I’m almost finished with a bowl of reheated Trader Joe’s Joe’s Diner Macaroni and Cheese and a bowl of hot and sweet pickles (washed down with apple cider) and I’m all finished with M.F. K. Fisher’s “A is for Dining Alone” and Marcella Hazan’s “Eating Alone” when I flip to the introduction, and, a paragraph or two in, find the lines “this book has its genesis in August 2004, when I spent the first of many . . . nights alone in Michigan . . . It was unsettling to be without a job or roommates, to have so much time alone in my tiny house in Ann Arbor.” This a surprise, a bit of local pleasure in the middle of my long day at home with little in the fridge and my sick child. It’s always nice to find yourself in books, so when Ferrari-Adler tells us “I lived near the farmer’s market, a cooperative grocery and a butcher shop,” I get excited thinking “hey, that’s MY market, MY co-op, etc.”
I was inclined to like the collection from home-town bias alone, but it earned my affection and rapid reading (it’s a book that can be consumed quickly, read with one hand while the other is busy with potato chips) on its own merits. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the little descriptions that illuminate and celebrate the divine weirdness of the ways we eat when we eat alone. I’m a girl who spent part of a summer happily subsisting on tortilla chips and cheese, so I know what I’m talking about, and although I don’t think I’ll ever make Laurie Colwin’s “sandwiches” of fried eggplant rounds, muenster cheese and fermented black beans or Anneli Rufus’s “white on white lunch” (spaghetti and cottage cheese), I understand and applaud the hungers that lead to such meals.
What I like best about the essays are the way in which they describe and reflect upon the loneliness and triumph of cooking for yourself. Meals for one can be miserable and desolate or they can be the ultimate expression of caring for yourself, and the essays reflect the full spectrum of feelings toward solo dining. I wince in recognition when Laura Calder declares, in “The Lonely Palate,” “let’s face it: the truth about eating alone is that, despite our best intentions, nine times out of ten we eat badly.” But I also agree with Laura Dave that while you can say that cooking for yourself will save you time or save you money, what it really saves is you.
Cooking for myself saved me. One particularly cold and dreary winter, I recovered from the worst heartbreak of my life and spent entire days on my couch, immobilized by futility and loneliness. But I fed myself. Just me, after twelve years of someone else sharing my table and my life. I was as poor as a church mouse and utterly depressed, but I thought that every day I ate was a day that the world would not come to an end. Through January and February, I progressed from frozen pizzas eeked out to three meals to big bowls of pasta. By March, I was turning out increasingly varied omelettes. And one day when it was finally spring, I scraped together my bottle deposit money and bought a crisp white wine, a small high-end ham, a bunch of fresh asparagus and some new red potatoes. I warmed the ham, I steamed the asparagus, I boiled the potatoes. I set the table and opened the wine. I made myself a creamy mustard sauce and drizzled it around the plate. From there on out, things got better. Steadily, if not quickly.
I’m not a total Thanksgiving curmudgeon. Tomorrow, when Naomi is at the house, we’ll roast a chicken and make some autumnal dessert, and I’ll have the kids decorate the table. I like cooking, and I like my family. But to those of you about to begin crowded holiday weekends, I’d say find a little time to hide away and eat spaghetti with hot sauce or a lunch of just potatoes and gravy. Indulge your solitary food craving. Spend a little time with someone you’re truly interested in — yourself. And a grilled peanut butter and bacon sandwich of course.
Two recipes for single dining:
Tortilla chips. Preferably high quality, but probably whatever’s on sale.
Cheddar cheese. New York Extra Sharp White Cheddar if it’s handy.
Jarred salsa. I prefer Green Mountain Gringo, but, again, whatever you have.
Tear open chips. Spoon a dollop of salsa on each chip. Top with chunk of cheddar. Eat. Best eaten standing up, at the counter, with cupboards open.
Creamy Mustard Sauce for spring vegetables and ham:
1 T butter
1 T flour
1 cup milk, brought almost to a boil
Good quality Dijon mustard
Salt, pepper, paprika, worchestershire sauce to taste and in combination as you prefer.
Use the butter and flour to make a roux, whisking over medium heat until you have a smooth paste. Pour the milk into the roux in a steady stream, continuing to whisk as you go. Let cook over medium heat for about five minutes until thick and creamy. Add mustard, about a tablespoon at a time until you have reached the balance of sharpness and creaminess that is right for you and your dinner. Season to taste. Drizzle tastefully over warm vegetables such as spring carrots, asparagus or new potatoes. Ham if you have it. Remember that life is full of possibilities.