Cooking for One? My Compliments to the Chef

By Kathryn Banakis
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Many years ago I asked my Aunt Jo, who never married or had children, what her favorite dinner was. I must have been in fifth grade or so, when favorites were an important way of categorizing the world. She thought for a moment and answered, "A cold beer and a bag of microwave popcorn."

To someone who comes from a family where dinner was sacrosanct and mostly homemade, her response was appalling, stunning and, I now realize, true. I don't eat microwave popcorn because I'm a purist and because the sodium content is usually too high for my tastes, but I will tell you that if you throw a handful of toasted almonds and walnuts onto a batch of old-fashioned popcorn alongside a cold one, it's a dinner beyond compare. And when you're cooking for one, part of the joy is being able to have popcorn for dinner when you want.

After I graduated from college, I tried to get by on frozen dinners; exhausted after a 14-hour workday, I barely tasted the nebulous meat-carb-sauce before falling into bed. But I missed cooking. I missed chopping and transformation and feeling a connection to what was going into my body. Plus, working in a typical Washington entry-level job where I was always answering to others, I longed for the creativity of cooking and the permissibility to mess up royally, with my own consumption of the result as the only consequence.

My sisters and I learned to cook by taste, like playing by ear. Meals were found-art installations. Some people make tasteful bookends from driftwood. We made dinner from available contents of the fridge and pantry. I read my cookbooks like paperbacks, skimming ideas and promptly ignoring whatever didn't suit my fancy/budget/equipment.

Initially I couldn't figure out how to cook for fewer than five. When I was growing up, cooking was a family activity, and you always cooked for the family. So I cooked for my roommates. I brought leftovers for my co-workers and froze more.

My eye for quantity became a serious problem when I moved into a studio apartment with only a mini-fridge (no freezer). There's nothing like very garlicky Tuscan white bean soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week to teach one to cook smaller. There were some hits and also some serious misses, one of which involved a chicken casserole in which the chicken thighs were semi-frozen and bloody amid a sea of very well-cooked (okay, burned to the point of exploding all over the oven) Tex-Mex-style black beans along with vegetables that had long since given up trying to maintain any sort of independent identity. But I learned, and it was all mine to create and destroy.

Along the way I met Randy Treichler, a local farmer who takes online orders Wednesday to Friday and then delivers a box of farm-fresh vegetables, poultry and dairy products to the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW on Saturday mornings year-round. His Star Hollow Farm in south-central Pennsylvania also operates a traditional farmers market stand there in summer months, but online ordering allowed me to sleep in on Saturday and still get unbruised tomatoes. Or, as is the case with many Washingtonians, to pick up fresh produce before heading back to the office to address the stacks of paperwork neglected during weekday crises.

I challenged myself to order foods I had never cooked with before. One week it was Jerusalem artichokes; the next, garlic scapes. Being able to order only what they had grown forced me to eat seasonally and locally. In some places, farm-fresh produce is far more expensive than at the grocery store, but when you live in the middle of a city and don't have a car, the farm stand is really no more expensive than the branches of major chains that are able to afford rent downtown. Plus, the farm's produce stays fresh much longer in the fridge.

Naturally, I do like cooking for more than one. I have people over for dinner all the time, usually out of a genuine love of entertaining but sometimes to help me tackle a vast quantity of food when my eye is bigger than my stomach. Last year I returned from a gluttonous Thanksgiving intent on consuming as many leafy greens as possible, only to realize that four pounds of kale is a worthy foe, and I am just one woman. December saw many kale-themed soirees, each with a different group of friends.

But cooking for one is its own luxury: of experimentation, of self-expression and of popcorn for dinner, if that's what you feel like.

Former lobbyist and Washington resident Kathryn Banakis is pursuing her master's degree in divinity at Yale University.

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