By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
To some, the idea of cooking for one sounds hopelessly dreary. After all, to paraphrase an acquaintance's reaction to one of my recent columns, aren't the pleasures of the table best shared?
Of course. Food can be a beautifully communal experience, whether you're cooking for friend, relative, spouse or lover. But it also can (and should) be gloriously self-sustaining, and to treat the topic of solo cooking as a mere practical dilemma can mean missing out on the freedom and satisfaction it can bring.
Two new books attempt to change perceptions and to remind people that sooner or later, whether it's for one night or longer, we all eat alone.
Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin's "What We Eat When We Eat Alone" (Gibbs Smith) is a delightful stream-of-consciousness romp through the highlights of research they compiled about the solo-dining habits of friends and strangers.
Madison, the founding chef of Greens restaurant in San Francisco and the author of 10 cookbooks, took a departure with this one, illustrated by McFarlin, her husband. "I tell people, well, this book doesn't have too many redeeming qualities," she said with characteristic modesty in a phone interview from her home in New Mexico. "It's not about being sustainable, organic, local or anything. It's just about people, and what we do."
What could be more redeeming than that? Built around McFarlin's whimsical artwork, the book explores the intensely personal and sometimes bizarre (saltines crumbled in milk, leftover-spaghetti sandwich), the practical (linguini dressed with the oil from a tin of smoked oysters) and the possibly brilliant (eggs with crunchy bread crumbs). Rather than try to organize them in menu-type format, Madison let the mountain of collected stories divide into patterns: the different habits of solo cooks depending on gender, age and situation.
When it comes to solo eating, "nothing is predictable," Madison says. "All the rules get broken. It doesn't matter how much we know about food, how to cook, what's good for us, healthy eating, all that kind of stuff we hear about all the time so endlessly. People go into the kitchen and they cook something that doesn't have anything to do with that, mostly. It might have to do with a kind of sentiment or with pure ease. People revert to foods that are family foods or their own particular tastes that aren't necessarily shareable. So there's this great surprise."
Madison says she didn't intend to write a cookbook, yet some of her fans can't help but see it as just that. Indeed, while it's nothing like her acclaimed "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" or "The Greens Cookbook," the book does include 100 recipes, interpreted through Madison's unerring palate and sense of the way people want to cook. The recipes have an off-the-cuff feel and ultimately flexible directions; specific amounts are given in some cases, but some recipes also include such things as "a handful of salad greens" and "potatoes, as many as you want to eat in a sitting, any kind."
"One woman called me and said, 'I love your new cookbook,' and I thought, 'Oh, no, I can't escape the cookbook realm,' " Madison said. "But then she said, 'You know me, I follow every recipe to the letter, but with this I feel freed up to do whatever I want.' "
Suzanne Pirret takes the same approach to the recipes in her tongue-in-cheek book, "The Pleasure Is All Mine: Selfish Food for Modern Life" (William Morrow). Pirret's message is clear from the introduction's second paragraph: "To be perfectly honest, some of my best meals have been eaten on my own and some of my worst with other people."
A classically trained actor, voice-over artist and former restaurant cook, Pirret says the book's satirical quality has been better appreciated in Britain. "In America, interviewers have asked, 'Do you really wear dresses and heels like you do on the cover of the book when you cook for yourself?' " she said in a phone interview from her home in London. "And I say, 'Of course. Every night.' "
Pirret's hilarious recipe headnotes, fictional interludes and essays are worth the price of the book even if you don't make a single one of the dishes. Take this precede to Steak au Poivre With Fries: "This is my death row dish -- all I'd want before my big sendoff. The recipe is choreographed so that your fries will be in sync with your steak. Because, if my steak was cold and my fries were soggy, I'd just go straight to the chair. Eat (well) or die, as they say. Or in this case, eat well; then die."
Some of the recipes are intoxicatingly indulgent (sea urchin risotto, pasta alla bottarga), some entail quantities better suited to two or more (fried chicken), and others are perhaps more involved than most solo cooks will likely be up for (raisin bread gnocchetti with cream of peas and fresh goat cheese). But in many ways, that's Pirret's point: Cooking for yourself doesn't need to be about self-deprivation or about you're-not-worth-anything-better recipes.
As it turns out, Pirret technically isn't single. "I have a lover," she says. But that, too, is part of the point; just because she is in a relationship doesn't mean she can't, or doesn't, need to feed herself. "I treasure my solitude," she writes. "My privacy. To prepare an exquisite meal for myself -- even if it's a plate of cheeses and charcuterie -- is peaceful bliss. Of course, it'd be with a hunk of fresh Poilane, a handful of cornichons, a few spoonfuls of an interesting chutney, and a nice little tumbler of chilled Brouilly, but it's beautiful. Because in the end, it's only a meal."
If that's not something you can relate to, single or not, more's the pity.