Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Different Kind of Kitchen Confessions

Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
"A potato," I told my brother, when he asked what I'd eaten for dinner. "Boiled, cubed, sauteed with olive oil, sea salt, and balsamic vinegar."

"That's it?" he asked. He was one to talk. He'd enjoyed what he called "bachelor's taco night" for three dinners and counting.

"A red cabbage, steamed with hot sauce and soy sauce," I said the following night.

"Do you need some money?" he asked.

But it wasn't that, or it wasn't only that. I liked to think of myself not as a student on a budget, but rather as a peasant, a member of a group whose eating habits, across cultures, had long appealed to me.

"Are you full?" my brother asked.

"Full enough," I said.

"What about protein?"
This was the beginning of Jenni Ferrari-Adler's journeys cooking only for herself. Later, rereading Laurie Colwin's seminal essay on cooking only for oneself, she was struck by the fact that we are all connected by the fact that we cook for ourselves in a drastically different way than we would ever feed other people. Thus was the idea for this delightfully entertaining book of essays by twenty-six widely varied authors. The intriguing mix includes cookbook authors such as Marcella Hazen and Paula Wolfert, and authors like Anne Patchett and Haruki Murakami. What becomes clear is that everyone takes on the task of self-feeding very differently.
Eight p.m. and stomachs all across the land are beginning to rumble. Down in the village, women are darting out to buy last-minute baguettes before the shutters on the boulangerie crash shut for the night. The men are drinking aperitifs of cold Chablis at the cafe-bar and chatting in duos and trios and quartets about why the village needs a new well. Any minute now, their coins will clink onto the counter. They'll wrap scarves around their necks and wanter their separate ways through the wood-smoke-scented air, along cobblestone streets, in the final wisps of light, toward home. And there, waiting for them in the warm glow behind the windows, will be more talk and laughter, and no doubt an enormous pot of coq au vin or boeuf bourguignonne or pot au feu, one of those mellow, classic, slowly cooked dishes, the privilege of families and intimate gatherings of loved ones.

The Lonely Palate, Laura Caulder
I remember well those days when I only had myself to cook for. I tended to have large salads as daily fare while cooking meals on the weekends that I could divvy up and freeze for later consumption. However, I came from a family where food was our religion (think French attitude living in Kansas). Most of the people I knew never cooked for themselves at all. They lived for those visits home or invitations to join friends who had families. In these days of frozen dinners, which were not nearly as good or available in the days when I was single, I fear very few will undergo the trials and pleasures which we see detailed in these varied, fascinating essays.

The funny thing is that this book arrived in the mail on the day that I have a weekly, early evening class which puts everyone in our family on their own for a meal, instead of our usual practice of sitting down together. I settled down to begin reading, pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't a recipe book but filled with essays, before my solitary meal. It was only then I realized that on my one weekly chance to have a "meal for one" I invariable take great pleasure in the same thing ... Page Whole Yogurt (Greek), drizzled with honey, a handful of walnuts, and a glass of Viognier to finish. It was the perfect beginning to a book that is about that very same thing ... whether we choose to cook, to go out, or to forage for our dinner when alone. You too may find that these essays prompt similar reflections and remembrances of your own, which simply adds to the value and enjoyment of this book.

I found the every selection delightful and this struck me as possibly the perfect summer reading for anyone who enjoys reading food writing.

I can't resist closing with a bit of the M.F.K. Fisher essay. Fisher is the penultimate essayist and food writer and this essay gives you a taste of her appeal and sense of humor.
And the kind people -- they are the ones who have made me feel the loneliest. Wherever I have lived, they have indeed been kind -- up to a certain point. They have poured cocktails for me, and praised me generously for things I have written to their liking, and showed me their children. And I have seen the discreetly drawn curtains to the family dining-rooms, so different from the uncluttered, spinsterish emptiness of my own one room. Behind the far door to the kitchen I have sensed, with the mystic materialism of a hungry woman, the presence of honest-to-God fried chops, peas and carrots, a jello salad and lemon meringue pie -- none of which I like and all of which I admire in theory and would give my eyeteeth to be offered. But the kind people always murmur, "We'd love to have you stay to supper sometime. We don't dare, of course, the simple way we eat and all."

As I leave, by myself, two nice plump kind neighbors come in. They say howdo, and then good-by with obvious relief, after a polite, respectful mention of culinary literature as represented, no matter how doubtfully, by me. They sniff the fine creeping straight forward smells in the hall and living-room with silent thanks that they are not condemned to my daily fare of quails financiere, pate de Strasbourg truffe en brioche, sole Marguery, bombe vanilla au Cointreau. They close the door on me.

I drive home by way of the corner Thriftimart to pick up another box of Ry Krisp, which with a can of tomato soup and a glass of California sherry will make a good nourishing meal for me as I sit on my tuffet in a circle of proofs and pocket detective stories.
A is for Dining Alone by M.F.K. Fisher
*All quotes are from a review copy, which was an uncorrected proof for limited distribution. Final quotes in the published hardback may differ somewhat.

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