Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

One of my favorite places in my little town is the used bookstore, Brused Books (intentionally misspelled, which used to drive me mad but I now find it charming–if it were “Bruised” it wouldn’t have the word “used” in the name). Every once in a while, I wander in and browse the shelves, looking for nothing in particular, and leave with as many books as I can carry up the steep, mile-long hill that leads back to my apartment. Here, I’ve found quite a treasure trove of books I never would have known existed, which now populate my bookshelves. Most recently, in the cookbook section, I stumbled across Jenni Ferrari-Adler’s Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone.

The title appealed–I’m always interested in food writing and this was an angle I hadn’t seen before outside a few entirely utilitarian cookbooks. I liked the reassembled eggplant on the cover, and there’s something about deep purples that attracts me, though I wouldn’t name it as one of my favorite colors. It was like this book was marketed toward me. Of course, I’d never heard of Jenni Ferrari-Adler, but I had heard of Steve Almond, Dan Chaon, Nora Ephron, M.F.K. Fisher, Marcella Hazan, Amanda Hesser, Haruki Murakami, and Ann Patchett–just a few of the book’s contributors. So, along with a cookbook by Dinah Shore that I most certainly didn’t need but couldn’t resist, the book went home with me.

You might think that the topic of cooking and eating alone would be a little one-note, that the essays would tend to agree with and repeat each other, especially since the contributors are all writers by trade, whether they specialize in fiction or nonfiction, whether or not food is a major focus of their work. It is true that a lot of the essays focus on the importance of valuing oneself enough to either prepare oneself a decent meal or go out in public and eat one alone–a few of the essays get a little self-helpy. Many discuss the secret pleasures of eating when no one is watching, and the strange food choices they make without anyone else to see. There’s a lot of fear associated with eating alone that surprised me. Laura Calder expresses disbelief in her essay, “The Lonely Palate,” that anyone could ever experience the amount of pleasure in eating alone that many of the other essays in the book espouse:

If eating alone were truly the juicy experience some describe, there would be restaurants in the red-light districts full of plate-sized tables in curtained-off booths. Travelers would rave about the thrills of eating on airplanes, that peculiar form of solo dining, miraculously planned for a crowd, where everyone faces front like a brigade and nibbles silently off the world’s only tables designed for one. On the other hand, since eating alone at least sometimes is a fact of life, I can understand wanting to make the best of it. And perhaps even exaggerating  how good it all was, after the fact: it sometimes takes that in life to convince ourselves we had fun.

But not all the essays in the book concern themselves with whether eating alone is positive or negative for humanity as a whole. My favorite pieces are by fiction writers–not surprising, since I write fiction–especially Haruki Murakami’s “The Year of Spaghetti,” which is the only short story in the entire book. Other highlights include Laura Dave’s “How to Cook in a New York Apartment” and Steve Almond’s “Que Sera Sarito: An (Almost) Foolproof Plan to Never Eat Alone Again.”  Almond’s is by far my favorite essay in the book, a voice-driven and somewhat anecdotal piece about making his famous grill-curried shrimp quesarito with avocado raita for visitors (“To which they will respond, ‘A what-what-what with what?‘ allowing me the unrivaled pleasure of repeating myself, this time in italics: ‘A grill-curried shrimp quesarito with avocado raita.'”). A favorite excerpt:

It is certainly true that cooking is therapeutic, creative, and all those other faintly creepy self-helpish words. I would love to tell you that learning to cook was part of my journey toward actualization. I would love to tell Oprah this. I would love to tell Oprah this while weeping. But I learned to cook for a much simpler reason: in the abject hope that people would spend time with me if I put good things in their mouths. It is, in other words (like practically everything else I do), a function of my desperation for emotional connection and acclaim.

I could probably quote the entire essay here if it wouldn’t be breaking copyright law. (Copyright police, if you’re reading this, I’m quoting in order to promote the book, which I doubt the authors/editor could object to.) But the actual essays in the book, the subject matter, the sort of voyeurism that this type of essay provides for those who would like to snoop in other people’s kitchens–these are only part of my interest in this book. I’m also deeply fascinated with how this book came to be.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation that made you think, I wish I had a book of essays to read on this topic? Jenni Ferrari-Adler did. While she was an MFA student, actually, pursuing her fiction degree at the University of Michigan (that’s her, on the right, as she appears in her author’s picture). She was living alone for the very first time, having her first experiences with cooking alone, and she wished she had something to read on the subject, something so she wouldn’t feel so at sea. “I wanted someone to create this book so I could have a copy,” she says in the book’s introduction. “I imagined it as a friendly presence in my kitchen for those nights when I cooked for myself.” She told her long-distance boyfriend about this, who happened to be working for a publisher in New York, and soon she was proposing a collection to a publisher, and by the beginning of the next school year, her inbox was flooding with solicited essays from writers like Ann Patchett and permissions for the few essays she knew were already written by writers like M.F.K. Fisher. She did this while she was pursuing her MFA. Which I have to say, absolutely impresses me. It makes me want to get off my butt and figure out what book I wish existed so I could buy a copy, and then to find it really doesn’t exist (because if it does, I get a book, but I don’t get a project), and put it together myself.

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  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Laura, you always make me want to read the books you write about. That seems kind of amazing.

  • Melissa says:

    What a cool find, Laura. I already love Steve Almond’s writing, so I’m sure I’d love his essay, but I’m also glad you specified that not all the essays are about eating alone versus not eating alone. I’ve always found that such a strange thing to be afraid of (and I think most people are afraid of it, to varying degrees). I love going out to eat alone. It’s kind of amazing. And often interesting/hilarious/depressing how people treat you differently when you do. I’d be interested to read the rest of Calder’s essay to see what else she says on the subject. Again, cool find.

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