There is a concept, championed primarily by women's magazines, that solitude is something to be ashamed of, that if you are eating alone, you should trick yourself into thinking you aren't. Upon finding yourself in this pitiable position, you're supposed to whip up a three-course meal, bring out the crystal, the china and your crisp white tablecloth and, suddenly, you are no longer by yourself, you're at . . . a festive dinner party with invisible guests.
Reading these self-help articles has always made me wonder: How does the author expect us to react to the image of this strange charade? Are we supposed to laugh at, get depressed by, or actually accept such ridiculous advice? It's easy to sympathize with those who don't want to eat by themselves. But make a bigger mess than necessary? Are they crazy? When there's no one else's palate to satisfy but your own, expediency makes presentation absurd.
Preparing time-consuming, intricate dishes for yourself is tricky business anyway. For one thing, most of us learned to cook by watching our mothers make family-sized dinners. So having never figured out how to combine ingredients in one-person-sized portions, we broil, steam and shirr as if busloads of friends were waiting hungrily outside. We should also take into account the basic mathematical law of solo dining--an equation in which ingestion occurs at five times the speed that the food took to prepare.
The only way I can get worked up over the domestic sciences is when I'm part of the communal experience, one of a bunch of friends crammed into a too-small kitchen. When there is someone else to talk to, it doesn't matter if your assignment is to grate up a white, pungent mountain of fresh horseradish or to caramelize three dozen apples for a tarte - tatin assembly line. But if the food is just for me, anything that involves more than two steps wears my patience.
Of course, sometimes I'll get this craving for kitchen smells, like the fragrance of a roasting chicken which has been rubbed with garlic and stuffed with quartered lemons and aromatic rosemary twigs. And some afternoons, in an inexplicable energy burst, I'll find myself busily chopping up vegetables to put into a soup.
Other times I associate cooking for myself with being incarcerated, with being served one of those miserable jailhouse dinner trays they shove underneath cell doors in prison movies. Worse yet, I'm a convict forced to wash her own silverware.
But not every one who lives alone can't cook. And they don't all display preferences for canned and frozen perishables.
I think all that mythologizing about bachelor chefs being no-taste numbskulls comes from stories about those spur-of the moment inventions like my friend Charlie's quick 'n' easy tuna noodle casserole (into a pot of boiling water, he throws egg fettuccine and the undrained contents of a can of albacore and lets the whole thing bubble viciously until the pasta is soft and the broth clouded with disintegrated fish).
Then there is the bachelor recipe I heard for "instant pate " made from a block of cream cheese, and, well, maybe I should stop here. I mean, who hasn't spent an enjoyable evening with a saucepan containing something that looks like the imitation tar pit from the prehistoric exhibition at the Museum of Natural History?
But for me, and for most of the bachelors I know, these gastronomic surprises aren't an everyday habit. Faced with the choice of throwing together something unsightly or eating nothing, I'll eat nothing--or more likely, I'll go out and buy a sandwich.
And, in fact, most single dwellers' cupboards are full of nice surprises. When vegetables show up in my Frigidaire, they're fresh, there for a specific purpose or not there at all. It takes a family's refrigerator to contain items at various levels of the aging process. When consumption proceeds by the fractional inch, it isn't hard to keep a bottle of imported olive oil around, or a hunk of Reggiano cheese.
As for the linen tablecloths and candlelight, why bother when you've made yourself a good, simple meal? Pampering? The way I see it, a salad would be closer akin to pampering. After all, a salad can be consumed anywhere in the house; the taste can be altered dramatically with little touches like sprigs of fresh baby dill or a dressing made with aged balsamic vinegar. And best of all, a salad dirties only one bowl.