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July 22, 2007|Jim Ruland

Alone in the Kitchen With

an Eggplant

Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone

Edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler

Riverhead Books: 272 pp., $22.95

WHAT do you do when the fridge is full but there's no one but yourself to cook for? "Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant" explores this tantalizing question in 26 sharply written essays penned by food critics and couch potatoes alike. But what makes this book so arresting is not its rigorous examination of ratatouille recipes, but the clever way it arrives at the issue of how people deal with being alone.

The solitary cooks presented in this anthology fall into two categories: the starving student and artist types, and the persnickety: foodies with pantries stocked with pâtés and bottarga. The microwave oven, the only appliance the vegetable-averse require, is oddly absent here. Was there no one to champion the path of leaf resistance?

In any case, Beverly Lowry, in her revealing essay "Making Soup in Buffalo," gets it exactly right. "We all have our eccentricities. Alone, we indulge." One suspects Lowry's not just talking about mixing the chocolate with the peanut butter; she writes like someone on intimate terms with regret: "Breakfast starts the day; maybe by eating breakfast food at all hours, I was hoping to affect a new one."

Indeed, Amanda Hesser sees the apron as a kind of badge of honor: "I would force myself to cook to fortify my independence." But if midnight omelets make one a rebel, what are we to make of those who dine out alone?

Rattawut Lapcharoensap reminisces about the place that instilled our fear of dining solo: the high school cafeteria. "[S]he eats alone because she is abject and she is abject because she eats alone. But the tragedy is not eating alone as such -- it's the transformation of the very meaning of eating itself, from a nourishing, comforting, and familial activity to one that is cold, pathological, and solipsistic." If that doesn't send you screaming to your therapist, Erin Ergenbright tells us exactly what goes through your server's head when you dine alone: "It's hard for me not to create a story around a single diner, as eating alone in a restaurant is an uncomfortable intersection between the public and the private

After all, why is anyone alone, finally?"

Why, indeed. When we look at Edward Hopper's painting "Nighthawks," we don't wonder what they're eating, but how they got there. It's a masterpiece of the "uncomfortable intersection between the public and the private" because it screams for the kind of context that "Alone in the Kitchen" provides.

Solitary diners, the authors make clear, are different creatures from solitary cooks. It's not just food they crave, but the company of others, albeit from an uneasy remove; otherwise, they'd be sitting on the sofa eating cracker crumbs and Easy Cheese. In the end, there is no one recipe for solitude. The act of eating by oneself isn't always the antithesis of communion; sometimes nostalgia is a dish best served solo. •

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