I wait tables in a restaurant at the hub of Portland’s foodie culture, an industrial-chic destination spot where the chairs are hard and the food is fresh, local, and very fine, but not in a traditional “fine dining” way. There are no starched white shirts or black pants; it’s all about the food. We’ve cultivated relationships with the people who grow and tend what we serve, and taken field trips to their farms, vineyards, and slaughterhouses.
To risk sounding like I have an altar to Alice Waters in the corner of my bedroom, I truly believe that a meal is the culmination of an entire journey, from birth to death to table. It’s a journey that includes, and is colored by, every person involved — not least, the person who eats it.
But tonight, late, alone in my clean, white, and rarely cooked-in kitchen, I’m eating cold refried beans out of the can. And it’s not the first time.
At the restaurant, the staff is fed incredibly well. At the end of a shift, the chef piles the carving table high with the surplus of our daily-changing menu. Tonight, for example, there was creamy Anson Mills polenta; mesquite-grilled, locally-raised lamb; bulls blood beets with gremolata; black cod with prosecco butter; garlicky escarole; and braised fennel.
We sit at a long wooden table to eat, drink, talk, and do our paperwork. Some of us have worked together for years. This communion sometimes takes on a heightened significance, the way eating with family can remind us of the thousands of times we’ve come together in the same way.
But tonight I didn’t eat anything. My paperwork was snarled and frustrating, and I’d had a customer so determined to be and stay unhappy that I was now unhappy as well, and all I wanted was a glass of wine. Okay, two glasses of wine.
And hours later, I’m hungry and alone. Though the edge of my temporary unhappiness has been dulled by wine, my dinner options are revealed by the cold, yellow refrigerator light: wilted lettuce, aging eggs, a vast number of condiments, and a bottle of cold-pressed flaxseed oil.
Sinclair, my fat, aging black cat, is sprawled across the piles of books and papers on my kitchen table, and I watch him stretch, carefully knock two books off the table, and then act startled. I laugh as I’m supposed to, then open the cupboard, the contents of which seem odd and inexplicable. Why do I have so many cans of creamed corn? Why do I have so many baking supplies when I haven’t used my oven in over a year?
And then I see a can of Rosarita’s vegetarian refried beans, nearly hidden behind the whey powder. At the sound of the can opener, Sinclair jumps off the table and weaves around my ankles. I let him sniff the beans’ slick surface; he turns away. “I know. It’s completely disgusting,” I tell him, fishing a spoon out of the drawer.
Years ago I read an article in a women’s magazine that said self-care for singles should include a sumptuous meal made for you and only you, eaten on a table cleared of papers and letters and cats and set with a placemat, a matching napkin, and a spray of bluebonnets in a vase. I don’t remember which magazine it was, but I very well remember thinking, “That’s a perfectly lovely idea that’s never, ever going to happen.” (And furthermore, why not a more easily procured flower, like a rose or a tulip?)
But what was being espoused, of course, was the notion that you are valuable, you alone, and that beautiful, carefully prepared food is just as important for a table of one as a table of 20.
And I agreed, in theory. But in practice, eating alone feels wrong. I’m so accustomed to eating with people, and serving people who are eating with people, that the social aspect of it seems inextricable from any other step on that journey from farm to table. Without the shared appreciation, a meal might as well not exist, like a book with no one to read it except the author.
And as I lean against the edge of the counter, eating my refried beans as quickly as I can to avoid really tasting them, I feel a rush of shame as I remember the very particular woman who ate alone at the restaurant three or four nights a week for nearly six months.
She was an immediate irritation to the staff. The first time she dined with us, she showed up six minutes before the kitchen closed and stood at the host stand impatiently, arms crossed in front of her chest. Her bare, unlined face suggested youth, but her floor-length skirt and sensible cardigan did not. I was disheartened; a single diner always means a lower check, and she definitely didn’t look like a drinker. And I’d thought my night was nearly over.
Single diners can be awkward. Some are lonely and want a lot of attention; some are nervous, embarrassed to be eating alone, and their discomfort is contagious. 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. Serving the single diner I feel like a voyeur, and also guilty if I wonder why he or she is alone. After all, why is anyone alone, finally?
But this woman didn’t seem lonely, nor did she want to be engaged. She simply wanted things exactly the way she wanted them. After I gave her one of the small flashlights we offer all our customers (our restaurant is known for its rather intimate darkness), she demanded that I give her some of the votive candles off neighboring tables. Satisfied only after 10 brightly burning candles illuminated her surroundings, she ordered room-temperature mineral water, and then promptly returned her glass because it smelled of detergent. Her precision was strange and sort of gorgeous, and I was a little in awe of her as I brought her a new, non-smelling glass.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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