Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

The lonesome palate

Or, a cook’s guide to solitude

May 1, 2009

For my co-op’s annual meeting, I put together a slide show of photographs taken by the WPA in the 1930s and quotations from two books: How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher, and The Great Crash, by John Kenneth Galbraith. (From these choices, you can easily see what’s been on my mind for the past six months.)

A point Fisher makes in How to Cook a Wolf has stayed with me: Eating alone makes food less tasty. She writes, “When you are really hungry, a meal eaten by yourself is not so much an event as the automatic carrying out of a function: You must do it to live. But when you share it with another human or two, or even a respected animal, it becomes dignified.”

In 1930s America, the dignity of sharing was sometimes hard to see, because sharing was the condition of survival. What Fisher is saying is that sharing is always the condition of survival, whether we notice it or not.

Fisher’s observation reminds me of the hundreds of articles about eating alone that have been published in women’s magazines since the late 1960s (a.k.a. the Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda era).

Peanut butter for dinner?

You know the advice: Don’t eat over the sink. Set a pretty place. Take time to savor your repast.

These directives try to replenish a depleted dignity. If you can’t enjoy the admiration of others, the magazine logic goes, you can at least look like you do.

I’m thinking about all this because my husband has been engaged in the maple-syruping frenzy that breaks up our household for a month or so each year. In his absence, I have come to realize as much as sharing dog-walking duties and propping up my towering ego, my husband is an audience for me and my magic kitchen.

So when I find myself alone in the kitchen, I oscillate between cooking odd and elaborate meals (fish tacos with half a dozen homemade condiments; chicken and asparagus fussily arranged en croûte) and eating toast and cereal thrice daily.

It’s hard to own up to the idea that I cook for my husband — the old, troublesome feminine servitude. However, to the extent that eating is a socially determined act, cooking is likewise an expression of relationships and shifting identities. And though it’s clear to me that I cook for my mate because he is a beloved person, it’s clear that this, too, is a form of dependence.

So the recent college graduate (perhaps recently broken up with a person once thought of as “The One”) lingers over the pages of magazine X with its images of pansy-laden salads arranged on Limoges china, summoning a world of beauty, comfort, and certainty. She doesn’t yet know how she’ll fill her cupboards or her lover’s stomach. But she can dream.

And I look in the darkened kitchen window above my sink with a peanut-butter pop (a big spoonful of peanut butter, for those who haven’t indulged) clamped between my lips and chuckle, because I know that my house will be full of eaters when the trees begin to bud. I think about people who cook and eat alone every day and wonder how my habits would change if I lived alone.

My dramatic culinary mood swings indicate something odd would happen. I would mutate into a woman who eats ortolan in rubber gloves over the sink.

Never having been the type of person who could read a book in a restaurant without feeling self-conscious, I solved my dilemma by finding a surrogate eater. An unmarried friend took up my offer of cooking lessons, which he laughingly refers to as “Sustainability 101.”

Begun with a discussion about vegetables rotting in the refrigerator, these meals are evolving into buddy-cooking, a way of learning what to do with the massive rubbery head of red cabbage that parks in the fridge for six weeks or the parsley that looks tired as soon as you bring it home from the store.

Simply seeing in print that I recruited someone to cook for kills me a little. But it’s true. And I feel grateful to have friends who put up with these sorts of idiosyncrasies.

My experiment with a cooking buddy helped me see something that M.F.K. Fisher easily understood: The narrowness of our ideas about relationships can sap our food of its flavor.

After all, Mary Frances included “a respected animal” among her possible dining companions. My cooking buddy is definitely a respected animal, and my husband (recently returned from the woods, hooray!) is, too.

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1. by DawnHeather Simmons on May 2, 2009 at 7:31 PM PDT

As a person who is single, and has been for many, many years, my only meal companion is generally my cat. The rest of my family is gone, and I haven’t lived here long enough to have made a lot of friends, yet. I don’t even own a table to sit at, so I don’t set a table for myself, and I do often read while eating. I go back and forth between creating involved, complicated meals, or having the very same quick thing for days on end... I might make a batch of chili or soup, and eat nothing but that until it’s gone. Or, sometimes, I live on canned refried beans and canned green chilis and maybe some fried eggs! I love to cook, but sometimes bore myself with my own cooking! I enjoy eating alone in restaurants, but am even happier staying in hotels where I can call room service and eat on the bed -- like at home! There are times that I think I must be pretty pathetic to live like this. But there are also times when it’s just how I live, and it “ain’t no big thing.” Mostly I don’t think about it a whole lot. Obviously you have thought about it, and written about it very well! Thank you!

2. by joanmenefee on May 5, 2009 at 1:02 PM PDT

Hi DawnHeather--I guess the new Madison book reminds us how habits and almost unquestionable practices dot our lives. I love that sort of questioning, though the answers I come to aren’t exactly definitive. I have noticed recently how some cooks need feedback on their work. I usually squelch the desire to know what people think of what I have cooked. But it’s there.

That’s why your acknowledgement of your cooking ways is interesting. I haven’t eaten in bed for years and years; it was interesting to think about why. I also cook in waves as you describe, but I feel like half the things I freeze I just forget, partially because I have grown tired of them.

Anyway, thanks for responding to the blog. It’s excellent to hear what people about thoughts that have just been rattling in my head. That’s one of the noblest ends of writing, I suppose.

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