“I came to believe that since nobody else dared feed me as I wished to be fed, I must do it myself, and with as much aplomb as I could muster. Enough of hit-or-miss suppers of tinned soup and boxed biscuits and an occasional egg just because I had failed once more to rate an invitation!”
“Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.”
That is M.F.K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin, respectively, on the importance of cooking for yourself.
When I began to cook for myself, I lived mostly on pasta with jarred sauce. I told my mother what I was eating, and she covered her eyes with her hands and said, “Oh no.”
But I came by my fondness for jarred marinara sauce on stale pasta honestly; it was what my mother served my father to woo him. At the time she had thought the dish cosmopolitan: the pasta was, glamorously, shell-shaped, unlike the prosaic tubular spaghetti she cooked for herself.
My father, just back from a year eating in the student cafés of Paris, was horrified. To save my mother from her own cooking, he fell in love with her. He taught her how to cook French food, and then together they taught themselves how to stir-fry, to cook curries, to simmer meatballs in rich, thick fresh tomato sauce. And so they raised me on nightly family dinners, well balanced and homemade.
But pasta with bottled sauce was in my blood, and when I left my parents’ house and the dormitory cafeteria behind, it was what I turned to.
My mother begged me to buy a cookbook and learn to cook, and that is how I found myself with a library of books about cooking for one.
I did not, in fact, live alone. I lived with a friend, a biology major who spent most of her time in the lab and crept home in the wee hours of the morning to eat Chinese takeout. I did my English major reading in bed, under the covers, and ate dinner before nine every night. I did not know the pleasures of cooking for one. I did not know what I could do with an eggplant, either alone or with company. I bought the books and asked them to teach me their secrets.
Cooking for one, the books informed me, was a matter of self-respect. Didn’t I value myself as a person? Didn’t I respect myself too much to feed myself the same bland, flat-tasting pap every night? (Certain authors will admit to eating cold beans out of the can, standing over the sink. These authors always vow repentance: they will do better, they will at the very least sauté the beans with onions and eat them over hot rice, perhaps with shredded cheese.) Judith Jones, the legendary cookbook editor who discovered Julia Child, has so much self-respect that she regularly makes herself personal soufflés. She does not, you understand, make one large soufflé and dine off the deflating remnants for a week. Not she. She dusts off a personal soufflé dish, fluted, 2¾ inches high and 4 inches in diameter, and creates a single perfect serving of soufflé. This she consumes with, presumably, a fierce and unshakeable belief in her own worth as both a person and a woman.
I was taking a gender studies class and writing a number of very earnest papers about how the personal is political. I minced some garlic and made my own tomato sauce. It tasted shockingly bright after months of jarred sauce with too much sugar in it, and I felt, eating it, as glamorous as my mother had when she boiled her shell pasta.
On the other hand: cooking alone, I learned from the books, is a matter of self-indulgence. In What We Eat When We Eat Alone, Deborah Madison writes that foods for one are “very personal foods, that special category of edibles that are tailored by oneself for oneself, and they are not easily shared. They’re the foods that work for one individual in a deep and maybe even psychological way.” She describes mustard sandwiches, oyster crackers crumbled into coffee, and my favorite: “Wonder Bread, flattened, covered with butter and sugar, then frozen briefly, so it becomes a kind of sugar cookie.” I am glad she does not describe the person who dines on Wonder Bread sugar cookies—it is so personal a food, so intimate, that I am certain that if I knew anything else about the Wonder Bread eater I would see into their very soul and know all their darkest and most Freudian secrets.
Regression was all very well, but not what I was looking for. I was twenty-one and feeling sophisticated in my own apartment with my college life; I did not want to regress to the things I cooked when I had a night alone in high school (peanut butter sandwiches, mostly, or boxed macaroni mixed with frozen peas). But self-indulgence, the books informed me, does not have to mean regression. M.F.K. Fisher believed in eating both simply and snobbishly: she ate scrambled eggs when alone, but wrote, “I grew deliberately fastidious about eggs and butter: the biggest, brownest eggs were none too good, nor could any butter be too clover-sweet and fresh.” And Laurie Colwin spent her nights alone eating eggplant, fried crisp and then stewed with “garlic, tamari sauce, lemon juice and some shredded red peppers.”
That was no elaborate soufflé, but it wasn’t frozen sugared Wonder Bread either. I could cook the eggplant in between pages of Paradise Lost, and eat the fresh scrambled eggs between paragraphs of close analysis of Durkheim. And it was proper adult food. You could tell by the pile of dishes it produced: the frying pan glazed with dried egg remnants, the cutting board coated with eggplant seeds and pepper trimmings. Cooking food that produced dishes was something that adults did. It meant you respected yourself enough to treat yourself like an adult.
Now I’m out of school. I live with a vegan and refuse to give up my animal products, so I still mostly cook for myself. On nights when I come home tired and broke, I still sometimes turn to pasta and jarred sauce. But most nights I remember the books and I make myself take out a pan.
Well. I still mostly turn to pasta. But as an adult I have discovered a fondness for the greens I hated as a child. My mother liked them barely cooked, just wilted a little in the pan so that they crunched between your teeth and released a stream of acrid juices on your tongue. I believed they were poisonous and refused to eat them, but the books taught me to cook them slowly and gently, with plenty of olive oil and alliums, and to toss them with some form of carbohydrates at the end to cut the bitterness. Now it is what I eat when I am cooking for myself and feeling like a grown up.
Pasta for a Grown-Ass Lady:
First slice an onion thin and sweat it in good olive oil. Mince a few cloves of garlic and throw them in with the onion. While the alliums slowly begin to turn translucent, grab yourself a bunch of greens. I am fond of kale, but I will admit that this is very Brooklyn of me; use spinach or collards or something else if you want. You do you. Trim off the stems and discard them, and when the alliums smell like they’re about halfway done cooking, throw the greens in with them. Drizzle a little more olive oil on top and sprinkle on some salt.
In the meantime, get a pot of salted water boiling and throw in some pasta. I think whole-wheat spaghetti is best at standing up to the assertive flavors of the greens, but what have we learned from all this? You do you.
If you want, you can add some protein to the greens now. This is not the place for chicken or tofu: you want something salty and oily to cut through the bitter. A can of tuna, maybe, or pancetta if you’re feeling fancy. Vegetarians in the room can use chickpeas. Just chuck it on top of the greens and give it a stir. The greens are done when they are a color that gratifies your eye and when the corner of a leaf produces a pleasing texture when crushed between your teeth. I like my kale cooked down into submission, so for me that’s fifteen minutes of slow heat.
Drain the pasta and toss it with the greens. If you think they need some more moisture you can add a bit of the pasta water, but I never do. Shower the whole thing with Parmesan and freshly ground pepper. (Yes, vegans, you can use your godforsaken nutritional yeast if you must.)
Consume with a fierce and unshakeable belief in your own worth as a person.