In A is for Dining Alone (An Alphabet for Gourmets), Fisher writes that there are few with whom she would “care to pray, sleep, dance, sing, and (perhaps most of all, except sleep) share [her] bread and wine.” How true. And yet, the likelihood is that unless your “One” is there to sit and eat with you, silently or not, the prospect of dining alone is one of the few things that can unsettle a body preparing to sit down for a meal. Enforced solitude during mealtimes often leads to setting oneself in front of a television, and watching something mindless whilst mechanically putting unimaginative food into one’s mouth. Of course we are all guilty of this; is there nothing better than a total switching off of mind and body?
Yet choosing to sit at one’s table and quietly eat a thoughtfully prepared solitary meal can be far more valuable. I have heard people say that spending time eating alone can be either a calming respite or a dark pit of loneliness. In younger years, I admit it filled me with dread. But more and more I am beginning to understand why Fisher adapted Hemingway’s old adage “never be daunted in public” to “never be daunted in private” when it came to dining alone.
Since I became a properly self-employed and (penniless) writer, dining alone during the day is now more or less a regular activity for me. In the beginning, I would sit on the sofa watching some crap TV on my laptop whilst wolfing down a bowl of cereal for breakfast. In 10 minutes I’d be finished. Just filling a hole; thoughtlessly performing a perfunctory action. I did all this whilst, for once, having the precious time to make something real.
I began to make an effort. A couple strips of crisp streaky bacon, a wobbly egg fried in a little leftover bacon fat, with a sliced tomato, lightly sprinkled with salt, complete with a cup of tea. Or maybe a tranche of homemade banana bread, coffee and some sliced fruit. I sit in my dining room, next to the window where I can see the towers of Brixton Prison and our overgrown back garden, and I eat in contented silence, alone with my own thoughts quietly meandering through my brain. It is wonderful, this kind of solitude. It is not lonely; in truth, it is meditative.
Fisher preferred to dine with herself rather than with “hit-or-miss congeniality” and I darest say that I don’t blame her. As a writer in Hollywood, there must have been many dull and superficial dining companions available to her. London is not much different. I am sure there are many versions of shallow and sycophantic dinner conversations occurring nightly at the many restaurants dotted around town. It is true that eating with others, or just your “One”, can be nourishment for the mind, body and spirit, but faced with the possibility of a facile and weak counterpart for dinner surely suggests that one’s own company is probably the best bet.
In an article in The Guardian in April 2012, Diane Shipley asks what’s the problem with eating solo. She says, “Surely it’s more tragic to spend time with someone just because you can’t face being alone than to chew a caesar salad on your lonesome?” I can’t think of a better way to put it. For those that dine alone regularly, do not be disheartened by it. Treat it as an opportunity to enjoy your own thoughts or a good book, but never the TV. Whether you stay in to eat or dine out alone, avoid feeling as if you are missing out on something better, because in reality, you probably aren’t.
Photo: “Table for One Scene from Anna Karenina”. Image courtesy of Jennie Ottinger