Undaunted in Private

tumblr_inline_mgmo959C8f1qjcl1qIn 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 

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Gastronomic Purgatory

tumblr_inline_mg20doobeu1qjcl1q2013 has begun and I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to this year. Finally, I have a respite from living in a weird foodie limbo called early pregnancy. For now, at 14 weeks, the tricky times are almost past and I’m at liberty to talk about it. But fear not, I won’t bombard you with saccharine tales of how thrilling it is to have motherhood on the horizon. The truth is, the first three months suck and the daunting task of becoming a parent is met with extreme emotions that range from trepidation to tentative excitement, but mostly total and utter terror. If you’re one of the rare lucky ones not to really experience the weirdness that occurs when hormones take over your body during this time, you may have no idea what I’m talking about, and you probably deserve a slap for being so smug.

The reality for me was that I spent almost 3 months in a state of complete gastronomic disarray. My appetite ranged from non-existent to insatiable, and spent a fair portion of time afraid of food, a quality in others that normally irritates the hell out of me. As someone who spends perhaps far too much time thinking about the next meal, I now went to panic mode when it came to eating and lived completely at the whim of nausea and odd unseasonal cravings.

First, I became obsessed with tomatoes in mid-November. So much so that I had to shove aside my guilt at purchasing imported out-of-season tomatoes and avocados so I could sate an irrational desire for bruschetta and caprese salads. I drank hot chocolate obsessively. For a week all I could eat were buttered rolls with ham. Then, I became preoccupied with textures of food. During a particular week I must have eaten Mexican food about 3 or 4 times: crunchy tacos or soft burritos, with warm ground beef, cool crème fraîche and guacamole. I discovered that if you opt for vegetarian options at Chipotle or Tortilla, you got the guacamole for free – an added bonus, especially because carnitas gave me the fear.

I developed an irrational hatred of the soy sauce, MSG and cabbage odour of Asian noodle bars; the smell of which still makes me feel nauseous. I spent a lunchtime wandering aimlessly around Soho desperate to find a sausage roll, but only after eating two slices of pizza from Maletti. Most other lunchtimes I would worry about what I could eat that wouldn’t make me feel sick. I couldn’t bear the taste or smell of chicken, even the organic, free-range plump beauty I bought from the farmers’ market.

This was not okay. I had lost control of one of the things central to my being. A melodramatic response perhaps, but when I have chosen to spend my life dedicated to the pleasures of the table, I was utterly lost. Not only was I was eating things I would normally avoid like the plague, I was unable to enjoy the food I could actually eat. An undercurrent of dread and nausea infiltrated every meal, and I began to wonder if, at the crucial time I had made a career change into food, my hormones had now thwarted me permanently.

But then, in a matter of days, it vanished. Like…that. I am myself again, but with an ever-expanding belly and a hunger that is impatient and punishing. How strange it is to be tossed between these two gastronomic realities indiscriminately! The good news is, of course, that I can eat again. As I type, my collection of cooking and cookery reference books are sending me come hither looks. So bring on 2013, and let me eat my way through the next six months. And of course, pretend that Tesco sausage rolls no longer call to me.