cooking for one.
The reports of my inability to feed myself are greatly exaggerated.
the place: emily’s kitchen
characters: emily, amber, lana the dog
the date: may 5, 2016
the reason: I was very hungry and under the influence of a giant lime-a-rita that i had consumed in 20 minutes and having not eaten all day
the thing: trader joe’s fettuccine alfredo
“Cooking” this sort of thing is not hard. It’s basically warming noodles and sauce pats up in a pan, but Emily was shocked that I could put this together. When we get together, Em is the one who does the cooking. We let her, because she likes to do it. It’s her kitchen, she likes being able to control things, and she likes the act of cooking while she’s hosting someone at her house. I get it.
But Emily looked truly, truly shocked that I knew how to stir things together. Which makes sense. In the three and a half years we’ve been friends, I think the closest she’s come to see me cooking something has been heating up tater tots in the oven.
To be fair, I do keep a bowl of jellybeans next to my bed, in case I need some jellybeans in the middle of the night. (This has happened enough times that I decided to just bite the bullet and make a bedside bean bowl for my night beans.)
But please, let me shout it from the rooftops: I might not belong on Chopped, but DO NOT mistake me for someone who makes it on Worst Chefs in America.
I almost never cook for myself.
But I’ve recently realized why. It’s not a “cooking for one” problem, it’s a “dining for one” problem.
Have you ever made yourself dinner, just for you, and then sat down an eaten it with nothing else to do? Nobody with whom to converse? And then you have to clean everything up and pack up the leftovers? Still all alone?
Let me spell it out for you, if you’ve never done it. Let me spell it out for you if loneliness is something you get to choose or only deal with sporadically.
Cooking is another reminder, a crippling reminder, sometimes, that I am the only person who is going to be in my home.
I am not going to see anyone tonight, or tomorrow. I’m going to eat this stuffed pepper, and a second one tonight. And then I’m going to put the other four away, into tupperware and the fridge, to eat at later points in the week, unless they go bad first because seriously, how many times can a person eat stuffed peppers over the course of several days before they go bad?
For me, mealtime was always family time. I would be the first person at the breakfast table, reading the paper or a Baby-Sitter’s Club book or Harry Potter with my lucky charms. But at some point, my brothers would shuffle to the kitchen and make corn dogs, and my parents would come out, and though I can only think of a handful of occasions where my family sat down for breakfast, the five of us, breakfast is family.
Lunch was at school. In busy cafeterias, and multi-purpose rooms, outside in high school, or at Bagel Place on a Tuesday. Or during the summer, eating shells and cheese with Haley and Brooke and the boys.
Dinner was for family, always. As we got older and busier, sometimes it was YOYO (Terri for “You’re On Your Own” in terms of finding something to eat in the house), but generally we’d have something to eat with more than one of us sitting down.
That’s in stark contrast to how my 20s have played out thus far:
I eat breakfast every day. It’s usually something like cheese and grapes or an apple. But I eat it at my desk in the morning, checking messages and returning phone calls. Nobody else is in my office.
I eat lunch most days. Always at my desk, my coworkers sometimes conversing with each other, but me, always alone at the front. Manning the phones which ring off the hook during the lunch hour. My lunch has to be something I can eat easily in bites while on the phone, and doesn’t get cold or start to melt, because I often take 20 minute phone calls. Lunch is a sandwich, or chips. Leftovers if I’m lucky.
And then there’s dinner. I will confess I don’t eat dinner often. A couple of times a week. Dinner is hard for me, because sometimes I want to cook dinner, but I don’t want to make the effort to actually cook dinner and clean it up.
It’s not worth the effort for me to actually make something that I’m going to eat for 15 minutes while watching old episodes of New Girl. Like, what’s the point of actually doing the thing when I’m doing it alone and I’m eating it on my coffee table, mindlessly to fill time?
I eat cereal and sandwiches a lot. Easy to make a single portion and repeat if you’re still hungry.
Have you ever had to eat soup every day for a week? I have, several times. Every year, I get it in my head, midwinter, that I want to make some chicken tortilla soup. And don’t get me wrong, I love chicken tortilla soup. I do something like this, but in the crock pot.
Yeah, that makes six portions of soup. That makes an entire week’s worth of soup. I eat that soup every day because it takes up valuable space in my fridge, and until it’s gone, I can’t really make a lot else. I get so sick of that one food that I only make it once, and then I’m done for a year.
One dish that I make that I feel is “mine” is something I refer to as “amber’s pantry surprise.” Amber’s Pantry Surprise is the dish that makes up the three meals before I need to go grocery shopping for sure. The milk has expired, so there’s no chance of mac & cheese. Amber’s Pantry Surprise generally consists of:
- all the types of pasta I have leftover but don’t have enough of individually
- a can of tuna
- whatever cheese i have
- a sauce that i throw together. sometimes it’s a creamy sauce, more often than not, it’s a combination of ranch and french dressing
- red pepper flakes
Those TASTY videos you see on facebook make me angry, and frankly, I don’t like them. They aren’t easy. They aren’t quick. They are a lot more complex and often frustrating to make, especially when your prep space is like, nil. My toaster, paper towel holder, and recipe box take up about half of the prep space in my kitchen.
The Atlantic published an article last fall that really resonated with me about cooking.
Food editors are, for the record, acutely aware that their (mostly female) readers want sophisticated meals but feel that the complex recipes offered by chefs are incompatible with their harried lifestyles. So, they make efforts to simplify and streamline, without ever admitting the one thing that cooks really need to hear: that real “easy” cooking, if that’s what you’re after, is far too simple to sustain a magazine and cookbook industry. It relies on foods that can be purchased at a single point of sale and involves a bare minimum of ingredients and a small repertoire of techniques. It leans heavily on things your mom taught you. There are no garnishes of thyme leaves in simple weeknight dinners, and no appetizer salads. Homemade breakfast smoothies are many things, but they are not an “easy” alternative to one of those squeezable yogurt things that you can eat with no hands in the car.
I talked about how Pinterest was ruining America at some point last week, and I stand by that. It’s also ruins food. Or at least the way we cook it. Or the way modern pinterest society wants you to cook. I give you, from Happy Endings season one, the cold open to Mein Coming Out:
Though this was embellished for dramatic effect, I kind of see it in my own life: Jane made an elaborate brunch for her friends, because she wanted to. Dave, especially, is impressed, but when Jane breaks it down for them, trying to brush it off, only to realize how truly insane this task was.
For candied walnuts.
What Jane needed to do was take a page out of Chrissy Teigen’s book.
Chrissy and Pepper use pre-sliced beef and a pre-made veggie tray and a crock pot. Like you would at home, like people. That’s what I need to see more of, not most of the so-called easy recipes I see on the internet. (Though I will give a shout-out to Jenny Mayants: I make these mini quich-things a couple of times a month.)
All the love and the same tastes, but without too much effort.
The way we talk about food makes me angry like almost nothing else in the universe.
I am made to feel very small when women walk in to my office, early for their appointments, and make comments about the merkts cheese I’m smearing onto my bagel chips during my lunch.
And so what? I eat hot dogs, and almost all of my vegetables are canned or frozen, and the only time I buy organic is when I do it on accident.
I have felt like garbage when other people, multiple people, talk about foods like Hamburger Helper, because that was a staple growing up. Fuck you. You don’t get to judge the way someone else feeds their family. The chipped beef on toast that I ate, or the spaghetti-o/macaroni and cheese combo may have not been the most nutritious food, but it didn’t matter, because it was secondary to the time I spent with my family.
Generally, my dinners are sandwiches, cereal, steam-packaged frozen dinners, pizza, and more delivery than I’m honestly proud of.
But the reason that I don’t scratch-cook frequently, the reason that I think most people who cook for one are in similar situations, is because the emotional component behind cooking meals is often too hard to bear when you’re doing it alone.
There is truth to the adage, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
I am done apologizing for feeling bad about the way that I eat. I live alone, I eat alone, and that’s just the way that it is.