3. Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: An Examination

This is the title of the third chapter of Home Cooking and it is, for many Colwin fans, a sacred text. There is even a collection of food essays that uses this as its title. I myself, having gone firmly on record as someone who’s not a big fan of cooking with eggplant, always read this essay with pleasure, but not much in the way of, let’s say, personal identification, when it comes to the actual eggplants.

However, the real point of the essay is not eggplant cookery, but rather, cooking for one. Solo cookery. The Food of the Unattached. Single Girl (or Guy, or Gender Fluid Person) Cookery. And this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

Colwin writes a lovely description of the apartment she lived in as a young woman and there’s much discussion of the awkwardness of her kitchen facilities, since there basically weren’t any. She had a hotplate with two burners. From what I can gather, that was pretty much it. As you can imagine, I, the resident of an awkward little apartment myself at the time I first read this book, found this situation very easy to identify with. Colwin wrote with great love and affection for this little apartment and I too often think of my little apartment across the street from Mamoun’s with love and affection. I even remember the cockroach situation as not so bad (though it was pretty fucking bad, I mean, like, cockroaches crawling in your hair while you sleep bad) (ok, that only happened once, so far as I can recall) (thank god).
As far as not having a real oven/stove goes, I was definitely in better shape than Colwin was; I took to my little oven and got pretty good at making basic pizzas, which I liked because one pizza could equal one dinner and two lunches to take to work in the following days. Colwin’s lack of oven meant that she turned to making soup, a form of food I want only very occasionally. The other thing I cooked for myself all the time, as a single girl, was spaghetti, with some vegetable mess mixed in as a sauce. This is something Colwin could theoretically have done, with only two burners, but as she explains, she was limited not only by the stove/oven situation but by the fact that she lacked a kitchen sink, and all water-related enterprises involved her bathtub. “Spaghetti is a snap to cook, but it is a lot snappier if you have a kitchen. I of course did not. It is very simple to drain the spaghetti into a colander in your kitchen sink, dump it into a hot dish and sauce it at once. Since I had no kitchen sink, I had to put the colander in my bathtub; my bathroom sink was too small to accommodate it.”

You kind of hope she scrubbed out the bathtub before she drained the spaghetti — which, in this anecdote, she was about to serve to her boss and his snooty-sounding wife — but let’s let sleeping dogs lie.

Colwin posits that the eggplant is the stovetop cook’s strongest ally — that is a direct quote — and I suppose it might be but I remain unconvinced. To me, there are so many things that can go wrong with eggplant that despite its being inexpensive and nutritious and culinarily flexible and so many good things, I’d rather skip it. But that’s okay! For Colwin, eggplant was her fallback, and she clearly did a good job of it, and writes descriptions of eggplant dishes that make me think, “well, that probably is good, but still….” I think the truth is that everyone develops their own “alone in a kitchen with a ____” repertoire, if they live alone and cook for themselves.

In my own case, I defaulted to onions, garlic, and zucchini. I made a thousand pots of pasta and on this pasta I would dump sautéed onions, garlic, and zucchini, sometimes with red pepper flakes and sometimes not, always served with grated Parmesan on it. I would assemble this using one stock pot, one sauté pan, and then eat it out of one of my mixing bowls. As with pizzas, any leftovers were stowed away to carry to work to eat at lunchtime. On nights when I could not bear to dirty the sauté pan because it would mean there were two pots to wash, I would mix up eggs with a little oil and dump that on cooked pasta; the eggs, once tossed into the pasta, sauced the noodles. This was very comforting food, cost very little, and the cleanup was no problem. Sometimes if I felt I needed to pretend I was eating healthy, I would boil some peas with the pasta. This was always served with lots of grated cheese on top, and it was my real bottom of the barrel meal — the thing I made when I just could not deal.

When I moved in with the person I eventually married, I learned that these sorts of pasta dishes were not really what he felt were proper food. Furthermore we had to come to terms with an even bigger problem for me: he was not someone who would eat pasta every single night (which I definitely was). I had to learn how to cook other things like, say, rice. Potatoes. I had to learn how to make two different dishes at the same time, because otherwise there would be domestic unhappiness (and it sounds like sexist nonsense that I was the one who had to learn to cook this way, but at the time, I worked a lot fewer hours than he did so it only made sense). Sometimes I could serve my pasta things as a side dish — if there was a nice roast chicken, or a meatloaf, also on the table — but the idea of spaghetti as dinner fell away. I relished nights when my other half had plans in the evenings, because it meant I could return to my old habits and have what I called Long Spaghetti Night. On Long Spaghetti Night, I could be as energetic or lazy as I felt like being, and I could make a box of spaghetti and put whatever I damned wanted on it, without anyone furrowing their brows at me.

Years later, my daughter came along. Eventually, when she began to eat real food with a fork, I shared my Long Spaghetti Nights with her. My daughter loved noodles and cheese and eggs and peas, it turned out — she asks for it still. If she does this within earshot of her father, he might attempt to hide his disgusted eye-roll.  Another dish I used to make for myself all the time, which is borne out of a later essay in Home Cooking, is her idea of perfect comfort food. (We’ll talk about it later, ok?) I molded her “alone in the kitchen with an ____” mindset after my own, which may come to bite my on the ass some day, but we’re not there yet. For which I am grateful.

The real point of Colwin’s piece, and, it follows, this that you’re reading now, is: When we cook for ourselves, our true idiosyncrasies float to the surface like algae on a pond.

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’re alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, their confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam. 

I’ve long believed, by the way, that Colwin must have been a friend of Mary Rodgers, or at least been a fan of the book Freaky Friday, because in that book, there’s a character named Ape Face who likes putting grape jelly on spaghetti. These are the only two times I’ve ever heard anyone talk about doing such a thing. There must be a connection.

I think Colwin’s right, and that if there are people who dine alone on some virtuous prim little salad, they must be very very sad people indeed. My husband would say, “Who are you to judge if someone wants to eat a salad for dinner?” I’m the Hausfrau, is my response, and I’m here to judge. If someone’s idea of a salad for dinner is a huge Greek salad with a lot of oil and vinegar and feta, I can sort of understand it. Once a year or so, in very hot weather, even I think a massive, soggy Greek salad is an excellent idea. But you know that when someone says, smugly, “A salad,” they mean some spare thing created with health in mind. Or at least that’s what they want you to think. Never mind if they’re actually eating, like, an entire head of iceberg lettuce (world’s most underrated lettuce, by the way) with a bottle of Wishbone Blue Cheese Dressing poured over it. They want you to think they’re being reasonable, responsible people, eating healthy. And if they actually are, well: How is it that even when they’re alone, they cannot bear to actually enjoy what they’re eating? Don’t tell me “But I like salad!” No one likes salad that much — no one I’d want to hang out with anyhow.

I mean, if you can’t revel in what you really like when literally no one else is watching, what hope is there for you to enjoy anything?

It’s just so fucking sad. If what you want is spaghetti with butter and grape jelly, for god’s sake, once in a while, eat the spaghetti with butter and grape jelly. No one is suggesting you live on that. But once in a while, seriously, it won’t kill you.

MFK Fisher and, by now, countless other food writers have extolled the joys and virtues of dining alone. It’s not something to be blue about. (I mean, if you are sad about it because you’re lonely, that’s one thing, and an entirely different topic; I just mean to say, there’s nothing intrinsically awful or shameful about dining alone.) It’s really, if you ask me, quite the opposite. Dining alone means you can pound down, with abandon, the food you really like. It means you can put together the flavors you adore that no one else you know think even remotely palatable. And, if you’re like the Hausfrau before she was the Hausfrau, and  the young Laurie Colwin, you can do it in relative comfort, feeling cozy about it, sitting in your rocking chair in front of the TV with your feet up on the coffee table that’s actually your old camp trunk covered with a blanket, with no one to criticize you, no one to make fun of you, no one to say, “That is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen anyone eat.” It means that you can that that carton of okra from the Indian takeout place, slather it with duck sauce from the Chinese Takeout Packet Drawer, and snarf it down with rice, if that’s what you want. (I’ve never actually done this but on having made it up, it sounds good to me.) Never mind that you’ve never met a living soul in real life who likes okra. If it makes you happy, it makes you happy. Now put up your feet and, if you want, eat your dinner with a goddamned spoon.

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