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by Wendy Smith, AARP The Magazine, August 2007
Anthologies make perfect summer reading. They can easily be put down when the sizzling sun requires a quick dip in the ocean or the pool; heat-fried brains don't have to keep track of a large cast of characters or tricky plot twists. And readers curled up in summer rentals, whose unfamiliar kitchens make elaborate food preparation seem too much trouble, will particularly enjoy this diverse assemblage of writers singing the praises of meals created for a single person's enjoyment.
Editor Jenni Ferrari-Adler hasn't unduly concerned herself with rigid adherence to her collection's premise. Many of the authors she's recruited follow the late Laurie Colwin's lead in the essay that gives the book its title (originally published in her 1988 book Home Cooking). In addition to her solitary meals of eggplant—"I fried it and stewed it, and ate it crispy and sludgy, hot and cold"—Colwin also describes squeezing guests into her tiny one-room Greenwich Village apartment and serving them spaghetti cooked on the two-burner hot plate, drained in the bathtub, and eaten on a folding card table. The real subject of many of these essays is the contrast between preparing and eating meals alone and cooking and dining with others.
The funniest exploration of this contrast comes from Holly Hughes, who lists the plaints of her three children ("Mommy, why is the meat so crusty? Yuk, Mom, why is the rice so slimy?"), which resulted in meals of grilled fish, mesclun salad, and wild rice giving way to fish sticks, carrot sticks, and Rice-a-Roni. "Eating alone? Ah that would be a luxury," Hughes writes. "I could use the ingredients I wanted, every last exotic one of them. And sit down to eat it in peace."
Dining alone means pleasing only yourself. Some of the writers here go the no-frills route. Ann Patchett contentedly nibbles white cheese on Saltines with a dollop of salsa for dinner; Nora Ephron prescribes mashed potatoes with oodles of butter as the cure for a broken heart; Phoebe Nobles eats asparagus with her fingers. Cookbook authors like Marcella Hazan and Paula Wolfert demand the best even when fixing anchovies on toast or bread with tomato and ham. They must be "first-rate anchovy fillets packed in olive oil that do not just taste of salt," Hazan informs us; the classic Mediterranean lunch Wolfert favors simply isn't the same, she declares, without "the extraordinary ham from the black-hoofed pigs raised on acorns around the town of Jabugo in the Extremadura region of Spain." Those with lower standards may be relieved to read Jonathan Ames's hilarious list of his bachelor refrigerator's rotting contents with which he has on occasion poisoned himself when cooking for one.
Amanda Hesser, who offers a rapturous account of preparing truffled egg toast, enjoys preparing an elaborate meal when alone. Mary Cantwell and M.F.K. Fisher both preferred to pamper themselves by dining out; part of the fun was overcoming the prejudice against single women in restaurants. Colin Harrison likes solitary restaurant meals too, but his main interest is a window table with a view of the Manhattan street theater outside. Food and eating mean different things to different people, we learn in Courtney Eldridge's tart, class-conscious essay. "Were you raised on canned food?" her ex-husband once asked her incredulously—actually she was, in a dirt-poor family where a huge pot of chili was sometimes dinner for the whole week. Eldridge doesn't bother talking about eating alone at all, though she admits to eyeing a few cookbooks now that she's single.
Writing about food, this anthology reminds us, involves writing about yourself and your connection to the world. Even when dining alone, few of these writers are without memories of the people they've cooked for and eaten with. Sometimes that makes a solitary meal all the more savory.
Wendy Smith reviews books for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.
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