M.F.K. Fischer writes of eating alone with such passion that she almost sells me on it. Alone, goes her argument, we can concentrate on the experience of dining; let our minds focus on the textures dancing in our mouths, enjoy what we would miss were we filling our tables with conversation and laughter and shared carafes of wine.
I don't buy it. Dining alone, to put it bluntly, is like having sex alone. The end result might be the same, but you lose all the fun in getting there. There's a slight sense of perversion in doing it publicly, and it's definitely something you don't want your mother knowing about. She would worry.
Most nights I don't mind conversation with the waiter, or looks from the people around me, content in their twosomes and foursomes, fearlessly ordering garlic chicken, level two spicy, please. But nights like these — holiday nights — being alone really gets to me.
On my first Thanksgiving alone, I made it an adventure. I decided to make my favorite quiche, filled with feta, spinach, red pepper, garlic and onion. This was in college, so I worked with a store-bought crust — the kind that is folded into quarters, with deep creases that you need to soften and mend with water and fingertips. I remember crimping the crust ever so carefully. Into the oven it went. One-and-a-half episodes of Buffy later, there I was with a hefty slice of quiche, topped with more feta. The Pillsbury crust was salty and soggy; the egg mixture was soft and warm and cheesy. Spike said something — or was it Angel? — and all of a sudden I melted, crying along with Buffy's heartache, rhythmically shoveling forkfuls of quiche into my mouth.
It was the same as all those other times — like that night my freshman year in college, when I came back from a party convinced that eating a Crunch bar with a can of Frito bean dip would be the new peanut butter and chocolate (it wasn't) — times when I'd eaten for myself alone, not because I wanted to but because I had to. Everything about being alone and being hungry, and eating but not getting full, made me sink. Buffy didn't have much, or anything, to do with it.
Last year, I'd planned to spend my Thanksgiving with the family of a co-worker. But that day, I came down with a dreadful case of the boils. Yes — I know, boils — the absolutely archaic "who-gets-those?" form of medieval blight. But there they were: large, purple and squarely on my ass. I was convinced that I had MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Without health insurance, I was destined to die a horrible, pus-leaking death alone. To numb the pain, I sat on frozen bags of potato soup — a horrible concoction I had made earlier that month after a breakup, when I was in the mood to chop a lot of vegetables. (Kitchen tip: Potato soups without cream suck.)
There was no chance I could attend that dinner: straddling the soup just wouldn't fly.
So I went googling, I made phone call after phone call. It was 8 o'clock. The stores and restaurants were closed, I had no friends and no family, I was dying of MRSA and more importantly, I was really, really hungry.
It was then that I made a pathetic decision. I went to the Bijou, the movie theater in town that served pretty bad meals with your flick. There were only three other people there.
I ordered a Mediterranean pizza with red bell pepper, spinach and feta, and a beer, a Shiner Bock, which I spilled on myself as I walked into Mystic River. There was an old man taking the tickets; seeing my ineptitude, he offered to bring me my pizza when it was ready. He felt sorry for me.
I took out my notebook, as if somehow there was something protective about pen and paper. But it didn't work — as soon as the man brought me my pizza, and that horrible, pandering movie started, I was flush with tears again.
I'd intended to write my column this week about a Mexican Christmas dinner. But my dinner date cancelled and I faced the prospect of driving to Dunedin alone, dining alone, driving back alone. Even as a food editor, I didn't have a single person to call to take to dinner.
So I didn't go. I didn't even call to cancel my reservation. Instead, I went to Kash N Karry to get my usual no-kitchen dinner — grocery-store sushi. I ducked in quickly. I didn't want to make eye contact with the sushi man. He knows me. I went home and walked through my kitchen to my lime-green bathroom. I sat down and ate. It's a bright room, and it's small enough to feel full when it's just me.