June 25, 2009

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What We Eat When We Eat Alone, Stories and 100 Recipes, by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (2009, Gibbs Smith, 272 pages)
What do I eat when I eat alone? Whatever creates the fewest dirty dishes.

One pot only is good, one paper plate only is better. A knife or a fork slipped easily into the dishwasher works well. After a long day, crackers straight from the box works the very best.

Of course, sometimes one wants more than that.

What We Eat When We Eat Alone is all about not just eating crackers or turning to takeout but also not quite doing the kind of cooking that we tend to do for others. It’s about cooking solely for your own pleasure — the kind of cooking that can make a meal of a side dish (like fried potatoes with yogurt sauce or Dan’s Spicy Tapenade) or can make use of convenience items, like canned fish or leftovers, to nonetheless create something that makes the solitary meal truly a meal instead of an in-front-of-the-TV snack.

The book features stories of the special ritual of eating and cooking alone. Some of the food is odd (jelly on fried Spam) and some is more elaborate (a grilled marinated tri tip). Childhood connections and comfort food play an even bigger role when you’re cooking for yourself. The people described here don’t go to extra effort to make their rice with eggs, carbonara-style, or the aforementioned Spam creation appetizing to others. You know what you like and when you cook for yourself you can make it exactly as you like.

The book offers its stories and then follows with these idiosyncratic recipes, many of which, not for nothing, would make good for-two recipes or (doubled or tripled) good recipes for more people. Many recipes are meant to be made and eaten over a week — leftovers being a particular favorite of those dining solo. Most of your work is already done but you are still able to hack your meal a bit — more cheese here, fried with an egg there.

This conversational book makes for a light, fun read. There’s a chummy quality to the discussions here. Talking about people’s comfort foods is like talking about your guilty-pleasure TV shows or the songs you sing in the shower. The result is a book full of intimate stories and quirky recipes. It feels somehow like the opposite of your standard cookbook, where you’re learning about a food tradition (whether it’s a culture’s traditions or a family’s traditions) and then cooking for an audience. Here, it’s all focused internally, giving you a peek at what feels like people’s personal culinary thoughts. BAmy Diaz