"What We Eat When We Eat Alone"

From “What We Eat When We Eat Alone” by Deborah Madison with Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith, 2009)

Foods for Me and Me Alone
Greg O’Byrne, who runs the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Fiesta, is not embarrassed to admit that he spoils himself on nights when he’s home alone. He doesn’t cook the mac and cheese he usually makes for his kids, but opens a bottle of wine, “maybe not a Grand Cru Burgundy, but a good bottle,” he says, and he fixes himself a thick steak au poivre. He’s likely to make his own pommes frites, too.

More frequently, though, foods intended for solo consumption tend to be modest, sometimes crude, and often downright bizarre. They’re very personal foods, that special category of edibles that are tailored by oneself for oneself, and they are not easily shared. They’re the foods that work for one individual in a deep and maybe even psychological way. Personal foods are likely to be those that simply gratify. They might have nourished us as children and now they feed us as adults, regardless of their content, because our body knows and remembers them.

Take Dru Sherrod, for example, a tall, elegant man with whom we’ve enjoyed many well-cooked meals and fine bottles of wine. Only the faintest trace of his Texas accent remains. Here was his response when we asked him what he eats when his partner, Arden, is out of town.

“Back in Dallas,” Dru says, sliding into his accent, “my mother used to serve me fried Spam with grape jelly. Well, after eschewing it for forty years, I’m beginning to find it a great comfort again. I throw slabs of Spam in a skillet. Thick units. No oil or butter or anything. Fry it on both sides. Slice some tomatoes. Spoon out cottage cheese. It’s salty, porky, strong, greasy, and delicious. A perfect meal.” And now he’s talking Texan.

Or consider Robert Brittan, a journeyman winemaker. We’re driving one morning over the winding roads of the coast range near Napa Valley, and he’s waving his arms madly as he answers our question. Fortunately he’s not the one behind the wheel.

“Fritos!” he cries. “Take chili-cheese-flavored Fritos, microwave them with grated cheese. Fantastic! Or, have them with chopped green tomatoes. Chopped, not sliced. Slicing is overrated—it implies care. You can chop these tomatoes with a dull knife—just beat ’em up.This is fantastic when you first eat it. It’s only after you’ve eaten too much that you realize Fritos are nasty and ugly. The good thing is you can drink lousy beer with them. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, it’s about what you’ve got.”

It’s hard to see this wildly gesticulating Frito maniac as the same man who meticulously crafts exquisite Pinots and Syrahs, but that’s the thing about eat-alone food: it’s not consistent with those sides of ourselves that the world, including close friends, sees.

“It’s about experimentation,” says Robert, not yet finished with the subject. “Do you know, you can boil a hot dog in cheap beer or wine? Once I got this Hebrew National Hot Dog and cooked it in Riesling. Any Riesling will do.” But other experiments fail. “Chocolate chip ice cream in root beer makes an okay float. But beer in a milk shake? I can tell you it’s a horrible, horrible thing.”

People who don’t normally put a lot of stock into recipes can be extremely precise about their personal foods, such as how milk should look when poured over hot cereal (“It should just puddle around the edges, no more, or it will cool down the cereal and thin it out”), or the kind of bread used for a sandwich (“It must be white bread, like Wonder Bread, not a sturdier variety like Pepperidge Farms”), or the potato chips used to scoop up cottage cheese (“Only use Ruffles”), or how long eggs must be cooked (“Six minutes, not five or seven, but six”).

However strange, these foods do accomplish the work of getting a body fed.

When we began our survey with men, we secretly took pleasure in uncovering those nasty true confessions, the crude stuff, the so-called recipes that make any decent eater cringe—in short, the strange foods of the solitary eater. We got them from both men and women. Things—we can’t really call them dishes—like bread soaked in margarita mix, or sardine oil poured over cottage cheese. Who would do this, you may ask? Well, relatively normal people, it turns out. Perhaps even your own friends.

Cliff Wright, the author of many good cookbooks and one of the best cooks we know, has this tactic for feeding himself. “Sometimes when I’m on a recipe-testing roll, I end up with six
Tupperware containers filled with leftover god-knows-what. I’ll take them all, dump them in a bowl of pasta, and start tossing. If the taste isn’t quite right, I add one or all of the following: fried pancetta, butter, cream, olive oil, prosciutto, egg, or cheese.”

I especially like the flourish of “one or all” of those fatty additions, and nothing in between, like butter and cheese. Of course, Cliff has a pretty good idea of what he’s doing, so he’s likely to end up with something that’s more than merely edible despite his slapdash approach. (Not always slapdash, Cliff has been known to use an otherwise spacious Sunday afternoon intended for reading to whip up a batch of crepinettes, a sausage-like affair that involves three kinds of meat, vegetables, and caulfat—and these just for himself.)

Personal foods may not be shareable, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t good to eat or aren’t enjoyed by more than just one or two odd souls. More than a few of our respondents mentioned stirring oyster crackers, saltines, matzo, or some other crumbly dry thing into cups of tea, coffee, milk, and cocoa. In Cheri and The Last of Cheri, Colette writes about just this sort of thing, but in a way that makes you want to go right into the kitchen and try it for yourself— or at least recast the description of your own personal concoction in a more poetic way.

Take a small soup tureen—the individual soup tureen you would use for a soupe gratinée, or a sturdy bowl in fireproof china. Pour in your milky coffee, prepared and sugared according to taste. Cut some hearty slices of bread—use household bread, refined white will not do—butter them lavishly and lay them on the coffee, ensuring that they are not submerged. Then all you have to do is place the whole thing in the oven and leave it there until your breakfast is browned and crusty, with fat buttery bubbles sizzling here and there on the surface.

Finally, Colette advises, “Before breaking your raft of roasted bread, sprinkle on some salt.” Even a small trace of salt counteracts the sugar and makes everything sharp and bright.

I copied this passage from a book in someone else’s library over twenty years ago because it spoke to me, but I never thought to write down the translator, who remains a mystery still. In the attempt to find this translation, I started reading various others. A less lavish version turned the same breakfast into something so prosaic that I read through practically the whole paragraph before recognizing the raft-crusted bowl of coffee. Perhaps the tender attention to detail in the first translation is what turned a somewhat rough and personal dish into nothing less than a morning sacrament. If so, with the right words, oyster crackers in coffee might be equally sacramental.

Oyster crackers in coffee, yes, but perhaps our woman in the kitchen uses a cup with an especially wide mouth and enough cream to turn the black filtered coffee the color of ivory. I wonder if the oyster crackers cover the surface, so that they just touch one another, or not. Does she take a sip of coffee with a cracker from a spoon? Is the cracker soft below and crisp on top? As she goes along, does she add more crackers? One by one or by the handful?

I’ve never had coffee with oyster crackers so I don’t know the nature of its particular charms, but surely there would be those minute particulars that say why coffee and why oyster crackers and not some other kind, the very details that make personal foods so important.

Largely, though, personal foods are stunningly strange. The following examples are offered for your amusement only, as these aren’t things we could make into recipes, and we don’t think you should either.

Five Bad Ideas
1. Mustard Sandwich with Reworked Coffee: “Use Yellow Heinz Mustard. Slather the mustard on a flour tortilla and eat accompanied with reworked coffee, which means add a few new grounds to the top of a paper filter of morning coffee and pour in boiling water.”

2. Potato-Sesame Bread with Tequila Mix: “Toss an old loaf of potato-sesame bread on a wood-burning stove. Tear into hunks and eat with tequila mix right out of the plastic bottle.”

3. Organic Goo Goo: “Get Green Giant small whole peas and one package of any Green Giant rice mix—Asian, Mexican, and so forth. Make a small cut in the top to prevent an explosion, and microwave them in their own microwavable pouches. During the six or so minutes they’re cooking, look in the spice closet and find some less-than-a-year-old spice, a young spice. Any spice will do. Cut open the two hot pouches with a knife and pour on a plate with the rice on the bottom, the peas on the top. Sprinkle with spice. This fits right into the Asian diet pyramid. It’s a good dish if you don’t have a maid or a dishwasher, since it uses only a fork, a knife, and a plate.”

4. Leftover Spaghetti Sandwich: Usually in cooking, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Here, it is less. The day after a big spaghetti feed, a friend—who is most of the time a good and lusty kind of cook—uses the leftovers to make spaghetti sandwiches.

“I rewarm the garlic bread in the toaster and the tomato sauce and the pasta in a pan, then make a sandwich adding whatever soggy salad kind of thing I have left over, usually tomato, onion, and translucent lettuce.”

5. Farm Workers’ Food: A farmer in Texas talks about how his workers cook when they’re out in the country on an isolated farm, cooking and coping for themselves. Try to hear the slow drawl, the chili-thick accent, and a liberal sprinkling of expletives. Although it was winter when Larry Butler reported to us, I think the word “cold” means raw.

“They take sardines, cold Romas, cold onions, chop and mix, and put it on a hot corn tortilla. Or they start with some Top Ramen noodles, scramble up an egg and put it in the pot along with a can of green English peas. They also boil pork rinds until they’re disgusting and terrible looking and throw them, with fried onions, into scrambled eggs, then put it all in a hot tortilla. And they eat this stuff like it’s good!”

In self-defense, Larry, who’s a vegetarian, retreats to his outdoor kitchen. “Up front I sauté wheat berries with garlic in olive oil on high heat. Wheat berries give you something to chew on. I put garlic in all foods. Chop turnips, onions, carrots, and beets and add to the sauté, then add cold tomatoes if I have them. About the time it’s going to catch fire and explode, I put in tomato juice and nutritional yeast—the yeast gives body, flavor, and B vitamins—add more water, then cook for 30 minutes.”

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