There’s a certain time of day, sometime after sunset, when people generally seem to feel the urge to gather together by a fire or a stove or a Hibachi or another common source of heat and food, and hunker down together to eat and drink. People I know who live alone have told me that they’re perfectly fine all day until shortly after the sun goes down. In that hour of oncoming darkness, they feel a sudden awareness of loneliness and a desire to break bread, as it were, with other people. When I’ve lived alone, I’ve felt it, too.
Of course it’s wonderful to eat with other people, but cooking for one, that one being your own damn self, is a useful skill to have for those nights when you’re the only person around. After my husband and I separated, I moved into my friend Jami’s loft, which I sublet for three months while she was out West, and then, when she came back to town, I got my own apartment. I found that when I lived alone, I looked out the window a lot more often than I had when there was someone else in the house with me, as if looking at the outside world were some instinctive way of feeling connected to other people. I became much neater living alone than I’d been when I was married. My husband’s and my house was generally messy and cluttered, dishes in the sink, laundry not put away, stuff covering the dining room table, and I didn’t care, and neither did he. In my own place, I kept everything neat and shipshape. There was no clutter at all.
I thought of the hour after sunset as a hump I had to get over, a period of restless bleakness during which I yearned for company. I wanted to go out and eat in a restaurant just to be around other people. Suddenly I missed my husband, missed being married. On some especially blue evenings, I almost, but never actually, wished I had a roommate. And I regretted the solitary nature of the writer’s life – other people, normal working people, spent their days with coworkers, rode the subway home with a crowd, walked through thronged streets. I worked at home, and here I was. Of course, I had Dingo, but a dog just doesn’t cut it in the blue hour.
To shake this sense of desolation, I went into the kitchen and started chopping things. I made just enough dinner for me, a simple and comforting and filling meal — one broiled chicken thigh, or even two, with a baked sweet potato and a side of garlicky red chard, for example, or cauliflower curry over basmati rice served with cashews, Sriracha hot sauce, and cilantro, or a puttanesca with gluten-free pasta and plenty of anchovies, capers, olives, and hot red pepper flakes. In those days, I ordered groceries weekly from Freshdirect. I always had plenty of food in the refrigerator and cupboard because I’d planned ahead; keeping my kitchen well-stocked was another effective bulwark against loneliness.
When the meal was ready, I heaped up a plate, sat at a table set for one, and feasted. I looked out the window at headlights and taillights streaming beneath the spangled struts of whatever bridge I was looking at; Jami’s loft in South Williamsburg had a view of the Williamsburg Bridge, and my apartment on Monitor Street in Greenpoint had a view of the Kosciusko Bridge. I daydreamed about falling in love again. Sometimes I put music on. Sometimes I lit a candle. Sometimes I wolfed down the food so I could get back to my email. I always drank wine.
These meals for one had a counterintuitive, resonant coziness. Eating by myself in my own apartment, single and alone again for the first time in many years, I should have felt, but did not feel, sad. Because I had taken the trouble to make myself a real dinner, I felt nurtured and cared for, if only by myself. Eating alone was freeing, too; I didn’t have to make conversation, I got to focus on my food without thinking about anyone else’s needs at all, and that made it taste even better. I didn’t have to share my dinner or worry about taking too much food: it was all mine. I could sing along to the music and wear pajamas and eat with my hands and drink the whole bottle of wine and lick my plate clean. Who would know or care?
Dingo lay at my feet, and little by little, as the evening went on, his company became, once again, sufficient. When I was done with my food, if there was anything left and he was allowed to have it, I gave him a scrap or two. Then he and I went out into the now-dark evening and made our rounds together, ambling along the sidewalk. I waited while he sniffed intently at tree trunks, lampposts, and bushes and deposited a squirt of pee on everything, lifting his leg as high as he could get it and often missing the thing itself, unwittingly sending his little stream out into space to land on the sidewalk or street. He squatted; I hovered behind him with a bag at the ready, scanning for the nearest trash can.
Then we went home again and spent the rest of the evening together. I read a book or wrote emails; he lay nearby and watched me. He always turned in before I did.
Sleeping alone was another luxurious pleasure that should have been depressing but wasn’t. I got to hog the covers, sprawl across the whole mattress, use all the pillows, and move around as much as I wanted without worrying about disturbing anyone else. No one snored in my ear or talked in his sleep. No one woke me up. No one stole the covers or accidentally nudged me with his leg or got up and creaked the floorboards on the way to the bathroom. After my satisfying solitary dinner, I was the captain of my bed, the master of my sleep. But even so, I longed for a bedmate – the urge to fall in love again became stronger and stronger as the months went on.
Then, of course, I met Brendan, and that was the end of the blue hour, cooking for one, eating everything all by myself, watching the cars streaming over the bridge, and daydreaming about falling in love.
Corn and monkfish chowder for one
In a tablespoon of butter, sauté one chopped celery rib, half an onion, diced, 2 minced garlic cloves, and half a chopped green or red pepper till soft. Add 2 cups of fish stock or low-sodium chicken broth, a bay leaf, a pinch of thyme, a dash of cayenne, and plenty of black pepper. Add one good-sized potato, cubed. Simmer, and when the potato is soft, mash some of it in the pot to thicken the soup. Add ½ cup of corn and one medium-sized monkfish filet cut into bite-sized pieces. Simmer till the fish is cooked through, 5-10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. When the chowder is done, take out the bay leaf, stir in ¼ cup of half and half, and dish into one large bowl. There should be enough in the pot for seconds. Avail yourself of Tabasco and fresh parsley if you want to.
I’m not going to be the kind or reader who feels it necessary to comment on every post you write. Having said that. . .
I’m also a writer, kind of small time here in Cincinnati, but still I’ve made a living at it for a number of years. I’m alone a lot – that’s the nature of what we do – and I know all too well about those evenings and the blues. You know, I can’t be with my friends all the time and the ex-wife is just that, despite the fact we’re still friends.
What’s my point? I don’t know exactly – just could relate to what you are saying and I learned something here about cheering myself up. Maybe instead of fixing an awful frozen dinner for myself, I should start cooking and eating better.
Tonight, I’m opening up a box of Zatarain’s red beans and rice and I’m going to cut up some turkey sausage to mix in with it. I’ll probably get two meals out of it and I’m kind of looking forward to fixing it.
It’s not much, but it’s a start. Thanks, Kate.
One of the things I like about your “recipes” is that they are good. But, more importantly, I like that they take only one paragraph and assume that I know how to proceed from minimal guidance. Remember cook books from the olden days? The recipes did not need such elaboration that they took up one or two pages. The authors assumed from the start that we had basic skills and could actually “do” what it took to be successful. Just sayin’
beautiful observations, so true re the mess when in a relationship and the order when alone. I notice this when I go away on residency’s or when my musician husband is on tour – suddenly I stop deferring and demanding someone else clean up and instead I take great pleasure in keeping my space calmly beautiful. My special secret treat is to buy myself flowers for the table and next to my bed when Im alone either at home or in hotels. Bliss!
I wanted to leave a comment. I love your writing.