O Solo Meal
More people are eating alone, but that doesn’t mean it has to be from a can while standing at the kitchen sink

Detroit Free Press: 09-11-01

 I still recall, vividly recall, that first night. “Unsatisfied” by the Replacements playing, replaying on the stereo, me collapsed on the living room floor of my college apartment, sobbing.

“I’m through,” Patrick said hours before but a full year after it made sense. “Bye, Cyn.”

The horror.

The fear.

I looked up at no one and a single thought passed through my wet lips, “Now who am I going to eat with?”

I'd seen it done before. Through a window I watched my brother, standing in the kitchen of an identical student apartment, as a spoon moved between his mouth and a can of store-brand creamed corn, cold with lid pressed back, glass of lime-green Kool-Aid on the counter.

This, this, was my culinary future?

Dubious culinary beginnings

Growing up, the notion of dinner was like a Darwinian experiment gone bad. If you could cook in my house, you got to eat. My sister, my brother, my father, my mother, we passed one another in the kitchen, the afterthought add-on to a small Iowa farmhouse built a century before by two bachelor brothers.

Fortunately, in my early days at least, mine were a gracious people, prone to sharing.

At age 11, I began reading cookbooks. My first meal, I boiled a can of peas for 11 minutes, the exact middling time Betty Croker advised for fresh, and added 2 cups of whole milk to a pot of mashed potatoes because it sounded about right. Some cut was pulled from the freezer.

“It’s good, Toots,” my dad said, goo washing over his plate. Never mind mistaking powdered sugar for flour in the gravy. Oh, no, that’s right. That was my brother’s invention.

I did eventually learn to cook and became the primary practitioner in my home.

And two years after I hit college, on that afternoon Pat left, I realized I'd never cooked for one.

Never mind eaten that way.

These 17 years later, after several career moves that have taken me to six states, I’m no longer terrified by it.

But there is no doubt that cooking and eating alone is an acquired taste—a bitter one still on some days. Restaurants? No problem. Grab a table near the front and fold open a Dick Francis novel or the newspaper and watch people as they arrive, writing their stories as I would like them to be in my head. But at home? “What’s the use?” I occasionally think, contemplating, then giving in to that bag of Baked Lay’s in the pantry.

Heresy to admit as Food editor, I know, but surely I’m not, um, alone.

The 2000 Census tells us that nearly one in four households, more than 27 million, are one person living alone. In Michigan, the number increased almost 200,000 over the previous decade to just under 1 million. For the first time in history, the number of single homes in the United States overtook those of people married … with children. Transience, longer lives, careers and the (former?) good economy, demographers say, all contribute to this trend.

On the menu

“I eat oatmeal at least twice a week, not always for breakfast, you know what I mean?” says Brian Moeckly, a 37-year-old friend and solid state physicist living in San Francisco. “I did go through my neon-orange macaroni and cheese phase. Put cheese in quotes because I don’t know what the hell it was. No one should eat lab chemicals for a year. I even went for the off-brand that was 25 cents a box. But that was in graduate school. I haven’t done it since.”

“Oh, hon, who has time to cook?” says Mary Biersdorfer, 32, a single colleague from one job back who’s now at the New York Times. “I used to cook a lot, then New York happened to me.”

“Most of the food I eat at home is nuked,” says Bill Alkofer, 39, a divorced freelance photographer and friend from St. Paul. “If it weren’t for boxed macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles, I don’t think I would have made it through college. I remember saying to my roommate, ‘Hey, Bruce, look! Ramen noodles, 15 for a dollar. We’ll eat like kings.’ ”

Although he didn’t know until now that he would be quoted, my boss, Dale Parry, who is married with 8-year-old twins at home, admits to eating hot dogs cold, straight from the package when the family is away. “With a beer, it’s not that bad,” he lamely offers from across his desk.

Souring the Web, one might think it has to be this way. Type in “cooking for one” and you get a rat’s nest of complaint, chiefly of the gastrointestinal variety. One site—members.aol.com/DLDebertin/recipe.htm—offers this:

“Picante sauce is one of the most versatile of all food ingredients. When mixed with browned hamburger, it is the basis for a variety of other dishes, all interesting. Spread the picante/hamburger mixture on buns for a great slushburger/mexican style barbecue. Add a can of Chili hot beans to the mixture for Mexican style chili. Serve over spaghetti for Mexican style spaghetti. Mix with velveeta cheese in a small crock pot for an interesting chip dip” (mistakes his, emphasis mine).

But, hey, we’re not done yet, folks. The writer, who notes that these are among his favorites because he can easily fix enough for the week, promises “more recipes to come”!

It’s no wonder singles spend $1,236 annually on food prepared away from home, compared with $812 for those who are coupled.

There’s actually some serious business here. Researchers tell us that people who live together live longer, probably because they’ve also been found to eat better. (Insurance statistics show married men live roughly five years longer than unmarried men, while married women live two to three years longer than their unmarried counterparts, thus accounting for those lower premiums.)

I blame cookbook authors for this disparity in life expectancy.

Thumb through any bound recipe collection and look at the serving sizes. Four, six, small army: These are numbers I simply can’t relate to, no matter how much I anthropomorphize my dogs. It’s not a wonder we’re not eating well: No one is attending to our simple, single needs.

OK, to be fair, when I went looking I found some recipes for one that sounded pretty good. “Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks” (Lake Isle Press, $14.95), for instance, is a compendium of recipes for singles, or those who aren’t but have fitfully busy lives and occasionally find themselves looking into the void across the table.

The no-nonsense recipes, at least in terms of preparation and cooking time, offer a respite from the ordinary in such dishes as Pinkwater’s Ratatouille (submitted by famed juvenile author and NPR commentator Daniel Pinkwater), Black Bean Quesadilla and Korean-Style Beef on a Bun.

The importance of good recipes sized for the single can’t be overstated. Shrinking down recipes that feed four or more (what’s 1/4 of 1/3 cup anyway?), typically don’t work out.

And wrapping up that many uneaten portions is best left for those who resist change.

But good recipes are only part of the equation. Now, I’ll admit, I like opening a bottle of wine (Did I mention that people who live alone also have been found to drink more? That’s true. We also smoke more and exercise less.), and tossing off dishes that will make their way into the cookbook of recipes I’m developing.

But for most of us, food equals family, equals friends. And there’s absolutely no denying that standing at the stove, night after night, all alone, is a total drag.

To make dinner less of a lonesome chore, in addition to a few recipes, I offer the following:

  • Don’t fall back on the same tired-and-true ingredients. Shop farmers markets and specialty stores for unusual heirloom fruits and vegetables. Look for yellow fingerling potatoes, orange tomatoes and purple peppers. Ask for recipe suggestions.
  • Take healthful snacks to work or have some ready-made when you get home so you don’t wolf down the first think you see and forgo dinner. Bread sticks, fresh vegetables, tortilla chips and funky store-bought salsa (peach-ginger is my favorite), will stave off hunger pangs while you prep.
  • Turn off the television and put away those collapsible trays. It means more laundry, I know, but occasionally set your table with a place mat, a cloth napkin and candles. Turn on WDET-FM (101.9) and groove to Ed Love’s jazz format starting at 7 p.m.
  • Experiment. Remember, the flip side to having no one extol your cooking is having no one to record your failures.
  • Limit junk-food purchases at the grocery because they’re even more tempting in your kitchen. To help you, take menus as a guide to avoid impulse buys.
  • Shop with a friend and split oversized purchases, particularly those that are perishable.
  • Wrap single portions of meat in freezer paper and use a permanent marker to note what it is and when it was bought.
  • Save involved recipes for weekends when you can enjoy them with guests.
  • Consolidate. If, for instance, you’re making pasta primavera, toss in those veggies a few minutes before the pasta is ready to avoid cleaning one more pan later.
  • Start a dinner club with coworkers and friends you routinely see to share cooking duties during the week. Stick with recipes that won’t wilt and will reheat well that can be passed in throwaway or expendable containers. Be sure to choose club members who share your tastes.
  •  Mix and match ready-made with fresh. Stop by places like Steve’s Backroom, 19872 Kelly in Harper Woods, for out-of-this-world hummus, then pair it with pita wedges and a fresh green salad.
  • Don’t force it. Keep telephone numbers at the ready for local delis and takeout joints that offer healthful foods on those nights you can’t bear to cook.
  • Get to know your neighbors. Deliver a meal to the nice woman or the elderly man down the street. Chances are they’ll ask you in, if not return the favor.
  • Take a walk after dinner. My friend Susan and I live blocks apart: she in Grosse Pointe, me in Detroit. The phone rings, the path is set. Somewhere along the line, we meet.

And finally, never, ever forget, that there is virtue in standing at the kitchen sink while eating out of a pan, a can, whatever. I’m sure of it. My brother, now a lawyer with a firm bearing his name, still can be seen eating ravioli, cold with lid pressed back.

You just may want to pull the shades first.