Cookbooks are so often about the ideal we have of food. From Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking onward, cookbooks have given us the means to elevate what we serve at home.
Then there's the reality. If you're solo -- if you live alone or if you find yourself single while your usual living and dining partner is away on a business trip -- and the kitchen is suddenly yours alone, what do you cook? That's the question posed by What We Eat When We Eat Alone: Stories and 100 Recipes by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith, $25), one of 2009's most charming cookbooks.
Although 2009 was undoubtedly the year of lavish celeb chef cookbooks like Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home and David Chang's Momofuku, the two cookbooks I found myself going back to over and over again last year were much homier and more narrative-based -- Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life and this one from Madison, chef and previously author of The Greens Cookbook. There are no drool-inducing photos of food. Wizenberg's book is photo-less save for the book jacket; Madison's features only sketches by co-author McFarlin, and they're not even of the food -- they mostly depict spiky, angular people making food, sometimes awkwardly.
I've never been a fan of the supposed grandmother of these sorts of narrative cookbooks, Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking, which is too fey for me, but if you are -- and everyone but me seems to be -- you'll probably like Madison's look at the kinds of foods people concoct for themselves when they're alone in the kitchen.
The backstory: Madison and her husband, McFarlin, casually began asking people they met on their travels just what they ate when they were alone.
Some of the early press on this book seemed to indicate it was a sociological look at the differences between how men cook when they're alone and how women deal with the same situation, but the male/female differences aren't the heart of the book at all. There is some of that, but it's not, in the end, reductive.
Other press made it seem as though the book was about how we hit the crackers and sardines when we're alone, or come up with goofy concoctions that are so purely idiosyncratic that no one else would ever want to eat them. That's also a miscue. The book's full of simple meals that often feature good ingredients, useful shortcuts, and welcome indulgences that aren't a descent into junk food. Moreover, the recipes are inspirations (in terms of throwing something simple together when you're not alone in the kitchen, but rushed), options in lieu of heading for the frozen pizza or a can of soup.
Yes, there are some funny personal food stories here, like the person who opts for a mustard sandwich on a tortilla with coffee grounds (!), or saltines crushed into a glass of milk, but forget about that. Move on to the simple satisfactions of roasted sweet potatoes with goat cheese, roasted vegetable chowder and roasted asparagus with chopped egg, torn bread, and mustard vinaigrette. Never thought about tomatoes on toast? With good olive oil, a garlic clove, and your favorite bread, it's "more substantial than, say, a tomato soup with croutons, and lighter than full-blown tomato rarebit with cheese," Madison writes. "The toast starts out crisp but turns nice and mushy as you eat -- a little like a cheater's version of papa al pomodoro."
It's not always about the food alone, either. "Consider sentiment as something that drives a solo menu," Madison writes, "cooking in a grandmother's skillet or making a grandmother's recipe."
I loved the reports of what people ate, not when they were goofing around and relying on what happened to be in the refrigerator, but what they purposefully made when they were alone for a few days and could escape the constraints of having to please other members of the family. It made me realize how more often than not, what we end up eating is a compromise, and how freeing cooking for yourself alone can be.
Since one of the ways to improve our diets is simply, as Michael Pollan suggests, cook the meal ourselves, actually cook it (not heat it in the microwave), What We Eat... is not just a novelty read but a useful book to keep on the shelf -- full of simple salads, soups and vegetable dishes that are immensely satisfying but never difficult.