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February 5, 2010

A few days ago, I finished reading Deborah Madison’s What We Eat When We Eat Alone. I picked it up hoping for something akin to Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, but wasn’t as delighted with Madison’s take on cooking & eating solo as I was with Jenni Ferrari-Addler’s.

But perhaps this isn’t a fair comparison.  Ferrari-Addler’s book collects essays from a range of authors, foodie and not, grouped roughly by solitary meals and dining out.  There may have been a final section as well, but I’ve lent my copy out and cannot, for the life of me, remember who has it now.  Hm.  Madison’s book, though, co-written (and illustrated by) with Patrick McFarlin, is a two-person look at what other people eat by themselves.  So instead of dozens of firsthand accounts, or confessions, as Ferrari-Addler calls them, the book comprises of Madison & McFarlin explaining what other people told them that they make for themselves.  Most disappointingly, Madison and McFarlin stick to an often-negated point that men eat one way when they eat alone and women eat another way.  For instance, in the early pages of the book, they claim that men alone eat strange or exotic meat products especially when their wives or partners aren’t there.  But in a later chapter, they discuss on woman who can’t get enough of kidneys as her own solo meal (or am I being pedestrian in assuming there’s something strange or exotic in kidneys?).  And take, outside of their book, Judith Jones in The Pleasures of Cooking for One: some of her most lauded meals include veal kidneys, oxtail, veal tongue, and calf’s liver.  Take, also, Julie Powell in Cleaving, making and eating blood sausage and raw meats and brains.  Clearly men are not the only eaters of exotic meats.  Women, of course, are eaters of salad or vegetables or eggs, which is also contradicted by the many men who claim vegetables or eggs as their favorite solo dish.

The language and descriptions of people’s solitary cooking made me think that the survey population was entirely white, middle class Americans.  I don’t think Madison & McFarlin spoke only with that group, but perhaps their own class bias seeps through too strongly?  There is much discussion of the young twenty-something eating alone for the first time, the harried mom claiming a sloppy solitary supper with wine, the burnt, middle-aged divorcee eating alone, and the lonely widow adjusting to sad solo meals.  A bit heavy-handed with the stereotypes and assumptions.

Finally, the last chapter of the book focuses on meals cooked with a particular intention: seduction.  What is this, a romance novel?  How to find a lover through cooking?  Please don’t assume that everyone who cooks alone is looking for someone to cook for!  None of that section was relevant to cooking alone as all the meals were prepped with someone or with someone in mind.  Completely out-of-place in a book on what you eat by yourself.

I really can’t recommend What We Eat When We Eat Alone.  There are better, more entertaining books out there for the solitary diner or those who like seeing into people’s houses or looking at someone else’s shopping cart.  (as a bona fide Craig’s List addict and supermarket frequenter, I can happily attest that those are some of life’s little joys).  Instead, try Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, for a more intimate look at solitary cooks and eaters.  Or for a more recipe-and-advice-heavy book, pick up The Pleasures of Cooking for One.  Jones’ cooks very much in the traditional French style (think: Julia Child–they were friends), but she has superb advice for downsizing meals and recreating leftovers.  Also, even though she’s cooking from the widow’s perspective, she doesn’t assume everyone else is.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. iflambe permalink
    February 5, 2010 1:13 pm

    Where do they get their survey groups, d’you think? No matter which one I read about it always proves the same thing (steaks versus salads). Meanwhile, I want to try Julie Powell’s liver recipe.

    • February 6, 2010 7:32 am

      According to Madison & McFarlin, they just talked to random people, starting with–get this–the people on their annual trip to Europe to taste olive oils. That’s a diverse group for you.

      • iflambe permalink
        February 6, 2010 2:05 pm


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