Book Review: Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

OK, it’s 2:30 in the morning and I cannot sleep. I arrived back in town on Saturday night, and with daylight savings and the 12-hour time difference between New York and Singapore, I am having the worst jetlag ever. Ever. So, instead of tossing and turning all night, I figured I would come out to the living room and post this book review I wrote while on breaks from work in Singapore. Once I sift through my notes (the insomnia should help this happen sooner rather than later), I’ll be back with details regarding all the amazing food I ate there. But for now, let’s talk books. . .

When I heard about the new book Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, I quickly reviewed my own memories on the subject. The most vivid ones are of the solo dinners I have eaten during my work trips abroad. During my first few trips I was filled with anxiety as I approached any restaurant, dreading the moment when I’d shyly hold up one finger to demonstrate to the host that yes, I was alone, so stop looking at me and get me a table. . . Please?

Now I have no shame walking into restaurants by myself, and sometimes I actually enjoy it. There are worse things in life than eating a wonderful bowl of pasta in Italy by myself. Apparently, many people out there in the world agree with me. In Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, editor Jenni Ferrari-Adler brings together a diverse group of writers whose unique perspectives on cooking for one and dining alone examine how joyous the experience can be.

The book opens with Laurie Colwin’s essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” It touches on many themes that appear throughout the book: How one manages to cook anything at all in a tiny New York City apartment kitchen; how we indulge in unconventional foods when no one is looking (see Ann Patchett’s thoughts on saltines in “Dinner For One, Please, James,” and Jeremy Jackson’s love for black beans and cornbread in “Beans and Me”); and how we often return to those foods for comfort.

For Colwin and many of the other authors, eating alone in a restaurant or at home is a celebration, a time to indulge themselves and their native desires. But other writers in the book, such as M.F.K. Fisher in “A is for Dining Alone” and Haruki Murakami in “The Year of Spaghetti,” point out the lonely nature of these circumstances in achingly real essays.

Some of my other favorite stories include Phoebe Noble’s “Asparagus Superhero,” about the author’s efforts to eat asparagus every day (in a brave move, she doesn’t shy away from discussing the mysterious nature of asparagus pee) and Ben Karlin’s hilarious “The Legend of Salsa Rosa,” which shows how a meal in Italy can change your life. Some of the authors have even shared their special recipes at the end of their essays.

(On a side note, it’s fun to read how Marcella Hazan and Paula Wolfert, in their essays “Eating Alone” and “My Favorite Meal for One,” like to keep it simple when preparing meals for themselves. Sometimes even the grandes dames of cuisine don’t feel like cooking.)

The book ends with a bittersweet essay by Colwin’s daughter Rosa Jurjevics, who has taken food traditions from both her mother and father and made them her own. I think that’s the point of the book: Cooking and eating for one can lead to moments of freedom and revelation, even if it can feel pretty lonely sometimes. By the end of this book, I wanted to have dinner with everyone who contributed to it. But I’ll settle for keeping it close at hand, where I can reach it on a night when I’m dining alone.

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