dinner for one
BY: Ellen c. caldwell

In my kitchen, I have a big white serving bowl with small font circling its rim, quietly but surely proclaiming, “The world revolves around my kitchen.” This pretty much sums up my feelings and joy for cooking and eating. I love the relaxation, solace, and creative release I find in cooking.

I also love food itself—surprising flavor combinations, decadent joys, and recreated memories of favorite foods passed. Baking was my introduction to the kitchen. My friend and I used to spend hours making cookies, saving vats of dough to eat throughout the day. In junior high, I started experimenting with pasta creations, and by college, I had developed a more adult palette and passion for exploratory and innovative cooking.

Homemade gnocchi has been an ongoing experimentation for me – I started with a delicious pan-fried lemon, ricotta gnocchi then moved to a more traditional potato one, and more recently to a favorite savory sweet potato and sage gnocchi. I’ve created, tailored, and mastered homemade pastas, my grandma’s gyoza recipe from her childhood, spinach-stuffed mushrooms, Ina’s mac n’ cheese, cacio e pepe, chicken picatta, popovers, and many other comfort food favorites.

Like many cooks, I have also invested a great deal of money into equipping my kitchen. My heart smiles when I see my Le Creuset collection, and those colorful cast-iron pots are on a regular rotation from my shelves, onto my stove, into my oven, then to the sink, and back to the shelf. I love using this absurd gadget that safely shaves garlic into paper-thin slices and my yellow lemon presser recently passed on, its rusty hinge crumbling delicately apart with old age and use.

Like some of my favorite recipes, I’ve inherited many of these tools from family members and friends. Each item holds a story of its own time and place like an origin myth reminding me of my place on earth—of my great aunt, both sets of grandparents, my best friend’s grandparents, her parents, and more. These tools are the stuff of love, both reminders and extensions of my family. 

A while back, while walking with a colleague into work, we were discussing what we do on the weekends—one of those funny work moments when you realize that these people you spend 40+ hours a week with in close proximity at meetings, brainstorming sessions, and presentations actually know very little about the fundamental things that you cherish about yourself and your life outside. I was saying that I love cooking and his immediate response was an inquisitive, “Do you live alone?”

I think he knew I lived alone and that I am single, so to me that morning, the question really felt like he was asking, “Who do you cook for if you live alone?”

My instinctual reaction was to say quickly and in bashful defensiveness, “I do live alone, but I have friends over a lot and cook for my family.” Which is partially true. I wholeheartedly love feeding my family and friends, particularly those who enjoy food as much as I do. One of my oldest friends recently came over for dinner, and we spent much of the days leading up to the dinner texting about the menu I was testing (the famed sweet potato gnocchi sautéed with spinach and bacon, along with my favorite simmered marinara sauce with baked turkey meatballs inspired by Giada.

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That night we happily spent the entire meal dissecting its flavors and ingredients together, doting on the overall experience in only the way that true food lovers and friends can do.

So that morning, on my way into work, my answer to my colleague was also a partial lie. I do live alone, and I love cooking for myself, by myself. I wondered why I felt the need to be ashamed or embarrassed by this, covering it up with a line that was essentially about my love for hosting when in fact, I don’t actually love hosting, but I do love cooking and eating.

Growing up, I often noticed that if my mom had a night when she was eating alone, she would relish in not cooking—simply opting for leftovers or cereal instead. This of course stems from a myriad of reasons, the main one having to do with her cooking for a family of five every day. I can see how the joy might not always live in those hectic moments of meal preparation and how it would have been nice to take the off-nights off.

However, she was and still is amazed that I will cook impressive and time-consuming meals for myself. And I think that is where a fundamental difference lies between food-and-kitchen-lovers like myself and others… I love the process, and I love myself. If I love my friends and family enough to put the time in, shouldn’t I love myself enough to feed my heart and soul too?

I know it’s not everyone’s thing and I am certainly not advocating that all single people need to start mastering the art of French cooking for their solo meals. And I relish in the glory of food delivery and take-out just the same as the next person. But I realized recently that my choice of singledom does tie into my choice to cook for myself—and they truly do go hand in hand.

***

I grew up in the same way that many girls did, playing dress-up, thinking of white wedding dresses, the perfect faceless, Ken-like husband of my future, our kids, and all that comes with that. Sometime after college, though, or perhaps during, I remember it occurred to me on a whim that I did not have to have children. And that idea floated down around me like a feather dancing on the wind—I kept flirting with it as it circled around me, envisioning a life I had never dreamed of, because I (and perhaps societal influences) had never given myself that option.

That idea changed things for me. It’s not that I decided I definitively wouldn’t have kids, because I still might or might not. But it was a moment of freedom and clarity in which I told myself I didn’t have to. And it has been life-changing.

An equally life-changing moment came later on, about two years after a painful breakup. And since this is more of a story about falling in love than out of love, I’ll keep this short. I had dated someone for almost five years, and for the last year of our relationship, he was cheating on me while I was physically very sick and emotionally tired. We finally broke up but since I only learned the truth of his cheating a year after the breakup, it felt like we had broken up twice, as I re-thought and re-questioned everything that had and had not been real.

During the year after the so-felt “second breakup,” I was visiting my grandma, a steadfast love in my life and ultimate cheerleader and friend. We were browsing through a little gift shop, looking at knick-knacks by the door, and I found a series of small and overly simple white ceramic signs with a light glaze, each stamped with different messages in small lowercase black font.

Skimming over them, I was called to one instantly: “love always.” I bought it quickly without much thought, only realizing later that this had been and always would be my mantra when I was in times of deep doubt—about myself, about others, and about love and loss at large. All I knew was that I needed the sign and I wanted it to hang up above my bed every night.

After my breakup, I had been so angry, livid, and hurt. I was scared I would never love the same way or find an equal passion. So without thinking consciously about it, I purchased the sign, and renewed my vow to love always. No one and no experience, no matter how painful and drawn out, could take away that right. It left no room for doubt. Love always. What is implicit in that short but powerful phrase are all the emotions that come with loving always: trusting always, supporting always, giving always, feeling always. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, and what has taken many years for me to figure out, is that I had unknowingly been leaving out a big part of this equation. 

There is a book I remember from my childhood about a group of fishermen. The story goes something like this: there are twelve fishermen out in the water when a flood comes. After the water dries up, one of the party counts the others to make sure they all got back to the safety of dry land. In horror, the counter fears they lost a man because he comes up one short, forgetting to count himself. As it turns out, quite a few cultures have similar stories and parables about “fools counting.” In each, the protagonists are all referred to as “fools” or “foolish,” but as an adult now, I can’t help but wonder why that label is a part of the trope. Indeed, if we all have stories to teach our children about the importance of remembering to count oneself, isn’t that truly a lesson we need? If we are all inclined to forget to do so, I would wager that we are not all foolish, but are instead wildly human. It seems self-deprecatory to label something as foolish when we should really be far more gentle on ourselves if we want to process, hear, and live the lesson of the story.

So after lying with the sign above my head for years, I came to realize that in “loving always,” I had become one of these fishermen and had unknowingly, unwittingly left myself out. In life, I am a lover and giver—often overly so, and I truly think I was born that way. But I was so focused on outwardly loving, ensuring I moved forward, and giving love to those around me, that I didn’t realize how much this mantra needed to circle back around to myself. It was never just about loving outwardly, trusting outwardly, supporting outwardly, giving outwardly, and feeling outwardly: where I needed it most, in fact, was inwardly. When I said goodbye to fears of being without, of missing out, and of those Swift-like picket-fence-princess-dreams, I said hello to whatever might come next—with me and for me.

***

This past New Year’s Eve, I was staying in rather than going out, something I quietly and somewhat guiltily cherish doing. I decided to make a wonderful meal for myself to ring in the coming year. I was at the grocery store around four o’clock that afternoon, buying Japanese sticky rice, fresh vegetables, thick coconut milk, a beautifully rich red curry paste, lemongrass, fresh basil, purple shallots, and spring onions. As the woman at the register was ringing me up, she surveyed my ingredients thoughtfully and said, “Ooh, someone special is getting a nice meal tonight.” I knew what she meant. I knew the dinner party she envisioned (perhaps with noisemakers and gold confetti sprinkled about) and I was certainly buying enough festive food for at least four people. But I didn’t feel the need to correct her, because indeed, she had gotten it right.

 

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.