Reflections on Eating Alone
Eating alone is meditative and it is lonely and it can be immensely satisfying, as you come to witness and savor slices of a golden pear, shiny silver sardines on dark crackers, or the perfect cup of muddy brown espresso. You get very close, you inhale the perfume and suggestions of food.
I grew up believing that eating - or "dining" as some people describe it - was something done primarily with others, an occasion where you clinked glasses, forked your steaming pasta, and talked on into the night, conversing about the particulars of your day. In my childhood, TV and reading were forbidden at the dinner table -- there was just the food, soft cloth napkins, candles, and lively conversation.
As a young girl I spent a lot of time listening to my mother and stepfather talk during our evening meal. I rarely spoke. As I eventually shepherded my own little family through the sixties and seventies, I tried to uphold this standard of "civilized" dining, much to everyone's frustration. There was the intrusion of television, of course, and then the unavoidable fact that my attempts at interesting conversation were often ignored. As I became an elder and it was time to sit down at the table to eat alone, I felt it was very familiar. I knew this aloneness with food. I always had an intimate relationship to the food I consumed, whether it was a beautifully poached egg, artichokes with melted butter, or a beautiful salad. As a single old woman, I have always chosen to go to the effort of making beautiful meals even though it was for an audience of one. It mattered that it was interesting to look at and taste. It is also an invitation to mindfulness. I often watch an old classic movie when I have my meal and imagine that the marvelous actors on screen are joining me for dinner. In the morning, I keep it simple, not much ceremony: fruit, some toasted bread and honey perhaps, and always good green tea. It feels that this is what my body desires at the beginning of the day. I read the NY Times, sip tea, and look out the window for the wild birds. And I feel grateful for another day. Most of the time I eat out in the city I am alone, surrounded by eager customers in groups of two or four or six. I love to eavesdrop as I pretend to concentrate on my New Yorker magazine or latest book. Only occasionally does my self-contained universe feel touched by aching aloneness, a feeling of being alien. These unwelcome lonely moments are hard, but the good news is that they eventually float away. That disappearing into space is what our feelings do... It is their nature.
This ritual of eating alone is an opportunity to be inside our bodies, sensing how pasta carbonara laced with rich egg and bacon and cheese feels as you chew, savor, and swallow. It is a moment where you can pause to feel gratitude for your life. You can remember a time when you first learned how to cook from a young Italian peasant woman. You can discover a new subtle flavor in your chicken curry. You can give thanks to all those responsible for the food on your table. You can feel your own body's response to being nourished.
I guess I could say that I've been practicing eating alone for a very long time. Growing up an only child in an adult world where grownups were indifferent, I was eating alone even though I sat at the same table and ate the same food. Encased in this solitary bubble, I saw myself as someone apart -- definitely not part of the herd -- a hard road to travel when as children we want to belong to our community of peers. The great gift of this unnatural condition, which I came to understand at a much later age, was that I learned to love and respect food. Because there was such intimacy with experience, I learned (alone) to find joy and honor things like: a perfectly ripe avocado, a juicy lemon, creamy Brie that oozes over the plate, purple artichokes, sour French bread, dark red raspberries that melt on your tongue, and dark green olive oil drizzled on beautiful lettuces...
This is a romance I'm talking about, where there are beginnings and endings: a joy felt at the very first bite and in the end acceptance that the whole experience is impermanent. That first bite will quickly be behind you, and you will be left with just the memory of how that perfect dark chocolate (or blackberry or toasted almond or bright green pea) felt in your mouth. The more present you are as you take that bite, the richer the memory will be.