Saturday, April 23, 2011

Is Cooking for One Depressing?

I've already documented the first piece of evidence that made me start to realize that some people seem to find it, well, incomprehensible that single folks might actually enjoy cooking for themselves. It's in the first few lines of my cookbook and in the excerpt that ran in The Washington Post's Food section in March:
It was a Facebook comment that finally did it.

I had just posted a link to one of my Cooking for One columns, and amid the chatter about the recipes for mulled red-wine syrup and salmon braised in pinot noir, I got this: “At the risk of getting too personal, perhaps you might find someone to share life/meals with. That would kill your column concept, but could change your life in a positive way. The pleasures of the table are so satisfying when shared.”
In all fairness to the person who posted that on FB, though, I don't think she meant it to come across as condescending. In fact, she's been in touch since the book came out, expressing dismay that I took offense and assuring me that she was merely playing yenta, since she also was trying connect me to a friend she thought I might hit it off with (an assessment with which I disagreed).

I don't mean to be thin-skinned about all this, but evidence of people's prejudices about single folks has been piling up. Several months back, a ripple of guffaws went around cyberspace after someone Tweeted a link to what they called the most depressing cookbook ever: "Microwave Cooking for One" by Marie T. Smith. And granted, there's more than a good bit of unintended kitsch at work with this 1986 book, whose cover shows Smith smiling behind a huge pile of dishes, many of them practically spilling out of a microwave. But the microwave is only part of the joke here, isn't it? The punch line is that CF1 is pathetic.

Last November, months before "Serve Yourself" was on the shelves, I did a double-take (and a quick rewind) while watching "30 Rock," when Liz Lemon tells someone on the phone, "I was going to take this class, 'Cooking for One,' but the teacher killed himself." Note to Tina Fey: Be on the lookout for a copy of my book; we're trying to get one on your desk.

And then just the other day, when Epicurious issued this Tweet to link to Esther Sung's blog post about the interview with me -- "Recipes with a serving for one @joeyonan" -- some of the re-tweets played up the loneliest-number thing:

  1. "This seems like rubbing it in.
  2. "For those with no friends out there this is for you!"
  3. "depressing, but helpful!"
The first two of those seem obviously issued by people who Tweeted before they read. And on Twitter, you can't always discern someone's tone in a mere 140 characters. I couldn't help but respond:
  1. "Nah. You gotta eat, gotta cook!"
  2. "Lovely that you always have company (I guess), but many who have lots of friends (& even partners) have nights alone."
  3. "Not depressing -- meditative, even fun!"
I don't know how much good any of it does. Frankly, to some people the most tragic picture in the world -- tragic in a tragic way, or tragic in a comic way -- is that of someone, anyone, being alone. And it's beyond the scope of my cookbook, or this blog, or my Tweets, to try to change that. Thankfully, I have kindred spirits. When Olga Berman, who writes the Mango & Tomato blog, saw the Tweets above, she weighed in with this: "ugh, why do people think if you are single you should not cook good food for yourself? SO annoying." And I replied, "indeed! I'm starting to feel like Dr Phil, or Whitney! Greatest love of all and shit."

When I went to my agent Lisa Ekus's home in western Massachusetts earlier this year for a day of media training, she very smartly tried to trip me up when we role-played a TV host interviewing me while I demo'd a dish. She picked an angle she knew I might be sensitive about, and asked, "Don't you ever get lonely?" I paused for a beat and then said: "You know, Lisa, I have such an active social life and interact with so many people through the course of my job that some nights, it's so great to just come home, turn on the radio, and enjoy the process of making a meal, to focus on just me."
I meant it. Because if you can't fathom the idea of being single and happy, well, cooking is probably the least of your worries. I'm so glad I don't see things that way.


  1. Although I CF1 for different reasons your statement "...if you can't fathom the idea of being single and happy, well, cooking is probably the least of your worries..." is very true.

  2. As someone who just made your wine-braised chicken thighs (and your mac and cheese last week), all I can say to the whole CF1 depressing issue is that if you're depressed alone you'll be depressed with other people. I LOVE doing things solo and I love doing things with others. Why? Cause I love my life. To the rest of the folks who can't understand that--SNACK IT!

  3. TR, I couldn't agree with you more! You've got the idea, exactly. Thanks for commenting!

  4. As someone who just moved out on their own - and is single and fully intends to stay single for various reasons of my own choosing I was thrilled to find your cook book along with a couple others. I value my own space/privacy too much to share living space with anyone.

    Anyway I haven't had a chance to try out any of your recipes yet but I hoping too this weekend. Probably something Tex-Mex as that's my favorite kind of food.

  5. This is such a funny take on CF1! For me, CF1 is luxurious self-indulgence. My conversations about CF1 usually include a Superior Being who argues that it's wrong to cater to individual tastes. My mom doubled as a short-order cook when she'd make breakfast on school days for four kids. One had Cream of Wheat, two had oatmeal, and one had scrambled eggs. The critics of CF1 in these posts presume there's no one else to please, but sometimes it just means really pleasing only one. I make my favorites for lunch, often just for myself because my kids want something else. They are learning to cook because I'm not my mom and won't cater to them. It's OK with me that they experiment with what pleases them. When they find something they think everyone will like, they are excited about putting their discovery on the dinner menu, but their interest in cooking starts with being hungry-- and cooking for one-- not because they want to entertain. (Don't get me started on why they don't want PBJs for lunch -- but that's why they're learning to cook. I'll make a delicious curried chicken salad loaded with white raisins and apple chunks that no one else will touch, but I love it. )

  6. When I was shopping for a sofa the salesperson asked me what my budget was. My reply: Budgets are for married women, I'm single, I'm pleasing myself, it's my money & I'm buying what I like. I think the same thing can be said for cooking for one and food budgets. If I want fillet 3 nights a week, truffle salt for my baked potatoes or pate I'll have it -- these little luxuries are so much more affordable when you only have to buy for one and makes the entire experience of eating solo even that much more of a luxurious self-indulgence. Let the casserole, how to make your leftovers last all week crowd crow -- they are just jealous.

  7. Joe:

    Thank you for bringing up this subject and addressing it!

    No; Cooking for One doesn't have to be redundant or lonely!

    Yes there are lonely times for some of us, especially if a great marriage was prior to you being just you!

    But if you fill your life with honest work, and friends and keep busy, you don't have time to be lonely.

    For a generation that hates stereotyping, people have not learned to quit stereotyping those that are on their own.