What Do You Cook When No One’s Watching?

Table for One is a weekly food column by bachelor and Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and just wants to celebrate those quiet, cozy nights in.

“Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly,” M. F. K. Fisher writes in my favorite chapter of her Alphabet for Gourmets, “A is for Dining Alone.” There’s nothing more devastating to me than a bad dinner date. Which is why I often find myself alone after work, sitting at my kitchen island with a plate of food and a glass of wine, my dog at my feet. At the end of a long day, this table for one is more than just a place for me to have my dinner—it’s a place, as well, for me to have my thoughts.

There’s great pleasure in the cooking, too. When we talk about the foods we cook for ourselves, they can often feel like throwaway meals we’re embarrassed about and would never serve to others. But I find that it’s in this kind of cooking—where the sole purpose is to nourish myself—that I’m the most at ease, and thus much more able to experiment, create, and, eventually, master a recipe.

As I started gaining my foot in the kitchen years ago, I found that I was eager to learn new ways to feed myself—only myself—but that I had to create my own scaled-down versions of recipes from cookbooks and online. Which is why I was grateful when Anita Lo’s Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One arrived at my desk, and even more so to read the comments on Tejal Rao’s coverage of it in The New York Times. It meant not only that publishers were starting to take the subject of one seriously, but also that there were other people out there, like me, looking for single-serving recipes that had as much care and complexity as their larger-serving counterparts.

Anita Lo’s chicken dinner for one makes use of day-old bread and celebrates broccoli.

Photo by Ty Mecham

As a writer, too, I find that it’s in this realm of the solo dinner that there are the best stories. The plight of the single-serving recipe is that it often has to parade joy and self-love (or else it’s sad). It’s often sold without any acknowledgement that there’s always a reason, always some kind of context, that explains why that one is not two, or four, or six to eight (how most recipes are written). As Lo writes in the introduction to her book, “I’ve been dumped as many times as I’ve been in relationships—and I can count those on less than two hands. Spread over my fifty-year life-span, that’s a lot of solo meals.”

Solo is a testament to celebrating all of the reasons we find ourselves alone at the table with knife and fork—and never apologizing for any of them.

Earlier this month I asked the internet (Twitter, Instagram, and you guys!) a couple questions to test a theory: that people are indeed looking for recipes for one and cookbooks like Anita’s. The first question was pragmatic:

The second question was more of a conversation starter: What do you cook for yourself when no one’s watching? Not knowing what to expect, I got a slew of responses (too many to capture here). But here were some of my favorites:

  • “One giant pancake.”
  • “7 eggs with an avocado and ketchup, 6 if someone’s watching.”
  • “A whole head of broccoli, roasted, and eaten on its own with a fork (it’s not like I’m doing this for anyone else).”
  • “Big fat Fordhook lima beans with a ton of butter, salt, and fresh ground black pepper.”
  • “The iceberg wedge Grandma would make—with a decent layer of good mayo on the cut sides and some chopped black olives on top.”
  • “Tuna on pickles: I make a salty tuna salad with just a little mayo, minced onion and celery, tons of salt and pepper and a splash of pickle brine. Then I pile little mounds onto zesty bread and butter pickles. Maybe sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Then I pop ’em in my mouth and wish there were more!”
  • “Canned corn beef hash.”

Many turn to carbs when they’re alone, naturally.

  • “Instant mashed potatoes with meatballs in gravy.”
  • “An extremely loaded baked potato: roast beef, caramelized onions, butter, sour cream, chives, horseradish.”
  • “Leftover pasta, fried in butter with bread crumbs and ketchup.”
  • “Pasta alle vongole with a few cups of white wine is my recipe for when my heart aches.”
  • “Warm leftover spaghetti and meat sauce sandwich folded into a single slice of fresh white bread with softened butter. (Sigh.)”
  • “Ramen and accidental hard-boiled eggs (I always aim to soft-boil but just can’t get it right).”
  • “Shin Ramyun with scallions and a last-minute egg dropped in.”
  • “I eat loaves of bread—whole loaves—in one happy sitting. Crusty, crackling, warm artisan hearth loaves fresh from my oven. In baking school, I ate entire baguettes for dinner followed by an apple for good luck.”
  • “Frozen pizza.”

The things men come to eat when they are alone are, I suppose, not much stranger than the men themselves.

M. F. K. Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets

Some get very creative when they’re alone.

  • “Crunchy peanut butter, mayo, grape jelly, iceberg lettuce, on gummy, fresh, white bread.”
  • “Cheese-covered Ritz crackers melted in the microwave.”
  • “Microwave nachos on saltines. Don’t hate!”
  • “Saltines and sriracha (apply several dots and eat in two bites).”
  • “Tate’s cookies mashed up with a fork in a mug of milk, eaten like cereal (but with the fork).”
  • “Grape Nuts with milk and a couple tablespoons of unprepared Jello powder.”
  • “Banana and bacon with mascarpone on a grilled split bun. Drink juice to remove the guilt.”
  • “I make packaged ramen (Top Ramen brand, Soy Sauce flavor) and turn it into what I call ‘faux pho’ by adding more broth and spiking it with fresh ginger and thinly sliced mushrooms, celery, carrots, scallions, red pepper flakes, and a little sesame oil.”

A lot of people eat rice when they’re alone.

  • “Rice with brown butter–scrambled eggs.”
  • “Day-old rice, fried eggs.”
  • “Leftover rice, fried egg, soy sauce.”
  • “White rice. Sauteed onion. Crispy sunny egg.”
  • “White rice with butter, soy sauce, and fried egg on top. Sour kimchi on the side.”
  • “Spam and rice, served with kimchi.”
  • “Steamed white rice, thin and crispy spam, fried eggs, and kimchi if I’ve got it.”
  • “Kimchi fried rice, straight out of the pan.”
  • “The spiciest-of-spicy, mouth-on-fire fried rice with as much kimchi and gochujang as possible, sautéed in butter, any leftover veggies I have in the fridge (to make me feel that it’s healthier?) and an egg.”

Some choose to treat themselves when they’re alone.

  • “A meal I savor alone—an appetizer of beautifully prepared artichokes or tomatoes, then a piece of grilled fish (halibut or trout, e.g.), finished in brown butter. With Barolo or white zinfandel on the side.”
  • “Seared scallops (easy to pop a few out of the freezer) with extra super garlicky greens (whatever I have) and tons of lemon juice on both. The rest of my family would never eat this, so it’s a treat for me.”
  • “A pound or more of sauteed mushrooms with Worcestershire, maybe add broccoli or another veg. I don’t even bother to put it over pasta—just tuck in with a bowl and a spoon in front of the latest episode of Great British Baking Show.”
  • “The only one that sees me eat is the cat. But when I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I make a big pan of chicken livers sautéed with onions, apples, and (of course) bacon.”
  • “Sometimes I like to make a lobster and consume it barehanded over the sink.”

Somehow, reading all of these made me feel less alone this week, reiterating something that I’ve always felt about cooking for one: If these are the foods we choose to eat when no one is looking, then why wouldn’t we always eat like like that?

It’s these private meals that seem to celebrate, most honestly, the very act of eating itself—the nourishment of our bodies—as something we should never be ashamed of, regardless of the contents of our plates. And in their casual, unsurveilled preparation, recipes for one also take the stress out of cooking and allow us to seek refuge in the quiet, solitary hummings of the kitchen, in the pleasures that can come from such a reliable self-sufficiency.

What do you cook for yourself when no one’s watching? Let us know in the comments below.

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