Dining Alone

Most people think of me as pretty outgoing. I certainly know how to make conversation and don’t easily fade into the woodwork at social gatherings. But I am by nature a bit of an introvert. The older I get, the more I realize that time alone becomes a necessary ingredient to fuel my creativity and maintain a sense of balance and focus. There is an internal spaciousness that is created where thoughts stop darting about and enter a dreamier and more imaginative world. It is like my brain let’s down its hair and lets the wind blow through it- carrying away the chaff and rearranging images and thoughts. Ideas and poems might coalesce. I breathe a little deeper and my body seeks its own rhythms of the day.

Meditation has been a practice for me that allow this clearing and centering to take place each day. But a longer stretch alone is just what I need after months or even weeks of “busy”ness.

I remember the first time I gave myself the gift of a writing/solitude sabbatical.  I had arrived at dusk after a long drive from Atlanta to Saxapahaw, N.C. My friend, Kristy Lee, has restored a cabin there with a view of the Haw River from its rambling screened porch. I hadn't had time to stop in town for groceries before dark so I drove on, trusting there would be something to hold me over until morning.  I rummaged through her pantry and found a can of black bean soup that I gratefully heated in the microwave.  I accompanied it with a rice cake that I pretended to be bread, dipping it in the soup.  What was surprising was the relish with which I ate the meager meal.  For all the years that I have made mealtime complicated, this was a refreshing change. 

I don't often dine alone, but there is something very satisfying about preparing food just the way you like it and sharing your meal with a book or, as in Saxapahaw, the slow descent of evening. The focus is the conversation between you and the meal.  The slurps of soup are slower. There is no hurry to get on to the next topic. That communion with one’s self is an exercise in awareness. So often, we who prepare meals for others forget to be fully present in the exchange. We worry about what others need and whether they are satisfied at the end of the meal. Or our attention lingers only briefly on the conversation before turning our attention to the bubbling pot left on the stove.

So rarely do I have the luxury of thinking only of myself and what I want that it takes a little practice to find my own rhythm.   I get very inventive and spare in my cooking then, searching for a dash of this or that to round out some leftovers that no one else would bother with. When I have only myself to please I've come up with some unusual combinations.  For all my culinary training and customary attention to balancing flavor and texture and nutrition, I find I am not really very hard to please.

The next morning the pantry yielded even less: only rice cakes, peanut butter and an apple.   So I sliced the apple and propped up the wedges in a ramekin and sprinkled them with cinnamon and an exotic vanilla powder I found in the spice drawer.  I put it in the oven and went out for a run knowing that there would be nothing more wonderful than the rich smell of a cinnamon baked apple to reward me when I returned.  I placed the steaming treat on a tin plate and the round of rice cake topped with peanut butter next to it.  I thought to notice how beautiful they looked together on the old green porch table.  I sat and watched birds swooping over the kudzu carpet that lined the river, savoring every bite.

This summer I was fortunate to have a whole week alone at our house in Martha’s Vineyard, and hardly anyone knew I was here. My routine was simple: An early rise and a walk with Wally, my dog around the hilly paths near our house or down to the beach. Then there is gardening, writing, meditating and kayaking. and various house projects. During these sorts of sabbaticals, I tend to cook a large batch of something that will carry me through a few meals without further cooking. Since I did have guests over just one night I used the occasion to smoke a whole chicken. It was a hot day, so to keep the kitchen cool I quickly steamed some beets, haricot verts, asparagus and fingerling potatoes in the morning. I added some green olive relish and red onion to the potatoes for a salad and arranged the remaining veggies on a white platter.Steamed Vegetables Next, I made a homemade mayonnaise and added a little garlic and basil. Dinner was ready and I was done in the kitchen. After our dinner I packed up a bounty of leftover smoked chicken and vegetables for sandwiches, salads, and impromptu rice dishes for the next several days.

On my last day of “solitude,”  I got a hankering for some mussels and was thrilled to see that they were offered as a special at Larsen’s Market in Menemsha.  I picked some lettuce from my patio garden, added some of those leftovers beets and sheep’s feta for salad. I splashed on some homemade vinaigrette that I keep on hand. Because the mussels were “rope grown”, meaning they were cultivated above the sandy floors of the ocean, they were uniform in size and cleaned with a quick rinse.

I sautéed a chopped clove of garlic in some olive oil and added about a cup of diced canned tomatoes. A five minute simmer, a tablespoon and a half of Pernod, some black pepper and I put in the mussels and covered the pan. The shells popped open over medium heat in about 3 minutes. I sat on the porch with my feast, dipping some of the mussels in that leftover homemade aioli (garlic mayonnaise). The mussels wereMussels sweet and plump. The moon rising on the water was dazzling.  Perfect I would say.

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