His hands were slightly weathered; fingernails showing the remains of the kind of dirt that no amount of soap or washing could undo. I looked down at my own nails and began to pick a little at the chipped polish – red, white, and blue for the Fourth of July. I took a sip of my Cherry Coke. He must work outside, I thought. Farmer, maybe? Construction? With a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, he twirled his pasta round and round, managing to create the perfect bite … and then another, and another. I was entranced by the precision and methodical nature that the man employed as he ate his bowl of pasta with red sauce. I’d seen my grandfather do it the exact same way. That fact alone was enough for me to decide I liked him, the man at the table across the way. Seated by himself, I kept waiting for someone to come and join him, to relieve him from his lonesomeness – a wife, a friend, a colleague. But no one ever came.
The waitress asked him if he’d be needing anything else that evening. Dessert? Coffee? The man kindly declined and paid his bill. He winked at me as he walked by, tapping the tip of his rolled-up newspaper on the corner of my table – a friendly gesture.
Darn. He’d seen me staring. I felt my face redden, and took another sip of Cherry Coke.
In 1985, the New York Times published an article sharing the following bit of news with its devoted readership: Dining alone is no longer viewed as odd.
Did people rejoice at this pronouncement of public dining’s evolution? Did they rush out, then, to take their meals as parties of one? Were formerly house-bound solo diners suddenly freed from the confines of their residences, able then to enjoy the freedom of this acceptable new wave of eating alone? I have no clue; I was only two years old. But The Times did, however, publish a follow-up article seven months after the one to which I refer above, further breaking down the stigma that had long been attached to “the lone diner” and offering up reasons as to why things were shifting. People were busier and busier. Ready-made and fast-casual dining options were increasingly available, family sizes were decreasing significantly …
The times, it seemed, they were a changin’.
If I’d taken another sip of Cherry Coke, they would have had to roll me out of the restaurant, I was warned. You’re going to turn into a Cherry Coke! Seated across from me at the long dining table, my friend’s mother teased me as the waitress delivered my third glass-full. I’d been invited out to dinner by a friend of mine from school and had donned a new pair of Jellies shoes for the occasion. She and I sat catty-corner from one another at our table in Ms. Kipler’s third grade class, and I was delighted to be joining her larger-than-life family that night to celebrate her Granddaddy’s 70th trip around the sun.
At this point in my life, I am often heckled by friends and family for my unusually long and accurate food memory. I can remember meals I ate years ago – bites of food I took before I was even old enough to drive a car … before I was tall enough to see over the kitchen counter. It’s quirky! You’re quirky. But like, in a good way. People tell me this, and I suppose it’s true. But the thing about that particular meal, on that particular night, in that restaurant long ago is that I can’t remember a single thing I ate. Well, except for the Cherry Coke, if that counts. What I remember from that dining experience of mine was not the food on my own plate but rather, the food on the man’s plate who was seated exactly three tables to my left. I remember that pasta and all of the twirling and swirling, and I remember that he was alone. It struck me as strange at the time, and I recall feeling sorry for him like it was a sad sight – someone dining out with no one across from them with which to share the experience.
It’s funny though. I am writing this post from my spot at a crowded coffee shop … my latte perched next to my sugar-topped muffin … my papers strewn across my very intentional table for one.
According to OpenTable, single-table reservations have gone up 62% in the last couple of years, so it seems that the stigmas of years past have effectively faded away. The act of dining alone brings with it a distinct level of satisfaction that you can’t get from a communal eating experience, and while sharing meals with others is one of my favorite things to do, I can also recognize the value in taking a meal by oneself every now and again.
“[…] to concentrate on what you’re consuming, to be able to take in your eating environment alone, is one of the cornerstones of self-sufficiency. You are free from bullshit food shame, from other people’s boring diet restrictions, from small talk, from having to meet someone so late you’ve eaten the napkins before the starters arrive and, most importantly, from compromise. You are an island.” Nell Frizell, Vice Magazine
But when everyone around you is aware of your loneliness, does that make you feel it more? Dining alone in a public place brings with it a very interesting type of lonesomeness, because you are alone yet surrounded by people (an island), which almost makes no sense. It’s an oxymoron of sorts. I eat alone at home all the time and never really give it a thought. But when you are all alone and everyone knows it – HELLO WORLD! I AM EATING HERE ALL BY MYSELF! – it is a different thing entirely. I actually remember the first time I dined out alone (perhaps not surprisingly). It was in New York City and I really wanted a bagel – a real-deal NYC bagel with lox and a mountain of dill-spiked cream cheese. I ordered, took my seat, and proceeded to eat my food. I’ll admit though, to having brought a book with me as a sort of crutch, something to which I could divert my attention should this solo dining affair get too awkward. I tried my best to appear cool and visibly purposeful in my lonesomeness, and I may have succeeded in that. I’d like to think I did but I guess I’ll never really know for sure.
Weird as it may have felt that first time, like venturing into murky, uncharted waters, I quite enjoy it now … the whole act of dining alone. I removed my training wheels long ago, books and magazines are no longer needed, and I am content to just enjoy the occasion and revel in the slowness that comes with taking a meal, or in today’s case – a muffin – all by myself. I no longer pity the lonesome diner as I once did, and I now see eating alone as an act of real pleasure, almost luxurious even (I am a mother of two very young children, it is probably worth noting at this point).
If you want it to be, solo dining can bring with it a pleasantly introspective type of experience, allowing you to be a little more thoughtful and appreciative of the moment … of the food … right down to the very last, single, solitary bite.
Simple Tomato Sauce with Almond Pesto RECIPE
This recipe is a combination of two recipes, from other people, that I combined. I love adding Marc Vetri’s (from Amis in Philadelphia) basic almond pesto to pasta primavera and also to vegetarian lasagna and in this case, I use it to change the flavor of one of my favorite basic tomato sauces, Marcela Hazan’s famous tomato sauce. By adding some of the nutty almond pesto to the sauce, you change the flavor profile and transform it into something entirely different; good whether shared or eaten entirely by oneself.
1 ¼ cups skin-on almonds
2 cloves garlic
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Marcela Hazan’s tomato sauce (or whatever tomato sauce you like)
1 lb. pasta
Toast the almonds in a large, deep sauté pan over medium heat, shaking the occasionally, until they are fragrant, about three to four minutes.
Transfer 1 cup of the almonds to a blender or a food processor. Chop the remaining ¼ cup (36 g) almonds with a knife and set them aside. Add 1 clove garlic and ¼ cup of the oil to the blender or processor. Turn on the machine and drizzle in another ¼ cup of the oil, blending until the pesto is relatively smooth. Taste the pesto, and add salt to taste.
Add the almond pesto to your preferred tomato sauce, using a ratio of about 5 to 1 (tomato to pesto). But that part is totally up to you. I look at the pesto here the same way I do salt – I add it to taste, stopping when things taste good.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Toss the hot, cooked pasta with the sauce, coating to your liking. Garnish as desired.