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Elissa Altman

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What Do You Eat When No One is Watching?

Posted: 11/13/09 03:58 PM ET

They were doomed from the start.

Three months before they got married, my father called my mother from his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, just to say hello.

"Whatcha having for dinner, Cy?" she asked.
"A roast--" he responded. "It's in the oven."
"Who's coming?" she asked, suspicious.
"No one. It's just me," he answered.
"You're making a roast, just for you?" she said-
"And pommes Anna. And some asparagus."
He sipped his Gibson.
"And you?" he asked.

Silence.

My father believed that it was his right to cook himself a lovely meal even if he was alone, and my mother thought that it was indicative of some visceral weirdness.

Seventeen years later, they divorced.

And at the time, had I read Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin's remarkable book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone, I could have predicted it. Because two people whose approaches to self-sustenance and pleasure are that uniformly different probably aren't going to make it. And ultimately, they didn't.

Yes, Deborah Madison is the Deborah Madison of Greens Restaurant and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone fame, and a woman who has forever changed the face of vegetarian cooking in this country; Patrick McFarlin, an iconic painter, illustrator, and graphic designer, is her husband, and culinary and visual collaborator on the book, and in life. And together, they have created a work that was probably guaranteed from the start to make any traditional cookbook publisher's hair stand straight up: they wrote about the culinarily subversive, the secret, the seductive, the gastronomically onanistic. They did it by asking people to reveal what they do, and what they eat, in the confines of their own kitchens when no one is around. When they're alone. Behind closed doors. When no one is looking.

And people told them.

This may on the surface seem to be small beans, but in fact, it is a very big thing, because, as we know, no matter how virtuous one may seem in the kitchen, there are always secrets. It would be like watching my grandfather eating a BLT on Saturday after shul and before my grandmother came home from shopping. Or watching Alice Waters eating a Nathan's hot dog in her kitchen in Berkeley, when she thinks that no one's around. I'm not saying that this ever happened, but you get the idea.

If you watch the video that's attached to the project -- and make no mistake...it is a project, a living installation of sorts with its roots firmly grounded in food, art, and the magical contradictions of human psychology -- you can actually see participants run the gamut from slightly sheepish to absolutely forthright when asked what they cook for themselves when no one is watching:

Persimmons. Catfish fried in bacon fat. A can of pickled herring (was this lady one of my relatives?). A chocolate Sundae. Elbow soup. Tuna mixed with cottage cheese. Peanut butter and jelly (says the partner; "How do you know that," a voice in the background asks. "Because it's left on the counter").

At a time when food and eating has become a public and comestible form of entertainment; when it has become rightly politicized; when oversize cookbooks sit unopened on the coffee tables of people who wouldn't ever turn on a stove; when there is virtually no attention focused on the fact that the average home cook will spend far more time preparing meals for the people she or he loves (and sometimes doesn't) and then maybe go so far as to open a bag of jelly bellies when alone, this book is more important and timely than ever. (And indeed, the concept of eating alone as fodder for cookbooks has come out of the closet lately: Judith Jones' Cooking for One has reached scores of home cooks who find themselves single in a world of multi-portion recipes and ingredients.) What sets What We Eat When We Eat Alone apart is its utter uniqueness: it's packed with tales--hilarious, sad, touching, and deeply human--and while the stellar recipes are everything that you'd expect from Deborah Madison (they run the gamut from polenta with braised greens, to chilaquiles, to Frito pie and far beyond) the meat of the matter is in the book's delicious humanity, warmth, and unbridled intimacy.

Anyone who knows Deborah Madison's books knows full well that she should be declared a national treasure; what we -- what I -- did not expect was the balletic, narrative leap from practical kitchen instruction to personal storytelling, and from stove to soul that happens in this amazing work.

'Tis the season for cookbooks: publishers are putting out scores of them this Christmas. But for a book that will outlive trend and will appeal to vast numbers of us who relish the subversive idea that is the act of eating alone, this is the one.


 

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