Solo Dinners Reveal Horrible Secrets, Sexy Creations

When your lover/kids/housemates/spouse is gone, what do you make for dinner and where do you eat it? A can of anchovies scarfed while logging onto Second Life? Or spaghetti carbonara while watching old episodes of Deadwood?

Cookbook writer Deborah Madison and her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, investigated the issue in their new book What We Eat When We Eat Alone. Based on interviews with strangers of all ages and walks of life, the book is an interesting and voyeuristic peek into one of our most private moments.

Turns out folks make stuff their spouses don’t like (okra!), because they can. Or they eat weird food combinations because nobody’s watching (Wonder Bread flattened, covered with butter and sugar, then frozen briefly so it becomes a kind of sugar cookie). Most people drink more wine than they typically would, and men swig whiskey. A surprising number of people in all parts of the country “turn to some combination of chiles, tortillas, salsa, and cheese,” write Madison and McFarlin.

The book includes plenty of simple, homey recipes that are adapted from what the interviewees said they ate. My “to-trys” include: soft avocado tacos, and polenta smothered in braised greens.

CHOW sat down with the couple at the Nob Hill Grille in San Francisco.

What inspired the book?

Patrick: We took these trips in the Mediterranean in the 1990s, through the Oldways preservation and food trust. I got in the habit of asking the other people on the tour, many of whom were professional chefs, what they ate when they ate alone, then sketching them. It was a good icebreaker

Deborah: I found the drawings when we were moving, and thought: “This would make a good book.” We did new interviews and collaborated on the writing.

Did peoples’ answers surprise you?

Deborah: I expected to get a lot of answers like “peanut butter sandwich”, but it was all over the map. I’m happy to say there was not one “boneless skinless chicken breast.”

What was the most disgusting thing you heard that somebody ate?

Deborah: Margarita mix poured over bread.

Where there any themes that emerged?

Deborah: Crisp things in liquid, like oyster crackers in coffee or saltines in milk. This sounds kind of disgusting, but it might just be that people don’t have the language to talk about why they like something. When I was in Rome 25 years ago, I read Chéri by Colette, and made a note of this dish she made, where she put milky coffee in a bowl, covered with chunks of bread, with butter and sugar, then put it in the oven so it became kind of caramelized. That sounds good. Maybe if people were writing more about what they were eating, like Colette, there would be magic there in [the question of] “why do you like it?”

Patrick: There’s a whole chapter called “Men and Their Meat.”

Deborah: Patrick interviewed this bartender at a Cuban bar, who liked to take a flank steak, wrap it up with bacon, cheese, and mushrooms, and grill it. We include a recipe for that, but we added spinach.

What other gender stuff came out?

Deborah: Women are more into comfort. Men would never admit that they curl up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate.

What do you two eat, when you eat alone?

Deborah: I make a fried egg sandwich when I come back from yoga.

Patrick: I make panini in my studio with spinach and tofu.

What do you eat when you eat alone?