Not breakfast, which sometimes finds me distracted or depressed—and who really enjoys cereals or even eggs? And my home brewed coffee is usually a disaster.
I eat lunch at my studio, quickly, so it doesn’t count.
But on those rare evenings, like last night, when I don’t meet a friend or a relative or a date, I settle myself into enjoying the whole process—shopping, cooking, eating and cleaning up.
For dinner last night I bought an artichoke. This was the great treat of my childhood, rarely served, and then with Hollandaise sauce. I don’t know why we so seldom had it, perhaps because it takes so long to cook, and of course making a now-forbidden Hollandaise sauce takes a special talent.
So, the artichoke. This was a medium sized one—the giants are generally uneatable, the tiny ones unrewarding—and it took a good forty minutes to steam it to that point of tenderness where each leaf is easily separated from the stalk, and the teaspoonful of eatable matter at the base of each leaf is tender.
I first learned a word that means what it does when an adult explained to me that the nasty nest of hairs that cover the artichoke’s heart is called a “choke.” That is what it would do if one is unwary enough to eat it.
After I speared the red hot artichoke out of its boiling bath and threw it in the sink to douse it with cold water—this causes the leaves to open, and makes it cool enough to eat—I placed it in the central compartment of the special white china artichoke plate that was the only present I asked for years ago when I was about to be married.
My father-in-law, who asked me to tell him what I wanted, had expected something a good deal fancier than six plain white china artichoke plates.
But to me, owning the plates meant I could count on eating artichokes at least once a month.
Those plates have followed me through fifteen moves when a lot of apparently more important stuff was forgotten, given away, or simply left behind.
Last night as I ate the leaves of my artichoke, I noticed how a repetitive task—each leaf pulled off the stalk, dipped in French dressing, and eaten—demands a particular sort of attention. It is so easy to fall into the apathy of repetition. After all, each leaf is pretty much the same in taste and texture.
I like that kind of challenge. Compared to most of the challenges in life, it is light and easy.
Before sitting down to my artichoke, I set my place on the pretty round table in my living room alcove and lit two candles. I don’t listen to music, read, or, God forbid, look at television. Eating is simply eating.
The rest of my meal was anti-climactic. A round of tenderloin, a little too unctuous—I am not much of a meat eater, and this particular cut is too dense and rich for me. Beautiful small carrots from the farmers market, so sweet they don’t need butter or salt. And a glass of a red wine, which I can’t describe because wine makes so little impression on me, barely more than water. But a glass of wine is part of the eating alone ritual.
I probably wouldn’t enjoy it so much if I hadn’t spent several decades cooking for a large family. I liked the cooking itself but not lugging home the bags of groceries, and not dealing with the fights that always seems to erupt during dinner time in large families—fights about what to eat, or to refuse to eat, or how to deal with your neighbor who is pinching you. I often longed just to get up and leave, but that was a long ago and the children are long since grown and gone.
I haven’t yet translated the pleasure of eating alone to eating alone in a restaurant. The first time I had to try it, I was in Washington for one of the big women’s marches, staying at a hotel that didn’t offer room service. Room service is the lone diner’s way out, but there is something demoralizing about finding the remains outside one’s door in the morning.
So I had to eat at some kind of nondescript restaurant in that neighborhood.
I was not comfortable. I felt observed, and as a writer I know too well that if I feel observed (whether that is actually the case or not), I won’t be able to observe. A set of blinders folds itself around my eyes and I can only see my plate.
As a transition to a slightly more comfortable state, I began to take a book, but reading in a restaurant is not really reading. It is just avoiding looking at other people.
I still prefer eating alone, especially when I have an artichoke.