I’m one of those many people who say they love to cook for others. As I reflected on in a past post, food can be a powerful expression of love and care. I’ve never enjoyed cooking for myself, though; when I’m alone I usually throw something quick together — some cannellini beans or a pot of rice and veggies. Most of the people I know who live alone say they hardly ever cook because they don’t have anyone to cook for, and so they order take-out or go out to eat instead.
Food historians, such as Massimo Montanari, with whom I studied in Bologna, claim that the invention of cooking was the process that transformed eating into a social ritual. Hunters and gatherers came back to the village to eat around a communal fire instead of dispersed in the woods and fields. The novel, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones centers around the importance of eating together in Chinese food culture. Numerous recent studies argue that eating together can prevent obesity: when we eat in company we eat more slowly and, therefore, often less and enjoy the food more. Here in Italy I witness the importance of eating together daily, where children still come home from school to have lunch with their families. But does all this mean that cooking and eating alone can’t be satisfying?
A few weeks ago when my partner was away for the weekend and I found myself confronted with four days of cooking for myself, I began to reflect on my feeling of dread at having to eat alone. I began to ask myself: Why do we so enjoy giving love and care to others in the form of food but we don’t do the same for ourselves? Why do we say we don’t have anyone to cook for when we speak about cooking for ourselves? Am I not enough? Do I not deserve to receive the same delicious, nurturing food I give to others?
I decided that yes, of course, I deserve it and that I just needed to shift my thinking and instead to consider cooking for myself as a way of taking care of and nurturing myself. That evening I decided to make myself one of my favorite dishes — quinoa with roasted squash and kale. I wanted to make something good for my body but also a dish that I would enjoy the process of making. I turned on the music and began to sing and dance along to Meklit Hadero as I peeled, chopped and sauteed, remembering doing the same with my parents over the holidays just a few weeks before. It was the first time I truly enjoyed making and eating a meal I had prepared for myself, and myself alone.
In the last few years, cookbook authors seem to have caught on to the importance of cooking for oneself. With titles such as “The Pleasures of Cooking for One” by Judith Jones, who sees it as an opportunity for creativity and experimentation, “Table for One,” “Going Solo in the Kitchen,” and “Serves One,” there seems to be plenty of guidance and inspiration for solo cooks.
Of course it would be difficult to do day in and day out — but I find that true as well of cooking for a partner or friend. In my thesis on gender and food, I found that what most women disliked in particular about feeding work was its compulsory and repetitive nature. We do, after all, have to eat three times a day, every day. Understandably, while their partners are away, many women finally feel lifted of the burden of having to prepare daily meals and prefer not to cook at all.
But I think that if those of us living with a partner can take some of those moments we do have to cook only for ourselves as an opportunity rather than drudgery, and those living alone treat themselves to an occasional delicious home-cooked meal, we can use this act not only as a lesson in slowing down and reflecting on what we’re putting into our bodies, but also the need to treat ourselves kindly and nurture ourselves!