In May, when most of the things I derive pleasure from in life had been absent for quite a long time, I thought often of a quote from the John Irving novel The World According To Garp. Garp writes, “Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day: what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.”
Writing had failed me in lockdown, or I it; I had produced the equivalent of an averagely productive weekend over the course of those two months. Love, certainly, was nowhere to be found and the worst-case warnings of coronavirus resulting in a five-year shuttering made me sure I would never speak to anyone new in person again, let alone fall in love with them.
Food, then, was what I had left to play with. Like many others I learned new recipes and elaborated on old standards – anything decadent and involved enough that it would consume my afternoons whole. I threw myself into chicken karaage tacos, and sage brown butter pasta with poached fish, and some appalling thing with cauliflower done four ways.
Soon after that phase, I made my way out of my parents’ place in Waterford and back to London, where I now live alone. I am afraid of a lonely winter, the possibility (or certainty, depending on who you ask) of a recurring period of total isolation, and I observe myself gathering close objects and routines that would make such a time more bearable. I’m like a bird dragging scraps of shiny debris to make its nest, noticing bits and bobs that might provide some moment of solace in the depths of an interminable November evening. I have acquired an exercise bike, upon which I dispassionately work out while watching the Real Housewives franchise, and when I think of winter, I am safe in the knowledge that I can maintain this level of semi-conscious perfunctory fitness even if I’m stuck indoors.
In the midst of these feelings, the meaning of my meals has shifted again. Living alone, with nobody to witness what you do from hour to hour, changes the tenor of many things in life – but for me it has chiefly been to do with food. Without a companion, an audience of some kind, the idea of preparing something decent and nourishing, something that requires a little effort, now often feels absurd, and even frightening. To spend several hours preparing something I will then consume at my kitchen table with a podcast on, in the space of 15 minutes, feels bleak to me. It feels bleak in a way that, say, the notion of reading a book and drinking a coffee alone in my apartment does not. Why is this? I love nothing more than eating alone in restaurants. Why do I need others to see me eat for it to feel like a worthwhile endeavour?
When I was a teenager, to prepare food in solitude was my greatest ambition. Like many people who suffer from disordered eating, what I was struggling toward was not only thinness but control. It felt filthy to me that others could make me eat what they had cooked, or could watch me as I made something, and see me eat or discard it. It was the invasion of observation that I felt as keenly as the desire to take up less space in the world. I wanted solitude, to wallow in the luxury of my own private choices. Food was holy then, as well as the enemy, and I dreamed of being left alone with it eternally.
All that changed eventually. (Though, of course, it still remains in various embarrassing phantom iterations; to this day, I can’t eat much in front of someone I have a crush on until I get to know them quite well and learn to relax. Until then, my throat physically refuses, my stomach seems to shrink in revolted protest, screaming: “Don’t let them see you do that!”) Now, I love to eat, and food is no longer threatening or suspect, but rather holds the promise of communion and love and the beginning of nights with my favourite people. It’s something I give or take or share with my best friends and partners. It’s no longer the enemy, because I have reframed it as social – and I love nothing more than being social.
But what, then, to do when the social is removed? I realise, living alone, that the truce I made with food was conditional, that it needed an audience.
When I think about the performance of meals, I think of when I was a waitress in my early twenties. I had never worked in a restaurant before, and my sensitivity to humiliation was such that every minor thing I got wrong felt like a catastrophic event. But soon I learned to fake it, and because the restaurant was known to be staffed by hip young dickheads, I had a ready-made role to play. There was even a costume: the owner told me one day to stop wearing floral dresses and come in skinny jeans and sharp shirts. Soon I was sauntering around icily like everyone else, and the experience began to feel like we were all acting in some play together. When no one was looking, though, the reality shone through – the wages from my four shifts a week were not enough to live off, really, and I was hungry and wild, and would remove uneaten food from yuppie plates and eat it quickly, ravenously.
What it comes down to, I think, is that alone, without the audience, it is far harder to simply accept that you are really a person. The routines around personhood come to feel thin and shabby. To prepare a meal for yourself alone is to actively confront the fact that you’re alive and that you deserve and need things. This is the hardest lesson for me to absorb, but I know it might really be the only one. So on I go, with a heavy heart, feeling exposed and more than a little absurd. I open the recipe book once again, without anybody to see if I do or don’t.