Most evenings, I dine with my spouse, an extroverted, generous conversationalist. Even on a weeknight, our dinner for two is a drawn out affair, with hors d’oeuvres, wine, and a simple but carefully prepared vegetarian entrée. We often linger over the remains of the meal, delaying the inevitable washing up. Dinnertime rituals are sacred in our house, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Now and then, when I travel or my spouse is away, I dine alone. As much as I relish our shared meals, and enjoy hosting the occasional dinner party for friends, I have a special appreciation for dining solo. If I’m home alone, I rarely resort to fast or convenience foods. I cook a complete meal, pour a small glass of wine, and set the table for one. A creature of habit, when I spent a few weeks away from home recently, I prepared single-serving meals, set the table, and ate quietly, sometimes with a book, but more often without.
A friend asked about my dining arrangements during my time away, and was shocked when I told her that I cook and dine with such care. “You never just eat a bowl of cereal or a bag of microwaved popcorn on the sofa?” she asked, surprised that I hadn’t considered this possibility. To be honest, I’d never given it a thought.
I suppose my dining practises seem odd to some, in the effort involved, as well as in the slow, measured pace of the meal. They might consider the solitary meal an indulgence, and judge the effort involved unnecessary. In our busy working lives, why take time to ritualize the daily meal, particularly when breaking bread alone?
While some people view cooking dinner as a demanding chore, for me, its repetition does not take away from the joy I find in the kitchen; in fact, there is comfort in the routine of preparing and consuming the evening meal. It is a sacrosanct ritual: a time to pause, engage with the senses, and refuel.
The stresses of the workplace, an overflowing email inbox, all the interruptions and distractions of the day, are set aside at five o’clock. Whether attempting a new recipe or preparing an old favourite, most days I’m restored by the task. As I wash my hands at the kitchen sink, I breathe deeply, happy to cook dinner, yet again – even if it’s dinner for one.
Like so many city-dwellers, my contact with the natural world is limited. Most days, the only time I spend outdoors is to take a hurried shortcut across the city park or the university campus, and I never veer from the concrete sidewalk. Each evening, however, I meet nature in my kitchen, as I wash, chop, sauté, and steam. The precision of tiny brown lentils, the crisp green of arugula, the potato’s yielding yellow flesh demand that I pause, in wonder and appreciation. My senses, dulled after hours in a stuffy office, blunted by smog and car exhaust, wake up when I’m cooking, and I smell, see, and feel for what sometimes seems like the first time all day. Alone in the quiet kitchen – but for the gentle tapping of my knife on the cutting board and sizzle of oil in the pan – I am able to take it all in.
The sixteenth-century mystic Teresa of Avila reminded her fellow sisters that God walks among the pots and pans. I think she was on to something. Perhaps we cannot live entirely by bread alone; but some days, the ritual of bread alone nourishes and satisfies.