Why is it so hard to eat alone?

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Around the same time that Kurt Cobain died, my mother started freezing sandwiches.

It wasn't a reaction against grief, exactly. No one in our family had heard of Nirvana anyway. We’d just moved to Australia, and inspired by the school canteen's frozen poppers, she thought it might be a good idea to give our packed lunches the same treatment -- so the ham wouldn't spoil under the harsh Australian sun. 

She was right, of course. Under that new scheme, the only thing that perished was our spirits. I ate my sandwiches furtively – watching the lettuce weep into soggy bread as other kids devoured their sausage rolls with glee. 

If there was one thing The Year of the Frozen Sandwiches taught me, it was the fact that food doesn't necessarily improve with company. In fact, nothing amplifies social awkwardness quite like communal eating. Think of the most tension-filled moments in a lifetime, and you'll find a lot of them happen over shared meals: first dates, company dinners, meeting the in-laws, Christmas lunches, My Kitchen Rules eliminations -- you name it. 

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Yet from a young age, we’ve been told to think of food as a social experience. Our dining companions often say as much about us as the humble or extravagant fare on our plates. Whether it's weekend brunch with the girls, tapas with a new date or roast dinner with the family, there is a near religious commitment to getting the social alchemy right. The modern mealtime, as American essayist Steve Almond observes, has become our "secular communion".  

But as lovely as the bread-breaking goes, no matter how organised you are – it’s impossible to make dinner plans for every day of the week. And what happens when (horror of horrors) no one is free to sup with us? At a time when almost 1 in 10 Australians live alone, why isn't solo dining more common (or at least more socially acceptable)?  How many of us will sooner starve than risk being seen on our own at a restaurant on a Saturday night? 

The truth is, it's one thing to settle down with a plate of couscous or a bowl of cereal for dinner in front of the TV, but quite another to put our solitude on display. In a culture where admitting to loneliness is unbecoming, it's easy to feel a rush of embarrassment for appearing like you have "no other options" in public. As author Jenni Ferrari-Adler writes in her story collection, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, women tend to "both romanticise and fear" the experience of solo dining. While the author relishes quality downtime, she also confesses that "it doesn't take much -- one couple seated too close, an intrusive waiter" for the experience to spin her off "into the murk of self-pity".

From art to popular culture, the image of the lone dining female has always been a subject of fascination for onlookers. As former waitress Erin Ergenbright noted in her essay, Table for One, “It’s hard for me not to create a story around a single diner, as eating alone in a restaurant is an uncomfortable intersection between the public and the private. Serving the single diner I feel like a voyeur”, she writes, “and also guilty if I wonder why he or she is alone. After all, why is anyone alone, finally?”

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           Automat, by Edward Hopper

Up until my mid 20s, I'd never contemplated going anywhere to order a drink -- let alone a meal -- on my own. It was as though I needed peer supervision to set foot in any establishment that boasts the coexistence of food and non-plastic cutlery. Ironically, I also found it much harder to dine alone in my own city, as a small part of me inevitably panics about what I would say if I ran into someone I knew and the other party showed even the slightest hint of concern or pity.

But the turning point came during my first trip to New York City.  On a hot evening after wandering around Midtown all day, I decided I was too hungry and too curious to miss out on trying a delicious-sounding menu from a local Italian eatery. Men do this all the time, don’t they?  So I put on my best normal face and proceeded optimistically.

Once seated, I ordered a glass of wine and (because it seemed like the kind of thing to do) asked for the specials menu. From that, I picked the ‘spatchcock special’. And when I recovered from that, I settled in to read my pocket sized street directory.  It was light on words, but nonetheless provided wonderful reprieve from the waiter’s attentive gaze. Then somewhere between running out of steam with the map and gingerly accepting the head waiter’s unusual offer to take a photo for me, my meal arrived.

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And it wasn’t the dainty Sydney sized-dish I’d pictured in my mind.

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In an article Ferrari-Adler wrote for the New York Magazine, she described the unexpected pleasures of dining alone in a restaurant, “By the time entree arrived, I liked who I seemed to be: someone who lived down the street and treated herself well.” While eating alone is by no means ‘an act of bravery’, I couldn’t help but marvel at how freeing it was to experience solitude unabashedly. And if a whole roast chicken in a new city wasn’t a treat, then I don’t know what is. 

 

42 comments

  • I always thought the opposite, that it's harder for men to eat out alone. Noone bats an eyelid when a woman sits down for a meal with nothing but a book or a magazine for company. I, on the other hand, feel weird unless I'm suited up and reading from the business pages and otherwise pushing the "business traveller" vibe.

    That said, I think smartphones and tablets have made things a lot easier for everyone.

    Commenter
    Spex
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 31, 2012, 8:48AM
    • I would never have gone to a restaurant or bar by myself until I started traveling a lot for work. I certainly am not going to spend any down time eating in the hotel restaurant or ordering room service when I can get out and explore a new city; so I just thought to myself "why do I care if anyone wonders why I'm here alone?". Now I apply this attitude to my daily life and find it very liberating and am finally comfortable with the idea that someone being alone does not automatically mean they are lonely. I love the quote in the final paragraph - "I liked who I seemed to be: someone who lived down the street and treated herself well.” What a lovely way of thinking of dining alone or in fact any situation where you treat yourself just because you are the most important in your life and deserve it!

      Commenter
      ST
      Date and time
      August 31, 2012, 8:56AM
      • You've definitely hit the nail on the head. Its always easier to dine alone if you are in a foreign country. Having travelled for work and sitting in restaurant (still in my suit) its seems a bit more acceptable to be dining alone as if my attire makes it alright.
        Eating out alone at home is definitely harder and feels like you have to be 'brave' because as a single woman you might be tarnished with the lonely brush. However on random occasions it can feel liberating (I'm a confident woman and I'm not bothered!) and you never know who you might meet having on the odd occasion ended up eating a meal with another lone diner.

        Commenter
        Jacqueline
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        August 31, 2012, 9:02AM
        • When I was a waitress for a few years during uni, I had such respect for our regular solo diners. One gent would come in with a book and a mini bottle of red, and always have the spag bol. An older lady would come in right before closing and have a small pizza and a cappucino. It was interesting how the other wait staff would look at them with pity, as though it was sad they were dining alone - I used to think it looked fantastic! Definitely inspired me to eat alone as often as possible in my adult life.

          Commenter
          Clem Bastow
          Date and time
          August 31, 2012, 9:13AM
          • Working in a busy city restaurant I see plenty of women eating or drinking on their own. Far from thinking they look lonely I often feel a little jealous when I spot a woman lounging in the sun, book in hand and wine glass in the other before feeling so decadent she decides to sod the salad and have something delicious and a bit naughty. Women, I think, are able to look comfortable dining alone whereas men tend to look a little awkward unless they're hunched over a laptop or newspaper not even looking at their food as they shovel it in.

            Commenter
            Sam
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            August 31, 2012, 9:26AM
            • I truly love dining alone, having a drink alone and reading a book. At first I felt a bit embarrassed but traveling interstate all the time made me appreciate being able to focus on the food and my thoughts and thoroughly enjoy the experience.

              Commenter
              DK
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              August 31, 2012, 9:31AM
              • me too

                One of my best "dining experiences" was dining alone in a treetop restaurant in Thailand eating the most amazing crab curry.

                I was looking around the room thrilled to bits.

                Now I wanna try going to Hellenic Republic around the corner from my house alone...

                Commenter
                Babette
                Location
                Brunswick
                Date and time
                August 31, 2012, 3:40PM
            • It's a mind shift, but once you've made it, it is a really liberating experience.

              The next challenge - go to a bar and drink on your own. It's incredibly easy in America where they're just so friendly you'll inevitably end up chatting to the person next to you and drinking with them all night. Here, you're likely to get more looks and suspicion - 'cause we're just that little bit more insecure as a nation.

              Commenter
              one bourbon, one scotch and one beer
              Location
              melb
              Date and time
              August 31, 2012, 9:33AM
              • I used to worry about this. Being a woman alone in a bar or pub, I was worried about being hit on, and since I'm married, how to deal with it. Not so bad, as it happens. Whenever a guy offers to buy me a drink, I thank him, refuse the offer (making it clear that I have to get home to my family), and chat with him for a couple of minutes, to dispel any feelings of awkwardness on his part. I Figure that It takes an awful lot of courage to make that first move, and don't want to make the situation horrible for somebody just because he made an approach.

                Commenter
                Lady
                Location
                Melbourne
                Date and time
                August 31, 2012, 11:17AM
              • And all the men out there who've had their egos crushed with an incredulous look, a casually cruel quip or just a bluntly put 'no thanks' salute you. It does take courage and a careless reaction can easily convince a fella to never go back there again.

                That said, I do feel for a woman who wants sit at bar and enjoy a drink and her own company without being hit on. Nigh on impossible.

                Commenter
                one bourbon, one scotch and one beer
                Location
                melb
                Date and time
                August 31, 2012, 2:14PM

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