Why is it so hard to eat alone?


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. 


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?”


           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.


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


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.