Eat Me. Drink Me.

Why We Eat. Why We Drink. Why We Write.

Category: Eating Alone

Cook Like No One’s Watching

by lyzpfister

I suffer from performance anxiety. It’s not a big deal, really. It just means that I often cook better when I’m by myself than when I’m cooking for other people. When I’m home alone, there’s no need to prove myself, to live up to having a food blog, to make something so delicious that whoever I’m cooking for never wants to eat anywhere else. I guess that’s what performance anxiety means.

While we’re getting it all out into the open, let me go ahead and admit this now. I’ve never been good at group projects. I like to be either completely in charge or completely the opposite. I take direction well and I lead well, but that nebulous middle ground where everyone’s got a good opinion and we’re all trying to self-moderate – I don’t do that.

It’s not that I was that kid who always got “does not play well with others” on her report card. In fact, I played so well with others that I sunk into the background, becoming an un-player, or a non-entity, a completely forgettable figure. For most of my childhood and young adult life, I’m pretty sure none of my classmates thought I had a personality. If they even knew who I was.

No one believes me now when I tell them I’m shy. Usually, I no longer believe myself. But ask my parents, my grade school teachers, my hometown best friend, who I made cry by refusing to remove myself from the folds of my mother’s skirt the day we met.

I’m not sure if I could pinpoint when it was that I grew into myself, my idiosyncrasies, my strangenesses. Perhaps it wasn’t one moment, but a process of growing. It appears mine is a soul that dislikes stagnancy in temperament as much as location.

The dislike of group projects, on the other hand, is something I haven’t outgrown. I had always ascribed it to being a symptom of shyness, but unlike the shyness I’ve left behind, this dislike of working together with other people – especially on creative projects – has stuck. Perhaps it’s just a palimpsest of qualities, whether good or bad, that I possess. My stubbornness, my unwillingness to be wrong, my dislike of being made to share. When I create something I want it to be mine. I want to possess it. I want all of the glory – or all of the defeat.

At least I will also take all of the credit for a defeat.

But what am I talking about. You want to hear about the food.

So I have performance anxiety. Right. That’s how we started. Last Friday, in the quick snap between work and going to the launch party for Issue 5 of SAND (the literary journal I’ve been working on here in Berlin, for those of you who didn’t know…), I didn’t check my watch (the very same watch I proceeded to lose at said launch party) to see how much time I really had before I had to leave again.

When I came home from work, I threw some zucchini, eggplant, onions, and garlic into the oven on a low roast, cleaned the kitchen, and took a leisurely shower, only realizing as I stepped out that there were scant forty-five minutes to dress myself, make my face presentable, and cook dinner. A quick assessment of the situation revealed that I wouldn’t have nearly enough time to fry up the potatoes I meant to use as a base for the roast vegetables anyway, so I opted to spend most of my time getting dressed, stress-lessed and listening to music. Dinner was improvised. Two slices of toast, goat cheese with chives, topped with the roast vegetables which had melted together in the oven. Perfect and soft, redolent of garlic and onion sweetness. I had to photograph it, even though I didn’t really have the time to get my camera out and snap the shots.

I sat in my kitchen being self-congratulatory, eating my toasts with cheese and roast vegetables. Thinking about how even haphazard meals can be surprisingly stellar.

What I want to say about this is that I love cooking and I love when food and people are together. There’s very little I love more. (Especially if it is grilling outside. Especially if there are craft brews.) But somehow all this loving makes me nervous. It’s got an element of group project to it.

When I cook with other people, I doubt myself. I overcompensate or recede into a background of deferential good opinions. I burn the crepes. I over-salt the rice. By myself, I risk more – which results in both stunning successes and also miserable defeats. And there are defeats.

For that, though, the successes taste so much better because they surprise me. Because they were created with a fearlessness, almost recklessness. An inventive energy I find when I work alone. Without someone looking over my shoulder to read a pre-edited version of a thing. Also, I’m a perfectionist – add it to the list.

So the question is, how to cook for other people like I do when no one’s watching? Blinders? Blindfolds? Boxing up my guests?

Clearly these are not the answers. Maybe the answer to this, like growing out of shyness, is time. It is possible that even now, my brain is coming up with a new body algorithm in which I am better at sharing ideas, better at working with other people, better at being ok with differences of opinion. Better at being imperfect.

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The Tea and the Honey Pot

by lyzpfister

If loneliness had a shape, it would be a cup of tea cooling on a white table. It is important that the table be empty, except, perhaps, for an open jar of honey and a naked spoon, just as it is important that the tea be cooling. The things themselves, hot tea and a honey pot are comforting things, but they are starkly separated on the table like sentinels. Nearly touching, but not. The cup will be blue and the honey pot smeared with stickiness along its sides. The type of tea won’t matter, but it should be sliced ginger and mint, so that the weak wisp of steam rising from the cup carries a faint, hopeless whisper of exoticism. The spoon will rest on the table like a compass point, as if to offer an answer. But the cup and the honey lie passive, waiting for an active agent – it must be the drinker of the tea – to dip the spoon in the honey, to drop a knob, sweet and the color of corn silk, into the tea. Are they any less lonely then, the cup and the pot? Or is it like this: the honey dissolves into the hot tea like a shipwrecked man in an ocean and the ocean is a little changed, but impassive and its own thing, alone.

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My Life Without an Appendix

by lyzpfister

It’s not so bad, really, to live without an appendix.  It was nice, sometimes, to take walks with my appendix, to run errands with my appendix, even to have lunch with my appendix.  But it wasn’t really until my appendix was gone, that I realized what it was to miss my appendix.  I took walks, I ran errands, I ate lunch, and yet, I felt a hole, an appendix-shaped hole, right where my appendix used to be.  It’s been a few months now, since my appendix was taken from me, and I feel a little solace, looking at the three small scars on my belly where at least something was given to me in exchange.  I’ve grown to like those little scars, to like them almost more than I liked my appendix, since when I had it with me, I didn’t pay much attention to my appendix at all.

I’m alone in Berlin now.  It’s strange how, when there were people in the apartment, all I wanted was to be alone and quiet and now, when I’m alone and it’s quiet, all I want is someone else.

This morning, I sent my mother off to the airport at six, and fell back into a cautious sleep.  When I woke up, the apartment was already a different place.  It was more silent, heavier; I was afraid of the sound of my voice.  I’d never paid attention to my mother’s breath, but now that it wasn’t there, I knew what it was to miss her.

I am not comparing my mother to my appendix.  How grotesque.  I’m only saying that we often spend more time clacking after what we don’t have rather than listening for the presence of the things that are with us.  Our lives are in a flux of having and not having and almost always, what we have we will at some point lose.  It’s only perspective, to think I have, rather than I have not, I won’t have, I don’t have anymore.

So, I have: walls of books, two shelves of records and a record player that works, a little red bike, calm in which to work, big windows, walls around me and a roof above me, and somewhere outside of these walls, though I can’t see them or hear them, people who love me.

Ella Fitzgerald kept me company as I made myself dinner for myself.  Yet there was something soothing in the familiarity of being at the stove, in hearing Ella’s voice and singing with her, in the rhythm of the chopping, that kept me thinking, have, have, have.

Pasta with Fennel and Onions

Set a pot of salted water on to boil.  When it’s boiling, throw some pasta in the pot.  In the meantime, heat olive oil in a skillet.  Sauté one thinly sliced onion, one thinly sliced fennel bulb, and a minced garlic clove with salt, pepper, and a little bit of sugar until the onion and fennel are soft.  Add a handful of chopped basil and a chopped tomato.  Maybe some more olive oil.  Let it simmer just a bit.  The tomato is like a new kid on the playground – it takes some time to make friends.  Weeks and years, sometimes, until a friendship forms.  With the tomato, though, it’s not so long, maybe six minutes.  Throw in some capers and toss everything together, the pasta and the onions and fennel, no gentle friendships here, and garnish with shaved parmesan.

Where Manhattan Meets Dinner

by lyzpfister

I can see Manhattan from my roof.  There is the dazzling slope of the Chrysler Building, the geometric cascade of the Empire State, and further to the left, the spanned wires of the Williamsburg Bridge.  I was going through a rough patch a while back, and my favorite place to sit was on the roof, staring over the rooftops of Brooklyn at the Manhattan skyline and thinking of all the other people who were struggling with me.  Each light representing a life.  I’d sit alone, cradling a plate of pasta or bread with jam, balancing a glass of wine on the rooftop, and be silent and breathe.  There was one bad night, where I wanted nothing but stillness, that I made myself a bread salad to eat on the rooftop.  I had some leftover, almost stale baguette, and there’s nothing I’d rather do with stale baguette than add cherry tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil, rice wine vinegar, salt, and pepper to it.  I put in extra garlic.  There are advantages to eating alone.

The roof is a good spot in times of peace, too.  The skyline is stalwart whatever my case may be.  There is the noise of the basketball games in the park, the ever present cacophony of sirens, planes, Latin music from the bodega on the corner.  But underneath the calm of an unobstructed sky, the frenzy is at a comfortable remove.  Tonight, I made a bread salad with French bread and plenty of garlic, even though I’m meeting people later.  I took it up and watched the sun set.

There’s a nook on the roof, a joint where the ledge covered in poorly spackled silver paint butts against the building’s edge.  I sit here, my back against the wall, my feet propped up, gazing at the skyline as tacky and beautiful as a velvet painting.  The sky, now the color of cantaloupe and blue, will soon be black – but the false black of a city sky where there are no stars.  Manhattan twinkles at me, red and white lights against that blue and cantaloupe sky.  While I sit in calm communion with New York, my bread soaks in olive oil and salt and garlic.  I remember, that other night, I closed my eyes and sent out love to everyone who needed it.  Because just then, for me, I had more than enough.

Something From Nothing (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

I wish there was a tiny chorus of approving gourmands that lived over my left shoulder and gave me a round of applause and a miniature pat on the back from each of their sprinkle-sized hands every time I verged on the brink of culinary genius.  Like when, after two months of mediocre results, I finally manage to make perfect foam with my espresso machine for four days in a row (right now!  I’m drinking perfect foam!  Isn’t it exciting?).  Or when, on the spur of the moment, I add a layer of strawberry jam between two layers of ordinary yellow cake with vanilla frosting.  Or when, coming home after a long day of work, I despondently shrug my shoulders at the mismatched food in my pantry, only to throw the mess together into something delicious half an hour later.

But there are no invisible gourmands.  It’s just me and my mouth and occasionally my roommates, who I make eat bites of my food as they walk past on their ways to something probably very interesting.

Can I clap for myself?

Luckily, I have a partner in crime – the other half to my half-full pantry – and together, we are very good at making something out of nothing.  The other day, we were sitting around, kvetching, drinking green tea with ginger and honey, and realized that it was dark (no hard feat in winter Brooklyn) and we were hungry.  This is kind of how the conversation went:

Me: “I’m hungry.”
Her: “Let’s make food.”
Me: “I don’t have anything.”
Her: “Me either.”
Me: “I have potatoes and blue cheese.”
Her: “I have lettuce.”
Me: “Ok, we’ll figure it out.”

The result being that we scrounged up a salad with peppery greens, blue cheese, canned beets, almonds, and a dressing of oil, cherry flavored balsamic vinegar, lemon, Dijon mustard, and honey.  We found a can of tuna and so made a tuna salad which we ate on the last slice of a dense, whole grain bread, split in two.  We didn’t even eat my potatoes.

The moral of that story is: there’s never really nothing, unless of course, there’s really nothing.

I believe I’ve made this point before, but not everything one cooks will be a success.  Not even everything will be good.  I’ve made horrible mistakes.  Ruining stir fry with too much ginger, underestimating the potency of fenugreek (never, ever underestimate the potency of fenugreek), attempting to make blue cheese and bruschetta work (it just sounds like it does).  But for all of those failures, there will be amazing wins.  And the wins are so much better because you figured them out yourself.  It isn’t some recipe Martha Stewart’s food lackeys have tested hundreds of times to find just the right ratio of cumin to salt.  It is one shot at something good, it’s Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star.

So shoulder gourmands or no, I will continue to experiment, to resist having to walk in the cold to the grocery store, to finally use the jar of brined lemons, the fennel bulb, the semolina flour, and the tamarind paste.  But maybe not together.

Pasta with Caramelized Onions and Tomatoes

This is one of those come-home-late-hungry-want-food-now dishes that I threw together a few nights ago.  Super easy, super good.

Melt a healthy chunk of butter in a saucepan and when melted, toss in one yellow onion, slivered, and oh, one or two tablespoons of brown sugar.  Stir the onion slivers around until they’re past translucent and at some point add one finely chopped clove of garlic.  In the mean time, put on a pot of water to boil and salt it if you’d like.  After the water has boiled, add a handful of linguine and set the timer for ten minutes.  After five minutes have passed, add a chopped tomato, basil leaves, and a dash of oregano to the onions and stir it around pleasantly.  Season with salt and pepper.  When your linguine is done cooking, drain it and rinse it with cold water, then add it to your onions and tomatoes.  Toss everything thoroughly and maybe add a dash of olive oil to bring it all together.

Nothing is Sacred (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

As I was packing up to leave home after a relaxing Easter break, I realized there was nothing left in the house to eat.

By nothing, I mean, there was lots of leftover ham.

Hungry, and inspired by an almost hidden recipe in Gourmet, I decided to give in and eat ham again, but this time as miniature ham croquettes. Only a little bit daunted by the recipe’s injunction to “deep fry” the croquettes in a stomach-churning amount of vegetable oil, I dutifully followed the recipe, mashing white rice, ham, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and egg together into sticky balls and rolling them in bread crumbs. Maybe I didn’t let the rice cool long enough, or maybe my egg just wasn’t enough like cement, but my croquettes looked more like misshapen footballs than the cute, symmetrical spheres in the magazine’s pages. Armed with the longest spoon I could find, I plopped those tentative blobs into the hot oil and hoped they wouldn’t disintegrate too much. And then, as I noticed the thick smoke billowing through the kitchen, I mercilessly abandoned them as I frantically opened all the windows and doors within a fifteen foot radius.

Miraculously, the croquettes were only mostly burnt.

The good deed done, the leftover ham used up, I took my benighted croquettes to the table and took a bite.

Bland. Bland, bland, bland.

Why, you may ask, am I telling you this? Let me tell you.

I am telling you this because it teaches some valuable lessons about cooking. One, that not everything you make will be good. Two, that some things will be bad. And three, that the recipe is never sacred.

Taste copiously while you cook to make sure that it’ll turn out all right, and if it doesn’t taste good, add something new, like horseradish or cumin or caraway seeds. If you’re cooking with raw eggs (see: this disastrous attempt), you may not have that privilege. And in that case, when it’s done and it’s awful, call on your friends Harissa or Texas Pete, and invite them to dine. Unless it’s completely and utterly charred, spoiled, smashed, or exploded, don’t throw it away. Almost everything is a little bit salvageable.

In this case, I slathered those deep-fried bundles with either wasabi or Dijon mustard, and ate them with a little more appreciation.

Alas, as I went back to the fridge to rummage for more condiments, I heard a thud behind me and whirled around to see Molly the Beagle chomping the last of them with much more gusto than I had mustered.

So then I had a deviled egg.

In Defense of Eating Alone (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

I remember, once, seeing the heroine of some movie or TV show standing in front of her sink, shoveling a limp chicken breast into her mouth represented as the penultimate form of loneliness. That image, wedged into my consciousness, still influences the way I think about the social aspect of eating–that eating alone in public is taboo and eating alone in private is unfulfilled. It makes me bring a book and seek loud, busy establishments where I can hide when I do dine with myself.

And yet, I have eaten many wonderful meals alone.

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Monday Wonder (a post by Lyz)

by lyzpfister

Mondays aren’t notoriously good days. But this Monday, everything seems to be going right – I worked out this morning, had a deliciously crisp, cold apple for breakfast, and am still awake without having had my usual cappuccino.

But the best part of my day so far, has been lunch. I’ve recently discovered that the best way to have hot, fresh (well, kind of) French bread without gobbling an entire loaf in the hours before it goes stale, is to buy unbaked loaves, tear them into serving sizes, wrap them individually in aluminum foil, and freeze them.

I heated one of those bread packets in the oven until it was brown and crispy, smeared it with butter, and then topped it with Moroccan sardines in chili oil.

It was exactly what I wanted without knowing that I’d wanted it.

The softness of the sardines, their saltiness, that quick, subtle hit of chili and the richness of melted butter on crisped bread – sigh. It was delicious.