Dinner for One: A Trilogy
I. Café de la Press, San Francisco, CA
I ask for the charred Brussels sprouts as a side. The server is silent for a moment before reaching down to collect my menu. "You'd rather have the fries," he says.
I'll end up paying for most of this dinner myself. It's a little pricey to put through as a work expense, but I was too tired to venture more than a few blocks from the hotel and was seduced by the Old-Word-style French café details I could see through the window: wicker-backed chairs, tablecloths weighted down with fat-handled silverware, a gleaming wood bar, low lighting from Deco-era wall sconces.
"Fries it is, then," I reply, smiling over my glass of Beaujolais.
I watch the couple in the corner, adrift in each other's gaze. Wine glasses drained, they are lost to the world around them. In this moment, they simply cannot fathom it — what life is like without the other's presence. I think about how bloody fucking long it's been since I've had sex and assess from the corner of my eye the man sitting two bar stools down. Do I find him attractive? How would this work? Would I strike up a conversation and then invite him back to my hotel room for a one-night-mostly-anonymous encounter if he's engaging enough? Would that make me an empowered woman or a pathetically desperate one?
My Boeuf Bourguignon arrives. It's a bit unconventional: it's more soupy than stewy and has elbow macaroni in its mix. It's topped with a crown of puff pastry and served with a Parmesan cream poured from a silver gravy boat. It's this gorgeous mix of crude and elegant, and it is delicious. I drop my fries into the bowl to soak up the beefy juices.
The man just down from me pays and leaves and so there goes my shot at dessert. I order an Americano and a crème brûlée instead.
This is what it's like, dinner for one. I'm disturbed by how entirely comfortable I've gotten with it.
* * * * *
II. St. Lawrence Market, Toronto, ON
Right now, it's a game of substitutions.
I woke up wanting to inhale the very particular scent of your skin where your neck meets your shoulder.
Instead, I tuck the long side of my hair behind my ear, apply fuchsia lipstick, don my badass sunnies, and walk to the market to drown my olfactory sense in the sweet tang of freshly picked strawberries.
I woke up wanting to trail my fingers across the lush velvet grain of your skin.
Instead, I weigh the merits of bunches of asparagus with a farmer who encourages me to touch firm tips and flexible stalks, proof that his crop will satisfy me.
I woke up wanting to feel the warmth of your body curled around me.
Instead, I close my eyes and feel the heat of the wood-fired oven on my face as a woman with a streak of face-framing hair dyed turquoise places six hot bagels in a paper bag, handing me the whipped cream cheese separately so it won't melt.
And I spend the rest of my day making a sweet, fragrant batch of strawberry-vanilla jam. Roasting wild salmon encrusted in fennel and celery seed. Folding new potatoes into a dressing of mustard, capers, and dill. Sautéing local asparagus simply, with just coarse salt and cracked smoked pepper.
I feed my senses. I feed myself.
Right now, this is where I seek happiness. I feast on what is possible instead of on you.
* * * * *
III. Corktown, Toronto, ON
The words stung as if I had been open-palm slapped across the face.
We were discussing the demise of our short-lived relationship, and he disclosed what he said he saw as a red flag: "I feel like you were trying too hard to impress me with the food. Toast would have been fine."
The phone was still at my ear, but I sat in dumbfounded silence.
I thought about the dinner I had made for the night of his arrival. There were homemade walnut and Stilton crackers with my pickled asparagus on the side — that perfect play of a creamy mouthful followed by a tangy, briny one — as we sipped Manhattans made with sweet vermouth I had infused with Christmas flavours: allspice, star anise, and cinnamon. There was my famous fennel confit pizza, the handmade dough topped with stewed fennel and mingled with fontina cheese and prosciutto. It's a triumph of salty, sweet, soft, and crisp in each bite. There was a blood orange and beet salad on the side and chocolate pots-de-crème for dessert. If memory serves, he had closed his eyes in delight numerous times throughout the meal.
We did have toast once, spread with my home-preserved jams, to accompany an avocado and Brie frittata. There were banana and chocolate-chip pancakes on another morning. I had relished planning the meals for his visit, and cooking them. We had talked so enthusiastically about food production and gastronomy, both as a pleasure aesthetic and an ideological-political stance, that I had eagerly anticipated sharing time with him at the table. We had also spoken intimately enough that he knew very well one of the things I cherish most about cooking for others is that it is an expression of love.
"I wasn't trying to impress you," I replied, my voice thin. "I was trying to show you how much I care."
I've been cooking prolifically of late, with gorgeous summer produce. I set my place for one, and I think long and hard about that sentiment.
It's not dining alone. It's showing myself how much I care.