1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Originally Published December 1948

A is for dining alone …

… and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself. This misanthropic attitude is one I am not proud of, but it is firmly there, based on my increasing conviction that sharing food with another human being is an intimate act, which should not be indulged in lightly.

There are few people alive with whom I care to pray, sleep, dance, sing, and (perhaps most of all, except sleep) share my bread and wine. Of course there are moments when such unholy performances must take place, in order to exist socially, but they are endurable because they need not be the only fashion of self-nourishment.

There is always the prospect to cheer us of a quiet or giddy or warmly somber or lightly notable meal with "One," as Elizabeth Robins Pennell refers to him or her in The Feasts of Autolycus. “… one sits at your side feasting in silent sympathy,” this lady wrote at the end of the last century, in her mannered and delightful book. She was, just there on the page, thinking of eating an orange in southern Europe, but any kind of food will do, in any clime, so long as One is there.

Myself, I have been blessed among women in this respect … which is, of course, the main reason that if one is not there, to dine alone is preferable to any other way for me.

Naturally there have been times when my self-made solitude has irked me. I have often eaten an egg and drunk a glass of jug-wine, surrounded deliberately with the trappings of busyness in a hollow flat in Hollywood near the studio where I was called a Writer, and not been able to stifle my longing to be anywhere but there, in the company of any of a dozen predatory or ambitious or even kind people who had not invited me.

That was the trouble: nobody did.

I cannot pretend, even on an invisible black couch of day-dreams, that I have ever been hounded by Sunset Boulevardiers who wanted to woo me with caviar and win me with champagne. But in my few desolate periods of being without One, I have known two or three avuncular gentlemen with a latent gleam in their eyes, who understood how to order a good mixed-grill-with-water-cress. For the most part, to the lasting shame of my female vanity, they have shied away from any suggestion that we might dally, gastronomically speaking. “Wouldn't dare ask you,” they have murmured, shifting their gaze with no apparent difficulty or regret to some much younger and prettier woman who never read a recipe in her life, much less wrote one, and who was for that very reason far better fed than I.

It has for too long been the same with the ambitious eaters, the amateur chefs and the self-styled gourmets, the leading lights of nearby food-and-wine societies. When we meet, in other people's houses or in restaurants, they tell me a few sacrosanct and impressive details of how they baste grouse with truffle juice, and then they murmur, “Wouldn't dare serve it to you, of course,” and forthwith invite some visiting potentate from Nebraska, who never saw a truffle in his life, to register the proper awe in return for a Lucullan and perhaps delicious meal.

And the kind people: they are the ones who have made me feel the loneliest. Wherever I have lived they have indeed been kind … up to a certain point. They have poured cocktails for me, and praised me generously for things I have written to their liking, and showed me their children. And behind their offspring I have seen the discreetly drawn curtains to their family dining rooms, so different from the uncluttered spinsterish emptiness of my own. Behind the far door to the kitchen I have sensed, with the mystic materialism of a hungry woman, the presence of honest-to-God fried chops, peas and carrots, a gelatin salad, and lemon meringue pie … all things I admire in theory but do not like, which I would give my eye-teeth to be offered. But the kind people murmur always, “We'd love to have you stay to supper sometime … we wouldn't dare, of course … the simple way we eat, and all …”

As I leave, by myself, of course, two nice plump kin neighbors come in. They say Howdo, and then Goodbye with obvious relief, after a polite, respectful mention of culinary literature as represented, no matter how doubtfully, by me.They sniff the fine, creeping, straightforward smells in the hall and living room, with silent thanks that they are not condemned to my daily fare of quails financière, pâté de Strasbourg truffé en brioche, sole Marguery, bombe vanille au Cointreau … They close the door on me.

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