Jenni Ferrari-Adler has held many jobs—egg-seller, literary agency assistant, reader for The Paris Review—but her latest accomplishment is as the editor of a mouth-watering anthology of essays entitled Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant.
Born out of a summer spent subsisting largely on cereal and water while finishing up her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, Ferrari-Adler wanted to explore what comfort food, solo food, meant to her favorite writers. Collected here are the work of everyone from Nora Ephron to Ann Patchett to Dan Chaon, Steve Almond, and Jonathan Ames. Each author has a different take on eating alone; some are celebratory, some see it as second-best to sharing a beloved meal with friends. Holly Hughes views it as a "Luxury," a rare chance not to hear, "Mom, this has boogers in it." Included are recipes for everything from "single girl salmon" to roasted beet and cucumber salad with ricotta salata, eggs florentine, and kippers mash. Some authors detail beloved restaurants, or travel through a lifetime of solo meals, while others focus on a single food or way of cooking. They explore the numerous ways food nourishes us, and especially the emotional sustenance we get from various foods and meals and attachments we form to them (witness Anneli Rufus's "White-on-White Lunch for When No One Is Looking," consisting of egg noodles, cottage cheese, and salt and pepper to taste). Altogether, the largely New York-centric volume should make any reader hungry, for both food, and the words used to lovingly describe it.
You write in the introduction about how giving yourself a good meal is like a present and that you saw the book as a way to "help men and women everywhere be less alone together." Can you elaborate on what you want people to take away from the book? Do you feel that there's still a stigma to eating alone?
We all cook alone at one point or another and the book lets you know that other people are as quirky and hung up on it as you are. It’s supposed to be a friendly presence in the kitchen, though I hear it’s been spending time on bedside tables as well. The essays make good company. They’re meant to inspire, entertain, comfort, and provide some practical help in the form of the recipes-for-one sprinkled throughout the book. I think it’s a very basic human desire to cook for others and be cooked for—it’s how we show our hospitality and love—so cooking for one is intrinsically interesting and revealing. As for a stigma, I don’t think societal judgment is the issue so much as how it can make us feel weird or lonely to cook only for ourselves.
You've got a mix of established food writers as well as fiction writers not necessarily known for writing about food; how did you formulate who to approach to contribute?
Basically I just put together a wish list of my favorite writers, including fiction writers who I had a hunch would write illuminating pieces on solitude. For me it was about coming up with a list of the voices I wanted to hear answer my question: Is there a secret meal you make, or used to make, for yourselves when no one else is looking? I emailed them and explained the project. Many responded enthusiastically, knowing immediately what story they would tell. It was also exciting to get a range of settings: New York, Cape Cod, Italy, Thailand, to name a few.
Some of the authors contribute recipes and write odes to a particular food or meal, such as Dan Chaon's wild chili, Ben Karlin's salsa rosa, and Steve Almond's quesarito, which all come with recipes. Did you encourage authors to focus on a particular food or meal or did they come to these on their own?
Because I trusted these writers implicitly, I told them to approach the subject any way they liked. It makes a kind of narrative sense to spin a story with one food at the center. In addition to the great pieces you mentioned—Ben Karlin’s salsa rosa changed his life and Dan’s chili came of age with him—Rattawut Lapcharoensap, author of the fantastic collection Sightseeing, writes eloquently about instant noodles, from his childhood in Bangkok to the present; Phoebe Nobles writes about eating asparagus for an entire season, which turns her into a superhero. Again and again in the book, there are stories of people fixating on a certain alone meal and making it night after night, which I completely related to.
As mainly a non-cook, I was grateful to see that this isn't a book only for foodies. Courtney Eldridge's very blunt, dry, "Thanks, But No Thanks," explores how food snobbery on the part of her ex-husband and his mother contributed to ruining her marriage, and there are other pieces here, such as Jonathan Ames's "Eggs Over Uneasy," that hint that cooking for one is not always a positive experience. Did you deliberately seek out pieces to counterbalance some of the "cooking alone is wonderful" vibe?
Yes, I definitely wasn’t interested in creating propaganda for eating alone, but rather in exploring the range of experience of the solo cook and single diner. As Laurie Colwin says in the essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” (one of the book’s inspirations and of course the title), “cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.” I wanted to get at the meaning and emotions behind the fraught experience of eating alone. Courtney Eldridge, a young novelist and short story writer, initially had some resistance to writing the piece. She said, “I don’t cook.” But we knew each other, and I think we both knew she had a wonderfully compelling story to tell. Later she worried the essay was too long and took on too many subjects—which is something I love about it, and something that readers have been responding to. In fact, Marc Fitten ran it in the Chattahoochee Review and nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. The kind of food writing I’m drawn to is very homey, funny, and honest. Even though I’m totally into food magazines and expensively produced cookbooks with color photos, I didn’t want that kind of glossiness here. I love that in one book you get both Amanda Hesser’s divine-sounding truffled egg toast and Jonathan Ames’s expired eggs, which give him a bad case of food poisoning. (Amanda’s recipe is included in the book; Jonathan’s is not.)
Along the same lines, who do you see as your audience for the book? I had originally assumed it was only foodie types but as a non-foodie, I got a lot out of it, even though I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be making the recipes myself (though I would eat them if someone else made them!).
I’m so happy to hear that. Regardless of where we see ourselves on the foodie spectrum, sooner or later we all face the challenge of cooking for one. After all food is part of all of our lives, not just self-described foodies. The book is supposed to be good for anyone who has just moved to a new place, or come out of relationship, or for whatever reason finds themselves confronting the eggplant in the kitchen.
In Amanda Hesser's piece, "Single Cuisine," she talks about a friend's "single girl salmon," and says it's "a model for all single women because it is at heart about taking the pains to treat yourself well." She later writes of her solo meals: "Sometimes they were a chore; I would force myself to cook to fortify my independence and to commit to a satisfying life on my own." It seems that the women in the book, to a large degree, have a different relationship to cooking alone than the men; did you find gender differences, and how does cooking alone play into (or defy) stereotypes about single women?
I’d love to know what you thought the gender difference was. I’m certain there is one but I haven’t developed any general theory. I do think men feel less self-conscious dining alone in restaurants but I haven’t got hard proof. One of the publishers who wanted to acquire the book wanted it to be all women but it was very important to me to have a strong male presence. I gleefully procured some of the funniest male writers alive: Ben Karlin, Steve Almond, Jonathan Ames, and Jeremy Jackson. I’d long been fans of Colin Harrison (plus I heard a rumor he always ate by himself), Dan Chaon, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and of course Haruki Murakami. When I read the last line of “The Year of Spaghetti” (“Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were really exporting in 1971 was loneliness?”) in The New Yorker when I was putting the book together I knew it had to be included. That was pure kismet.
Were there any essays that particularly surprised you?
Many of the essays surprised me. It was really an incredible honor to have them float into my inbox over the course of several months. One of the first surprises was learning that Ann Patchett had happily subsisted on oats—sometimes raw—and saltines when she was in her twenties and on a fellowship in Provincetown. It was also surprising that Marcella Hazan, who is often credited for bringing sophisticated Italian cuisine into American homes, made for herself what is essentially a ham and cheese sandwich (though she does make it sound mouth-wateringly good).
Here in New York it seems like many more people get takeout or eat whatever's around than cook for themselves, perhaps because it's so easy to do, and many of the authors in Alone in the Kitchen write about cooking for one in New York. In "How to Cook in a New York Apartment," Laura Dave writes, "Many people don't do anything here but stumble and race and hope, waiting for their real lives to begin." Since you got the idea for the book while living alone in Michigan, what do you think is specific to the New York cooking alone experience?
Small apartments. Smaller refrigerators. Colwin talks about doing dishes and draining spaghetti into the bathtub. Also, maybe because of the density of New York City, cooking for one can feel empowering here—as in Laura’s piece and Amanda Hesser’s—like carving out some quality time with yourself. I’ve also been hearing New York stories about how people with multiple roommates often cook for one, using the kitchen in rotation.
Some authors have a suggested playlist for their books; do you have a suggested eating list for people to eat while reading Alone in the Kitchen?
One possible menu: Courtney’s salsa, Nora Ephron’s potatoes, and for dessert I stand by the recommendation I make in the book’s introduction: ice cream with walnuts and maple syrup or Greek yogurt with honey mixed in.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story.
One night after an extensively delayed flight I arrived home by taxi in Fort Greene at three in the morning. The taxi driver had been crazy and angry because I couldn’t give him good directions because I don’t drive. I was completely rattled, grateful to be alive, and I took a little break outside the apartment before I went upstairs. In the morning I couldn’t find my laptop. At first I thought I’d left it in the cab but all at once I knew I had left it on the stoop in front of the apartment. I hadn’t noticed because I’d hauling several other bags up the stairs. I checked outside where of course it wasn’t. Upstairs, I threw myself onto the bed and went into a near paralysis (the computer had everything on it including my thesis) and just about lost the will to live at which point my boyfriend insisted we get some air. In the vestibule, I saw a note taped to the wall: “Found Black Case See Mary Apt. 3.” I knocked on Apt. 3 and an older woman with an alarming cough made me describe my computer and then handed it to me after reprimanding me for leaving it outside in the middle of the night. It was literally one of the happiest moments of my life. I got her a little something by way of thanks. I still have the note taped above my desk to remind me of my luck and the kindness of New Yorkers.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
Hard to pick. I admire a lot of them. Celebrity-wise I love Woody Allen; I’d like to be friends with Michele Williams and I worry about Natasha Lyonne. I admire all my friends who manage to get so much good work done. I admire all the farmers at Greenmarket. I was in the market today and there were so many beautiful vegetables. I just bought one after another until my wallet was empty.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
I would create bigger spaces for cheaper rent; more gardens; more buildings that allow dogs. It would be excellent if there were no cars in the city. Especially in the summer it seems too smelly and hot. I would like to walk in the streets.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York?
I left for college (Ohio) and graduate school (Ann Arbor, Michigan). I have recurring fantasies of living in Portland, Key West, and Barcelona but for the moment I’m very attached to life in Brooklyn.
What's your idea of a perfect day of recreation in New York?
Rising early. Drinking a large iced coffee from The Victory while walking to the Greenmarket in Fort Greene or Cadman Plaza and carrying home potatoes, turkey sausage, milk in a glass bottle, and vegetables. Making brunch and having friends over. Going to the park, ideally with at least two of the following (and for a perfect day, all of): my husband, my brother, my best friends, children, dogs, Frisbees, a good book. Then maybe hitting the gym and catching a guilty-pleasure episode of Top Model. At night one of my friends who lives in the building invites us over for a simple seasonal dinner after which we drink cold Tecates with lime, salt and Tabasco on the stoop. Then we watch a choice Seinfeld rerun and tuck in.
Alone in the Kitchen With An Eggplant will be published on July 19th; for more information, visit www.aloneinthekitchen.com. Ferrari-Adler will read from the anthology, along with local contributors Jonanthan Ames, Jami Attenberg, and Laura Dave tonight at 7 p.m. at Chelsea Barnes & Noble (675 6th Avenue at 21st Street), followed by a book party at the Belmont Lounge (117 East 15th Street).