Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler.

alone-in-the-kitchen-with-an-eggplant I had picked up Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone several times last year, but for one reason or another, I never purchased the book.  It was getting to the point that I thought perhaps I was jinxed, and that the reading experience wasn’t meant to be.  This is what I went through: no room in my suitcase when flying home from Oregon after going a little overboard at Powell’s; only a copy with a torn cover at the bookseller’s at home; out of stock.  Finally, though, a happy ending: I recently got my hot little hands on a pristine edition, which I promptly toted around town.

Here’s the concept behind the book: editor Jenni Ferrari-Adler was living alone for the first time in 2004 while at grad school in Michigan.  As she adjusted to the Ann Arbor rhythms, Ferrari-Adler realized a few things.  Firstly, that she had to “remember how to make friends,” something I know I personally forgot how to do after leaving college.  Secondly, that she was loaded — with time.  She writes:

There were hours… everywhere I looked. In addition to time, I had a galley kitchen, a shelf of cookbooks, two heavy pots, and a chef’s knife. I lived near the farmers’ market, a cooperative grocery, and a butcher shop. My bicycle had a basket. Which is all to say it was an excellent domestic setup.

In the midst of a rough winter, Ferrari-Adler makes for herself a meal following an Amanda Hesser recipe.  As she eats, she reads “Single Cuisine,” Hesser’s piece on cooking for one, and comes to a realization:

This was all I really wanted — to be let in on other people’s secrets. What better place to start than in their kitchens?  Remembering Laurie Colwin’s essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” …I giggled [reading] the description of Colwin’s absurdly small Greenwich Village apartment, “the coziest place on earth,” where she did dishes in the bathtub. She’d brought her kitchen into my living room… The connectedness I felt was the opposite of the drifting into space I’d experienced whenever I spent more than three consecutive nights alone. We read to feel close to people we don’t know, to get into other people’s heads. I get the same sensation of intimacy from following a recipe. I began to scheme: Hesser, Colwin, and me … maybe I could break the silence and help men and women everywhere be less alone together.

And so, Ferrari-Adler shoots off correspondences to writers like my beloved Ann Patchett, my old teacher Steve Almond and grand dame Marcella Hazan.  It’s incredible, to read of Jeremy Jackson‘s romance with beans and editor Holly Hughes’s frustrations with cooking for a family.  It’s also, of course, impossible to thumb through an anthology such as this without thinking about what you yourself had cooked or currently cooks when putting together a meal for one.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had to make a full-blown dinner for just me.  Lunches I make all the time, lately something like a mâche and mixed herb salad with yellow tomatoes, crumbles of French feta, half a segmented orange and the barest sprinkle of lemon juice swirled with olive oil, sea salt and freshly grated pepper, eaten with some chicken or maybe fruit.  Dinner, on the other hand…

But when I did cook for just one, there were a lot of empty pasta boxes in the trash.  I remember one dish involving a tomato deseeded, diced and sealed in a container with its sundried sisters, sliced olives and olive oil; this mixture would sit in the fridge overnight, and the next evening I’d empty the jar over penne and toss a few basil leaves on top.  Another meal was spaghetti mixed with plain yogurt, then doused with garlic powder.  Yet another: rotini, cubes of mozzarella, olives, more sundried tomatoes, chopped red peppers and an entire bottle of Kraft Light Done Right! Italian dressing, eaten cold.

If not pasta, then eggs.  I would place the largest skillet on the stove, and glide a nugget of butter directly in its center.  While it melted, I mixed three eggs together with diced yellow peppers and milk.  Then I would pour it all into the skillet and reduce the heat to medium; once the edges crisped, I’d use a spatula to push the cooked bits to the side and tilt pan to and fro until the liquid eggs set.  Just before sliding it onto my plate, I’d fold slices of Kraft American cheese into raggedy squares and scatter them across the eggs’ surface.  Later, on my futon, I’d use my finger to swipe the dish clean.

Not so glamorous stuff, this, but if I may — that marinated sundried tomato pasta dish was so good.  My cheesy scramble too.

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As They Were by M.F.K. Fisher.

I remember when I first read writing by M.F.K. Fisher: it was two years ago, and my friend Beth had suggested I read The Gastronomical Me. At the time, I was feeling very frazzled and frugal — Keith and I were getting ready to buy our first place, and I felt as though I couldn’t spend any money recklessly, not that I consider book-buying reckless spending. Later in the year, I received a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble for my birthday; when I tried to purchase it, the book was out of stock. I truly felt as though I was fated to never read Fisher at all.

But then… my friend Marcella came to visit. Neither Beth nor I had spoken with her about my M.F.K. Fisher woes, and yet what else did Marcella bring me as a gift but The Gastronomical Me. If that’s not proof of something, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I thought The Gastronomical Me was wonderful, so much so that I soon found myself at the bookstore again, this time stacking around myself all of Fisher’s books like a little kid building a fort. I soon realized that it would be truly impossible for me to purchase them all, since there were almost thirty different titles heaped at my feet. That day, I left the shop with only a few items in my bag and a much longer shopping list than when I entered. Imagine, then, how pleased I was last month to find a three-dollar copy of Fisher’s As They Were while wandering the aisles of Powell’s Books for Home and Garden, the Hawthorne District‘s branch of Powell’s Books that features literature focusing on cooking, gardening and crafts.

If you’re a lover of food and travel and you’ve not read M.F.K. Fisher, I urge you to start now. As They Were, as the title implies, is a collection of Fisher’s memories, her recollections of her past — where she lived, whom with and what she ate. I’m a sucker sometimes for nostalgia, and Fisher’s tone throughout the book overflows with it, with a powerful longing for days gone by. Regardless of whether Fisher’s writing is about her funny little kitchen in Provence, traveling by sea or fine dining experiences with children, captured on each page is a fondness and exuberance for life that is simply — well, simply enviable.

Versailles by Kathryn Davis.

I had wanted to read Kathryn Davis’s work for some a while now; I had heard of its creative use of perspective, and having recently watched Marie Antoinette, I thought it it was time to move the novel towards the top of my list of books to buy. When Keith and I were in Portland, I happened upon a used copy at Powell’s that was being sold for a pittance — how could I resist? — and started reading that very day.

Versailles is most definitely a book that demands the reader’s full concentration, if only because so much of it is done in a stream-of-consciousness sort of style. If that’s not enough to require from the reader, then consider what Davis does in regards to point-of-view.  The author doesn’t write from Marie-Antoinette’s point-of-view; she doesn’t write from Louis XVI’s point-of-view; neither does she write from the point-of-view of the masses.  Davis writes from the perspective of Marie-Antoinette’s own soul, which is both lovely and jarring.  Oh, and if that’s not enough, Davis also bops around to include several scenes written in play format.

What I liked most about Versailles is literally that — the palace itself.  Davis moves the plot from room to room, from the lush gardens to the famous Hall of Mirrors, in such a way that the reader is practically swept along as if observing the story from the hem of Marie-Antoinette’s skirts.  In the author’s note, Davis describes how the story came about, and how she visited Versailles on multiple occasions in order to get the minute details exactly right, ranging from the number of steps in the entrance to the panes of glass in each window.  She also writes compellingly — and in a far more straightforward manner — about her research, her obsession with Marie-Antoinette and about the palace itself.  While Versailles is ultimately a rewarding read, the author’s note is just as fascinating.