Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An Alphabet for Gourmets

Monday was a sad day. Hot off the heels of Pickle Day, I heard some crushing news: Gourmet Magazine was closed by Condé Nast in light the magazine empire's continuing financial struggles.

Working in publishing, I truly do understand the delicate financial situation and tough business model inherent to the business. That said, I loved Gourmet. Not only was the incredible Ruth Reichl at the helm as editor in chief (former food critic of the New York Times and author of excellent books like Garlic and Sapphires and Comfort Me With Apples), but Gourmet was one of the few places left that published true food writing in the style of M.F.K. and other greats alongside more standard fare like recipes and critiques and chef profiles.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote for Gourmet for many years, and one of my favorite pieces of hers that was published in the magazine was the series "An Alphabet for Gourmets." Perhaps someday I will do a mini-series running through the alphabet on my own, but for the moment, her choice for the letter "A" resonated with me, and is perhaps my favorite "letter" in the series.

A is for Dining Alone.

It is clear from so many of M.F.K.'s writings that she loves sharing the pleasure of a good meal with those she cares about, whether she cooks it herself or is in the company of "another" at a restaurant. Yet as she progresses in her career and becomes increasingly well-known, she finds herself in a lonely position atop a culinary pedestal. Friends who would normally invite her over for dinner now no longer do so, and excuse themselves by saying that they simply wouldn't dare cook for her. And dinning out with company becomes an increasingly stilted affair, as the "other" feel inclined to critique and analyze every nuance of her reactions to the food, what she orders, how she sits, to the point that she must reconcile herself with dining alone.

Dining alone is a tough thing. And I am not talking about eating off your knees in front of the television and shielding yourself from your "alone-ness" with the appearance of busyness, be it with the TV on, tidying up, or even eating on the go. Not this does not have a time and place, but this is not "dining" to M.F.K. It is merely eating to live, and she is someone who has always, in true gourmet fashion, lived to eat.

Dining alone means relishing your meal while enjoying the company of ones own self and the passel of thoughts and musings residing just below the surface of the mind. This can be quite intimidating. Not to mention all of the perceived social stigma that accompanies a person dining alone. Often, the sight of a lone diner evokes pity, when it really should evoke admiration that someone is so secure in themselves that they can go out and enjoy a good meal and their own company.

As Fisher herself says in her essay:

'“Never be daunted in public,” was an early Hemingway phrase which had more than once bolstered me in my Timid Twenties. I changed it now: “Never be daunted in private,” I said resolutely…"

It is a good mantra, and over the past few years, I have increasingly come to enjoy dining alone, although admittedly I sometimes still hide behind the "shield of busyness" and bring along a manuscript I am editing, book, or magazine to ward off any advances or interruptions to my solitude. I have come to find that when I am stressed, confused, or have the blues, a glass of wine and a hot meal at a nearby bistro is just the thing I need to sort myself out. That feeling of being alone in a crowd is the perfect setting for self and gastronomical reflection, and while I still prefer the company of another, there is something to be said for never being daunted in private.


  1. M F K Fisher was a cutie! You are her protégé, me thinks....


  2. Eating alone is a true pleasure. I used to do it all the time in Paris...while reading and drinking a bottle of wine and speaking garbled French to the waiter.

    I did a bit of the "aloneness" but reading A MOVEABLE FEAST in the City of Lights while dining on French cuisine will kill almost any case of the blues!

  3. Wow, sounds almost nauseatingly Parisian. Love it!

  4. Obviously you like the letter A. It starts off my name. duh.

    nice post.