Believe it or not, nearly one quarter of households in the United States now consist of a single man or woman, no children present, living alone. The percentage has been growing over the past twenty-five years, according to federal census statistics. Is this a regrettable trend? Many of my friends seem to think so. But I find the question a non-starter. Every society in every century has the demographic characteristics that its conditions give rise to. The conjugal couple or nuclear family became the social ideal only in the past couple of centuries. Before that, extended families living together were normative living arrangements. Single-person households always been the exception in the west. People living by themselves have always garnered sympathy, because “solitaires” — as I’ll call the group to which I belong — are associated with loneliness, vulnerability, and eccentricity.
Those associations fail to take into account the variety of solitary experiences. Economic status, variations in employment, and culture all increasingly qualify the generalizations to the point that the Solitaire resembles a stereotype more than a reality. I have lived by myself since 1987. In that time, my attitude about my living situation has gone through twists and turns. I suspect, however, I have always had a strong disposition towards autonomy and solitude. This is not to say, by any means, that I’ve been alone during these years. But let’s just say I have not yet found a satisfying alternative to living on my own. I have a nice house, two dogs, a nice kitchen, and a salary and a job that gives me considerable flexibility and mobility. For what it’s worth, my way of living is as fulfilling as any other. I have learned that life as a solitaire has as many or as few disadvantages as any other kind of living.
On the positive side, I cook what I want and go where I want. I respond to the demands of my friends and my profession, but believe I make fewer compromises in my life than people in live-in relationships. I have time to read as much as I like, which is a lot. Only my budget constrains where I go and what I do. On the negative side, I don’t have sex regularly, enjoy regular physical affection, have a live-in partner to tell me when I’m screwing up and give me unconditional support, and I don’t have someone to help keep up the house. Then again, these same drawbacks could be attributed as easily to some of the marriages I see around me. Solitary living requires trade-offs, unquestionably. What distinguishes me from the majority of my friends, however, is that I have spent significant amounts of time on my own and prefer being home to going out. I have even had a bout of cancer and broken my ankle while living on my own, two extreme situations that made me aware of the occasional disadvantages of being the sole human occupant of a house. Now in my 50s, I know the grass is NOT greener on the other side. We are all content and miserable to similar degrees but in our different ways.
The number of people living together or not is not an index of sociability. But our individual expectations of food may be. Some families measure how well they function by whether they regularly eat together at the dinner table. The weaving of food with conversation supposedly leads to a tighter family fabric. Other families prefer to forgo conversation and watch television while they eat. I’ve tried to discern a pattern among my friends: is their volubility or lack thereof linked to the way the families in which they grew up ate or didn’t eat together? A pattern has yet to emerge. When I eat in restaurants, I often see couples eat in silence without paying much attention to their food – or if they are aware of what they’re eating, they aren’t sharing their thoughts with their partners. Fast-food eaters place a higher premium on speed, convenience, and quantity than on leisure, careful preparation, and quality. MacDonald’s, Taco Bell, Red Lobster, Boston Market, and other convenience food restaurants offer families with limited means, especially those with young children, the experience and pleasure of eating out.
Eating alone has its own distinct pleasures. You have no one to please but yourself. Table manners are only really meaningful in public, although maintaining a sense of decorum in private lets us feel that we are not descending to the level of animals. A napkin across the lap, elbows off the table, the proper or accepted way to hold a fork all serve as signs to one’s fellows at table that you have been educated and conditioned to aspire to be seen as a cultivated person. A solitary eater is likely to dispense willingly with at least some table manners. You can lick your plate without disgusting anyone – or give it to your dog to lick. Exhibiting table manners requires more effort than eating like a slob, and so when we eat alone it is more relaxing to put our elbows on the table, eat with our fingers, or chew with our mouth open. There’s no guilt associated with watching TV while eating.
The main, daily challenge is to cook for myself. Much of what I post on this blog has been what I’ve prepared for guests — and I love having guests. I love cooking for myself just as much. But it’s a challenge. A range of subtle social measurements encourages me to prepare more food than I need to eat at one sitting. For instance, rice cookers are all calibrated with more than one portion in mind. Notches on the inside of the metal bowl insert in the rice cooker I own indicate the water levels for one, two, three, four, and five cups of uncooked rice. If I want to make less than one cup, I’m on my own. There is nothing in the nature of rice — except the gadgets invented to make cooking rice easier — that prevents anyone from making less than two cups. My machine is designed, as it seems much of society is designed: for two or more. Sometimes, I resent the implication embedded in our material culture that life is not complete as long as you prepare food for only one person.
For these reasons, I’ve decided to add to this blog recipes adapted for Solitaires. Our single households are not antechambers outside the great chamber of conjugal bliss, whose doors may or may not eventually open for us. I own my home in more ways than the financial sense. Be your own easy companion and satisfied customer. We solitaires lead much richer lives than the stereotype reflects.