Eating Alone & Other Pleasures: A Beginner’s Review of Two Essays by MFK Fisher

It’s not hard to make the case that eating is an intimate act. Food and sex have too many parallels to ignore; both acts involve taking something into one’s body, focusing on sensation, and, if things go well, achieving feelings of satisfaction—even ecstasy—during and after the act. A disappointing meal leaves one with a longing for what might have been, especially if the meal showed particular promise, was eagerly anticipated, or had been slowly built up to with wine, ambiance and unspoken promises of the pleasures that would soon come.

The sensuality of food and eating, and the human need for love and intimacy are persistent themes in MKF Fisher’s work. She confided as much to her readers in her 1943 book, The Gastronomical Me, and she’s quite candid about it: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.” Astute readers surely weren’t surprised.

Eating alone, then, is a particularly intriguing to consider in this light. How much enjoyment does one dare to find in such a solitary pursuit of pleasure? Is treating only one’s self to rich, sensual food and drink, well, sexy? Why do so many people resist going to any trouble at all to prepare food that will be eaten alone? And what about in public? Is a solitary meal in a restaurant something merely functional, to be mildly enjoyed while reading a book, perhaps? What is it about a prolonged, pleasurable meal enjoyed alone, in public, without distractions, that makes so many people uncomfortable?

I began to look for answers to these questions by comparing two essays Fisher wrote about a decade apart: On Dining Alone, from her first book, Serve it Forth, which was published in 1937, and A is for Dining Alone, from Alphabet for Gourmets, which was published serially in Gourmet Magazine in 1948 and 1949. In both essays, she reveals the depth of her sensual connection to food, and her desire to enjoy it in this context. As she does, she achieves that classic writer’s goal so well-described by Adam Gopnik: using a word to point to a thing, which should, in turn, point at a symbol. Her journey is universal, and food, although the unquestioned star of her show, is as symbolic as it is simply, explicitly, itself.

She also makes an unstated but clear declaration: enjoy food. In the context of food writing in the 30’s and 40’s, this is revolutionary. The purchasing and preparation of food was the domain of women, and whether she was a housewife or a young, single woman, the goal was to please others: her husband, her children, or a man she was trying to impress—say, a potential husband or her husband’s boss, for instance. Fisher didn’t see food merely as a gift you give others, though, but rather as a crucial—and thoroughly enjoyable—part of your own sensual life. She was consistent in this view, and carried it through her life and work.

It’s interesting to witness how her perspective on such a telling subject as dining alone changes over time in ways that mirror her personal development. In the late 1930’s, when Fisher wrote On Dining Alone, she was married to her first husband, and was almost certainly already in love with the author and illustrator Dillwyn Parish, the man who would be her second husband and soul mate. She was still feeling inspired by  her “shaking and making years” in Dijon, France, where she came into her own as a gourmet in what was, at the time, widely considered one of the most influential cities in the world of gastronomy. She was also young, brilliant and strikingly beautiful.

Her take on dining alone at this point in her life was that of a woman convinced that solitude was a choice that one could enjoy secure in the knowledge that there was always an alternative. She described decadent enjoyment of slow, joyfully solitary meals savored in public without shame or self-consciousness. Her luminescent description a young woman’s discovery of the deeply satisfying experience of dining with herself is resonant with the undertones of sexual self-discovery. There’s an unabashedness here that’s missing from her later essay on the same subject—an innocence that the worldlier, more experienced woman she eventually becomes will lack.

By the late 1940s, when she wrote A is for Dining Alone, Fisher had lived through the illness and eventual suicide of Parish, the love her life, in 1941. She endured crippling depression following his death, and made references to her continued feelings of loss throughout the remainder of her long life. Although she married again, and continued to have a rich social and intimate life with both men and women, her writing during this period reveals the scope of her loss even as she shared wither her readers her continued desire for pleasure. By this time, she was well acquainted with the sources of her own enjoyment and she wasn’t willing to do without, even as she moved through a fog of grief. The alert reader finds a humming undercurrent of desire running beneath the surface of this piece, muffling somewhat the unmistakable echo of loss. Her narrative details her efforts to find new sources of this necessary, primal pleasure.

I found myself reading and re-reading passages, turning phrases over on my palate and considering the flavor, and implications, of “self-nourishment” and “a good solitary dish”. I considered her descriptions of the meals she gave herself at home—meals she carefully selected and prepared—and how she ate them: slowly, with a relaxing drink, as she believed that “only a relaxed throat can make a swallow”. These meals aren’t necessarily fancy, but they’re thoughtful, and they’re exactly what she wants. Every meal doesn’t have to be a feast if one’s desires, however spartan, are fulfilled. This truth is reflected in her choice of words; they’re carefully chosen, with the skill a chef brings to her most delicate work with the paring knife. She identifies and describes textures, smells, temperatures and shape without the use of long, descriptive sentences. This is a close, quiet essay, delivered nearly in a whisper. She’s confiding, sometimes even winking, and she knows that you know what she means.

There’s an unmistakable tie between these two pieces, and she alludes to this in the beginning of A is for Dining Alone: the source, if not always the exactly the experience, of achieving satisfaction from food changed over the course of her life. As with sex, what one pursues and find fulfillment from in one’s youth, although occasionally longed for in middle age, would ultimately—probably—prove, in the end, to be superficial. Probably. The essay begins with her efforts to be invited to meals with friends and casual suitors. She was unsuccessful, as many chefs and food writers must be in the face of her friends’ intimidation with the breadth of their knowledge, so she begins to eat out alone—another attempt to derive pleasure at the hands of others. This proves to be problematic when she begins to perceive that she’s being seen as casually available, an unwelcome distraction from her solitary pursuit of culinary pleasure. She still craves the carnal, but her tastes are richer and rarer, her desires are tinged with the cynicism that so often accompanies sophistication. She knows what the underside of ecstasy looks like. By knew she needed to seek more than a passing fancy to share pleasures both of the flesh and the table, and she also knew how rare such a person is.

These two essays allow us to be witnesses to Fisher’s grappling with the timeless trajectory most of us experience in our lives, and point to similar conclusions: in order to be able to be truly pleased by others, we must know how to please ourselves, and that there’s no shame in enjoying what one does for one’s self. The ability to find solitary pleasure in food, especially in food one has prepared for one’s self, seems to me to be a form of healthy self regard, and is a valid goal both in its literal and its symbolic sense.

Photo credit: (AP Photo/Richard Drew – April 28, 1971) Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, rocking some hiptastic glasses, in her home office in Sonoma, California.