"Sadder than destitution, sadder than a beggar is the man who eats alone in public. Nothing more contradicts the laws of man or beast, for animals always do each other the honor of sharing or disputing each other's food."
The lone diner cuts a solitary figure. Before writing this article, the idea of sitting alone at a table, whether at home or out in a restaurant filled me with dread. Eating, mealtimes and aperitivos have become such a huge part of my socialisation over the past few years, that doing it alone seemed somehow unnatural.
Eating is one of those activities, which is best shared. This has been true in food lore and I think it is fair to say across food cultures around the world. Two of probably the most vital human life processes for the survival of our species are pro-creation or sex and nutrition i.e. eating. They both come with a huge pleasure incentive which is why we find joy in doing both, often in the company of another or others. The Ventral Tegmental Area in the brain is the main site of the natural reward circuitry system with Dopamine being the principal hormone triggering reward motivated behaviours such as eating and orgasms, whilst opioids (endorphins) close this circuit and give us the sense of contentment, happiness and sometimes euphoria once we are satisfied.
Eating is not like going to the cinema, gardening, going for a jog or even the same as cooking all of which at least for me can often be a more enjoyable experience if done alone, you have space to clear your mind and focus or un-focus depending on your point of view.
On the odd occasion I find myself having to eat alone, I cannot just sit and eat, I have to watch a film or read a book. Having asked others whether they also had this ‘problem’, the majority said no, however after having prodded a bit further, I found this was not necessarily true. Mostly due to our attachment to our smart phones and everything great and good that comes with them, we no longer see them as an extra but an extension of ourselves, so even if we think we are eating alone, we are usually messaging someone, or posting a photo of what’s on our plates on Instagram. Alone but not lonely…I’m not so convinced. Everything aside from our plate and us is a distraction. One of my friends said to me this week that food is only food when it is shared, if not it is only nourishment and so it does not deserve your full attention.
Often, restaurants (especially in the big cities) try to avoid giving tables to lone diners and instead will place you at the bar or try to rush you through your meal with an over attentive waiter. Despite this, I read once of a chef who found bookings for one the ultimate compliment. He said that these single diners had chosen to be there, to try his food, not because they had a meeting, or because they had been dragged there; they had come for the food and the food alone.
EAT, a cultural food and heritage space in New York, turns itself into a restaurant once a month to hold a silent dinner. This means absolutely no communication – verbal or written - with your fellow diners or waiters and no phones for roughly 2 hours; just you and your food. Although it is debatable if this is really eating alone, as the experience is still a shared one.
Cross cultures, continents and countries and we are in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam in a small minimalist pop up restaurant called Eenmaal. The food is simple but of good quality prepared with local, organic ingredients, whilst the décor is modern minimalist and there is no Wi-Fi. So what is it that makes this restaurant unique? It just has tables for one. Eating alone here is not a choice; it is your only option.
Both EAT and Eenmaal are ways of creating an experience in which Mindful Eating can occur, where instead of contaminating the eating experience; you try and get the most out of it by getting rid of all distractions and fully experiencing your own true qualia. Appreciating the look of the food on your plate, tasting it, chewing it, swallowing it – being in the space which allows you to have a more intense and intimate relationship with your food, especially the pleasure of it.
Another jump and we find ourselves in Japan, where there is a fight against eating alone and it seems being alone is strong. The Moomin House Café in Tokyo offers diners a huge Moomin cuddly toy to sit with them at their table either to keep them company whilst alone or to presumably improve the group dynamic if they are in two or more at the table. I have not dined with a cuddly toy for about 15 years, but my memories of having tea parties with my teddies are happy ones, so maybe, I should try it again. At least they are good listeners…
Keisuke Jinushi, a Japanese blogger who has become famous with his ‘Hitori Date photos’ or ‘One Man Date Photos’ shows his followers how to take photos that look as if you are on a date with your significant other, when in fact you are alone. According to him, at least if you are pretending to be with someone whether that is in a restaurant or travelling the experience is automatically less lonely. Maybe this is the same idea as dining with a cuddly toy or with your smart phone or a film; maybe the majority of us feel that something is always better than nothing.
Whilst reading WikiHow’s nine point guide on how to eat alone in restaurants, I finally realised how ridiculous the shame and imagined fear of solitary dining actually is (this is not to say that I do not still feel slightly awkward if I am in this situation). Point six advises you to ask for the bill even before you have finished your meal, so that you don’t have to sit alone at the table for longer than necessary, and although they did not say this, to save yourself from the embarrassment you should be feeling because you are a social anomaly for daring to eat out alone and you may make the other diners feel nervous. How inconsiderate of you!
According to me, the true art of eating alone requires you, Dear Eater, to follow a simple three point guide, which in fact is not a guide:
1. Go out if you feel like going out, equally stay in if that’s the mood you’re in. Either way make your choice unapologetically.
2. Do not, I repeat, do not get out your phone at the table. It is rude when you are with people and equally impolite when eating alone. If you cannot bear to just sit and eat, bring along your favourite cuddly toy for the company and if that fails, then get out a book (a proper one with pages) and read. 3. Enjoy your food even if you have no one to share the experience with, savour your 10, 20, 30 minutes apart from our hyper social world. Taste it and appreciate it.
In the end, mastering an art takes time, practice and patience, and with something like eating alone, it is rarely mastered as we get caught up in our old habits of distracting ourselves from our food whenever we find ourselves in that situation. Breaking these habits will not solve the world’s inequality issues or start world war three (hopefully) and maybe even a three step guide is excessive, but perhaps it could lead us to a new appreciation for our meal and instead of just filling our empty stomachs and providing us with nutrients, food can mean something even to the lone diner.