Cookbooks and I have always had a fractious relationship. I am drawn in by their delicious photographs and encouraging prose, then recoil in the grip of an almighty tantrum when a “15 minute” recipe takes me three hours and a phone call to my therapist. For one significant stretch of my life, during masters study, I even gave up on cooking altogether and watched the polystyrene eskies pile up.
Despite this rollercoaster ride –from the very ’80s “cooking with chocolate” cookbook (Sacher Torte and choc-covered-cherries!) I used to read in bed, aged 6, to the present day– I remain hopeful about cooking. With certain notable exceptions that I have the blue ribbons to show for, I would describe myself as an average but enthusiastic cook.
Every January I bust out the recipe books and cooking sections of my favourite newspapers, commit to a weekly market day, and try to start the year well. Lately I’ve been reading Mastering The Art Of French Cooking and enjoying how often Julia Child negs me with “remedial options” (especially nice when read in her voice).
So far, 2018 is ticking along as well as the new year always has (i.e. check back in March), but this time around a particular cookbook quirk has really stuck in my craw, as someone who has “enjoyed” the single life for over a year now: why is “cooking for one” still such a sad, lonely concept??
Solo cooking conjures up visions of pocket-sized bachelor cookbooks from the late-1960s (I own many; sardines feature heavily), women crying into their Healthy Choice, or Delia Smith’s TV show teaching people how to boil an egg.
The urtext of depressing solo cooking is Marie Smith’s Microwave Cooking For One, a cookbook so bleak it has inspired countless memes and listicles, as well as the dubious honour of being dubbed “the world’s saddest cookbook”. It even had a cameo appearance in The Mindy Project as a birthday gift symbolic of the tragedy of singlehood.
Such is the funereal nature of cooking for one that any “serves 1” recipe is inevitably accompanied by an overcompensatory introduction about how it’s really, honestly, not at all sad to be eating dinner alone.
“Solo suppers don’t have to mean beans on toast,” the BBC’s collection of Meals For One recipes assures me.
Yes, it seems for many, the notion of cooking alone is something as sorrowful as Weber Cooks’ guide to microwave nachos:
There’s even a downbeat disco classic about dining solo: Chic’s Soup For One.
This is all despite the fact that most of us who live alone or with others, and without children or a partner (even if they exist elsewhere) typically cook for ourselves –and only ourselves– most nights of the week!
It’s true that “serves 4” could be seen as a handy opportunity for a single person to meal prep, but the truth is that fancy Donna Hay side salad looks less “Delicious” and more “compost” after three days in the fridge.
Such is this hegemony of serving sizes that I’ve tried my best to invent my own taxonomy of “serves” instructions, from “Serves 1, then Serves 1 again 15 minutes later because 1 couldn’t wait to eat it again”
to “Serves 1.5” (anything a housemate takes a shine to and tries but then commits to having to finish cooking their own dinner) to “Serves you right for trying” (any egg preparation that doesn’t involve scrambling).
Why, then, does the broader cookbook community seem to drag its feet when it comes to empowering solo cooks to make nice one-off meals for themselves? After all, solo recipes tend to come in at the shorter end of the “time to prepare” scale, surely a rare currency in this busy world.
I could wrap my chicken fillet in alfoil then wrap my head as well and come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories involving Big Food, late capitalism and the gubment when it comes to working out why recipes typically serve anywhere between two and six people, but a kinder reading would be that the chefs and cooks of the world know how nice it is to dine with family and friends and are desperately trying to encourage us to eat with others.
On New Year’s Eve, one of my housemates asked if I’d like to join her and a visiting friend for an early dinner as they were heading out to a movie; it was just a simple meal (some salads, boiled eggs, little chips of tempeh) but so nice to share.
So, let that be a lesson to all of us: eat with more friends and family members in 2018, or in any year, really. But for those nights when we’re not dining with others, leave it to Nigella Lawson to remind us all that cooking solo is not, in fact, a cause for deep depression, but a cheaper way to go wild with indulgence in private: “Eating caviar in a restaurant or supplying it for a group of people is extravagant to the point of recklessness,” explains the cook. “Buying a small tin and demolishing it entirely yourself is hedonistic heaven.”