I’d gone to see my GP about a minor ailment, but as I was leaving, she asked ‘And how are you otherwise?’ ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I’ve separated from my partner.’ I paused and pictured my kitchen.
‘You know, I have eight place settings and now I only need three.’ I burst into tears. ‘What am I going to do with all those plates?’
I realised, in that moment, that cooking for others is how I structure my life and how I make a home. It’s partly because meals impose a timetable – every day we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner – but also because when we eat, we sit down with other people and we talk. My life had got smaller and the keenest way I felt it was at the kitchen table.
That same summer my children went away for over a month. Now I needed only one plate. What was I going to put on it? I’d never cooked just for myself. I’d been a daughter, then a serial girlfriend, then a wife and mother, then someone’s partner.
Initially I joined those who jostle for space in Little Waitrose and mini M&S stores to pull meals-for-one off the shelves. It was partly because I was exhausted – I was trying to finish a book and was working terrible hours – but also because I wanted lasagne and moussaka and everything that looked soft and comforting.
But it wasn’t long before I got ready-meal fatigue. They all tasted the same and I hated the sad process of tipping the molten contents of silver cartons on to a plate. Every meal looked flat and brown. But cheese on toast – my favourite meal for one – just wasn’t going to cut it for a whole month.
I thought about why I was reluctant to cook for myself. I love breakfast, mostly because I eat it alone. Whether it’s boiled eggs or toast with jam, I taste and appreciate every flavour – the tang of the bread, the saltiness of the butter, the dark bitterness of the coffee – and look forward to the day ahead.
So, I enjoy solo dining – I just had to shift this enjoyment to the evening meal. I started cooking things I’d never cook for a crowd (mostly because of expense): I griddled scallops, tossed crab with spaghetti, made veal saltimbocca.
I refused to succumb to the solo diner’s basics of scrambled eggs and baked potatoes with beans. Instead, I had eggs en cocotte with mushrooms and cream, baked potatoes filled with smoked trout, sour cream, dill and a spoonful of salmon roe (so there was a salty pop in every bite).
I revelled in ‘treats’ because no meal for one, no matter how luxurious, is going to be as expensive as cooking for six or living on ready meals. It was a thrill to make things my family don’t like but that I love – dishes salty with anchovies and capers, and southeast Asian salads so hot they hurt my mouth.
Some dishes don’t work well for one. A big casserole is great for six people but eating the same dish on your own for three nights in a row is about survival, not pleasure.
Others – risotto, pasta, small baked fish, salads based on a big chunk of creamy burrata (I never want to share burrata anyway) – are perfect. By the time the children returned I was fully into this sybaritic lifestyle and had started to pour myself a glass of wine every night and even light the odd candle.
I felt grown-up, empowered, in charge, deserving. The eldest was shocked by my new-found indulgence. ‘You really can’t drink wine on a Monday night, Mum,’ he said. ‘Oh, but I can,’ I smiled. ‘It’s my dinner.’ I had discovered the heady pleasure of cooking for myself.