By Sarvesh Talreja Oct. 16, 2019
Solo meals can be a source of warmth. For one, it’s refreshingly satisfying to interact with every bite in its glory. What people see as a lonely endeavour, I see as solitude.
It’s 9 am on a standard weekday and I’m at the family dining table waiting for eggs that my mother or grandmother will very kindly cook for me. For company, I only have six newspapers, of which I skim two and deep skim one. This has been my morning routine for much of my professional life. My father and grandmother start their day at early bird AM, and hence can’t eat with me. Mum is a freestyle rapper with meal timings. My brother, god bless his soul, carries his breakfast in a steel box to work. Dinner at home happens similarly, although I do growl at any noisy WhatsApp videos being opened as I eat bhindi. I eat lunch alone at work because I eat well before my colleagues.
Hello, my name is Sarvesh and I bravely go into each day with dining companion uncertainty. I could, in a different world, put eating alone under special skills on my CV, because it is that uncommon. Think about how we interact with food. It’s usually on a plate on a dining table, surrounded by chairs for other people. Sharing food (or not) is a big deal, whether it is with Joey and his pizza or confessing on one’s delicate political stance of splitting dessert only on your second date. Ads, movies, feasts, banquets, buffets, TV shows all paint the picture of food as a community-building exercise. A meal demands the presence of people around it. Even Anthony Bourdain never really ate alone with a camera crew following him. Korean mukbang, too, involves someone eating their food while talking to an online audience.
Yet, the realities of urban life paint a different picture. Solo dining is becoming more and more common. It has been so in India since 2006; this piece points out how café chains (RIP Mocha, thoughts and prayers) and five-star hotels alike want to make dining more engaging for those eating by themselves. Even Oriental societies with collectivist mindsets are seeing an increase in single people, usually professionals, gazing romantically at Excel sheets, and hugging laptops warmed from streaming Netflix to sleep. Recently, Chef Anita Lo of the shuttered Asian restaurant Lo in Brooklyn followed up her fame with a cookbook that is a dedicated guide to cooking for one, aptly titled Solo.
I began eating alone out of sheer necessity. I ate an early breakfast before a long commute to work and by the time it was 1 pm, there were mice running amok in my stomach. I too, was a creature of habit, and wanted to make friends at work, as opposed to being the guy who would unpack his dabba before anyone else every damn day. And yet concerns about other people are a universe away when you’re contemplating eating your desk instead of at it.
So, as a self-proclaimed expert, what is eating by yourself really like? Apart from lining one’s stomach, a meal invariably means loud jokes and seeing people with their guards down, wearing a daily expression that can only come from the simple and profound satisfaction of a full stomach. A meal together can be no less than the sharing and experiencing of humanity, as with theatre and cinema and art.
I began eating alone out of sheer necessity. I ate an early breakfast before a long commute to work and by the time it was 1 pm, there were mice running amok in my stomach.
Yet, solo meals can be a source of warmth too. For one, it’s refreshingly satisfying to interact with every bite in its glory. There’s no distraction from the juicy breakfast eggs with chillies and tomatoes. Every flavour feels heightened and every texture is more pronounced. Each bite is like Tom Cruise doing his own stunts in Mission Impossible 6, and it doesn’t matter whether the scene demands a dal paratha, scrambled eggs, or mysore masala dosa. I’m alone but I’m alone as part of something routine. What people see as a lonely endeavour, I see as solitude.
In my world, this meal is quiet, there’s a clean, plain plate, and the world fades away outside of the morsels that are about to be a part of you. It’s like wearing noise cancelling headphones to block out the world when you want to rock out to Kendrick Lamar. Does the noise of the world compel you to use the headphones? Yes. Does that make each bite (or brilliant verse) any less satisfying? Hell no.
So the question remains as eternal as what do we talk about when we talk about love? Is food just food? Isn’t it also physical and emotional fuel for you, your environment, and the interactions between them? Isn’t it also the stuff of memories, sometimes following whims of raw emotion? Should you imagine a world where something that’s such an integral part of what makes us human is something you do alone, without other people feeling the same things?
While these deeper questions about food pertain, there are also simple ones. That you, fellow human, need food. You may want it with people, or with salad on the side instead of fries, and in the Andamans instead of in Andheri. Until you have that, you still gotta eat, under any circumstances. The stomach, for better or worse, makes slaves of us all. That’s precisely why, here we are, yuppies at cafes, executives at hotels, grandparents without enough loving kin around, eating. By ourselves.
The way I see it, eating alone is something that will happen to you someday or the other. It’ll happen when you’re ravenous from working out or from working. It’ll happen on that one day when the evening snack doesn’t cut it because you miss Peppy and being 13 years old. It’ll happen when your colleagues drag you into a marathon meeting that’s as relevant to you as democracy is to North Korea. In Darwinian fashion, you can either evolve into it, or quite literally, starve and die.