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Alone in the Kitchen

"Why does living alone feel so familiar?" I asked my little brother one night on the phone. He was living in a studio apartment in Philadelphia.

"Because it's like being alone," he said.

He was right, of course. Being alone—battling loneliness—was something at which I had always felt it was important to improve. Taking solitude in stride was a sign of strength and of a willingness to take care of myself. This meant—among other things—working productively, remembering to leave the house, and eating well. I thought about food all the time. I had subscriptions to Gourmet and Food & Wine. Cooking for others had often been my way of offering care. So why, when I was alone, did I find myself trying to subsist on cereal and water? I'd need to learn to cook for one.

It wasn't my first time in the Midwest. I'd done my undergraduate work—as I was learning to call it—at Oberlin College, which boasts many strange and wonderful things, one of which is a system of eating cooperatives. Students can opt out of the dining hall and into one of the communal dining rooms—if a room that seats eighty with folding chairs at round tables and is swept three times a day but is always dirty can be called a dining room. The kitchen featured four industrial-size mixers, two walk-in coolers, and a wok so enormous it doubled as a sled in winter. On the kitchen prep team, I diced eighty onions, wearing sunglasses that didn't stop my tears. When none of the vegetables I ordered came in on time, I still had to produce a stir-fry. I stood on a stool and begged brown rice not to burn. In some ways, learning to cook at Oberlin resembled learning to cook in a restaurant, only it was less precise. The diners charged the food the moment we set the big pots down.

After college, I followed the graduated masses to Brooklyn. I moved into a railroad apartment with two friends who had also gone through Oberlin's cooperative system. It seemed natural to us to make dinner together every night, and I gradually learned to cook for smaller groups. One of my roommates worked at the farmers' market and always brought home bags of vegetables. I worked, briefly, at a bakery in the neighborhood. At the end of the day I brought home bread; I had literally become the breadwinner of our makeshift household. Often, we had guests to dinner. We carried the food from the kitchen down the long hallway to the living room. We sat on the floor.

Over the next five years, we moved from neighborhood to neighborhood in Brooklyn. First, my boyfriend moved in with my friends and me. Later, he and I moved into our own place. Cooking for two was hard. I always made too much.

Now, marooned in the Midwest once again, I tried to live on a stipend. I tried to remember how to make friends. After class, I asked two girls if they wanted to go to a movie over the weekend and the asking made me blush. I tried to string together late-night telephone calls and infrequent visits into an approximation of a relationship. I missed eating salad and cheese with my boyfriend and going over the stories of our days. I missed the texture and chaos of daily life shared with others.

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Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

Jenni Ferrari-Adler

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