We Get to Have Cake!: On Joy, Sadness, and Eating Alone
A Conversation With Margaret Eby
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me a newsletter about the places our personhood and politics meet. During the month of August, I’ve been writing about feminism and butter cows, the power of state fair food, and today, I talked with Margaret Eby, a food journalist, critic, and author of a forthcoming book about eating alone, about eating alone. If you look forward to this newsletter every week, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Until I was 35, I rarely ate alone. I am one of eight kids and learned at an early age to make dinner for 10 or more people. Chocolate cookies? I never made less than 4 dozen at a time. And then I was in college, where my friends and I would meet in the cafeteria for long, riotous meals between classes. And then I was married, and then I had children.
At 35, I left my marriage and suddenly found myself with nights when I only had to care for myself. And they weren’t just one-offs where I could go out to eat or make a little plate of cheese. Suddenly, at least 50 percent of my nights, I was alone. I didn’t have to cook for picky children and a partner who demanded meat at every meal. The only person I had to please was myself, and I had no idea what to do.
For a while I ate yogurts. Then it was just cheese. I didn’t want to labor. I just wanted the food to be there. So crackers and Boursin, pickles and bread, spoonfuls of peanut butter, cottage cheese straight from the carton with pepper on top and a little bit of hot sauce. Some nights, I’d splurge and get food from my favorite restaurant, where I’d eat gnocchi that melted in my mouth, or a whole charcuterie plate just for me.
Sometimes I’d order a large quantity of barbecue and eat it over the course of two weeks. Other times I’d order a large quantity of chicken wings and eat them in one night. But every day I was alone, I had to ask myself, What do I want to eat? The question seemed impossible.
I’ve long struggled with disordered eating, using food as a means of control. So when faced with every option in the world, I wanted to make sure I was choosing what I wanted, what I truly wanted. But what was that?
I took all of these questions to Margaret Eby, who is a journalist, critic, recipe-tester, and author, who is working on a book about eating alone. Margaret helped me understand how what we eat when we eat alone can help us become the purest expression of ourselves — in all our dirtbag glory.
Lyz: I have a friend who's going through a divorce, and she mentioned, "Feeding myself is incredibly difficult." And I hear this a lot when I talk to women who were married and had kids but are now suddenly unmarried and in 50/50 custody situations. Where they are newly in a place where they don’t have to please anyone except themselves with food. And sometimes the way women talk about feeding just themselves is so wrapped up in shame and fear.. People say things like, "Oh well, I cook healthy." Or some would be like, "Sometimes I just eat corn dogs and it's terrible."
I'm just like, "Sounds great. I wish you joy and happiness. Don't be sad about a corn dog." Be sad about January 6! Corn dogs are fine. But I’m fascinated by how hard it is to eat alone.
Margaret: I think that things that people make for themselves when they're eating alone are some of the purest expressions of joyful dirtbag-dom. And there's just so much that we have wrapped up in food and food culture, like gender ... attaching words like “sinful” or “gluttonous” when it's just dude, have some chocolate cake. It's fine. We only live once.
There are these huge mental obstacles where you feel like you're failing if you're not putting together this Instagram-perfect smoothie bowl instead of eating half of a rind of cheese out of the back of the fridge.
I think about this a lot because … I am a home cook, but I went to culinary school and I have worked at a bunch of very fancy food magazines, and I think there's this perception that, "Oh well, there's a correct way to do food and these people know and I don't know." And that's just not true.
The fanciest food person you know, or can think of, has 100 percent eaten a cold corn dog out of the fridge or that equivalent. I'm a person who makes a croquembouche for fun. That's the kind of lunatic that I am, but I think a lot of what I want to do in my work is to be descriptive about food instead of prescriptive about food.
[Being prescriptive is] not interesting to me, and I think it shuts off this world of possibility. And it also ends up being really Eurocentric, really patriarchal, really white-focused. It’s much more interesting to me to be like, "How do you prepare food in your home? What do you do? How do all these people attack the same problem that all of us have?"
Lyz: We have to eat.
Margaret: So my book is what came out of me being really depressed and being like, "I must eat food." I know this, to put body and soul together, and also all day long, I'm editing recipes of a lasagna that takes two days to make. Or I'm giving people advice about their sourdough starter. I feel like such a hypocrite because here's what I had for lunch: I bought an economy box of Bagel Bites and have been eating Bagel Bites.
That's a typical thing in the food world that's really frustrating to me. It's very either high-end aspirational, super-glossy Martha Stewart or it’s Munchies and the largest cheeseburger in the world. There's so much room in the middle for how people just eat every day.
Lyz: I think especially if you're socialized as a cis woman in this culture, you are taught that food is care for others. But we don't know how to care for ourselves. So sometimes I'm like, "Am I just eating cheese over the sink because honestly I have disordered eating and I have no concept of what I need? Or do I actually really want to care for myself and make an okra tomato spicy stew with sourdough bread on the side?” I never know: Is this the culture? Is this me?
Margaret: I think that's so real. I think that's true for all kinds of things. Do you remember the Claire Vaye Watkins “On Pandering”?
Lyz: I was in the audience when she read it at the Tin House writers’ workshop. And I was working for the literary magazine started by the man that she was calling out.
Margaret: Oh, man! I think about that essay all the time because I think about how much of my taste was cultivated to impress other people vs. what I actually like. And I think that taste can be figurative, but taste can also be so literal. And of course there are things like acquired taste. As you get older, you like different things, and that's normal.
When I make a meal for myself and no one's around, I often revert to things that I loved when I was a kid. And it feels good to reconnect with that part of myself. It starts early for women. It starts early for anyone who isn't in a really specific body to be told what you should and shouldn't be eating.
There are also meals where I just ate a spoonful of capers because I wanted to. … I know there's a lot of shame around it but it's also just a literal piece-by-piece rediscovering of what tastes good to you. What do you actually need or want to be eating? I think there's this whole industrial complex of listening to your body, but I've been trying to ignore my body for my whole life. My body doesn't want to go to work. My body doesn't want to do chores. I would love to eat grapes in the sun all day, but I can't because I'm a normal human adult.
Cooking is an art and a practice and a chore, and finding the space where those things meet, and also finding space where you can actually enjoy it, it's really hard. I think it's really hard for most people because you have so much input all the time about food and what you should be eating and how you should be eating, and how it should look.
Lyz: There are so many messages and we learn from such an early age not to listen to ourselves, and then in the process, we get so many messages about our bodies, which is always like, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” and "Abs are made in the gym but revealed in the kitchen."
Margaret: Yeah, and it's also just like kindly shut up. If your goal in life is abs, good for you, your job is abs. My job is strawberry cake--
Lyz: My job is just… abs.
Margaret: Yeah, exactly. Fine. Good for you.
Lyz: There’s a correlation not just between body and food, and food and morality, but between food and politics, right? Because God forbid if you're a liberal you go to Chili's.
Margaret: Right, or Chick-fil-A.
Lyz: God, I miss that sauce. So when you're finally alone, and you're like, "I can do whatever I want," it's so hard to know what you want. And I think that's a metaphor for literally everything, but also I need to eat.
Margaret: It can be just so paralyzing. And then you're in a place where you're like, "Cool, I don't know what to eat. I'm feeling at loose ends. Do I know what it's like to have a body?" I don't know. And then on TikTok, it's like, "Here's an easy meal," and they're like, "Simply get the herbs you've collected from your garden." And I'm like, "Nope, you are not understanding."
If your first step is to go buy figs, I'm already out. The kind of assumptions baked into that are just so difficult to navigate and unpack on their own.
Lyz: I also think it's made more fraught by the aloneness aspect, and I want to talk about that because I went on to JSTOR and typed “eating alone,” and I'm reading so many articles that say, "Sociologists view aloneness as an aberration from society."
Margaret: Oh, God. Yeah, not only am I eating my sink cheese, I'm violating the basic human contract.
Lyz: And there's often shame in the aloneness. If the aloneness is a welcome break it can be joyous.. When I first divorced, I was like, "Hell yeah, I'm alone!" But then in the pandemic, I was like, "Oh no, I'm alone."
Margaret: I feel like in those moments, the thing that helps me is one, realizing community is there for you even when it's not visible. And there's nothing wrong with having a food uniform to get you through periods where you're like I'm not interested in creativity. I'm not interested in you sending me your $60 fake salad recipe. I need to simply stay alive with some level of nutrients and try not to contract any pirate-coded diseases. No scurvy.
There are stretches where I will make the same thing for lunch every single day because it's just the thing that'll get you through. You know it, you have the ingredients. You're like, "Cool, I make this Caesar-ish salad and if I have leftovers, I throw it in." I think people think meal planning can be really joyless, which it can be if that's your approach, but also it can be so lifesaving.
When I was in college I made myself the same sandwich every single day for three months. But that's fine. It got me through. I'm alive today. I graduated college.
And I also think in periods when you're feeling like “I can't possibly,” anything that sparks comfort to you, anything that sparks, "This feels good" or "I can manage that," just lean all the way into it because it's hopefully a temporary time.
Lyz: I once wrote an article that declared I was done cooking. After it came out, people were just like, "One day, you'll want to cook again." And I was like, "What if I don't, though?" Don't act like it's something I have to do.
Margaret: Right. It doesn't make you morally superior.
Lyz: It's like, "You'll find love again. You'll find food again." Like it’s what you are supposed to do. And what if I just want to eat store-bought chicken salads for the rest of my life?
Margaret: Then that's fine, you will remain alive and live a good life. There are many people who do this and it's fine. For me, cooking is something that can feel joyful and creative and communal and all those good things that cooking can be. I really connect with those things, but I understand that for some people it's a chore. Some people love cleaning — not me. I do it begrudgingly so I don't live in a pile of garbage, but it's not something I will ever love or enjoy. And, it's okay.
Finding strategies to feed yourself in a way that makes sense for you in your life is completely fine. You never need to make a croquembouche. There's a reason there are professional chefs. They cook for you. That's their job. And also, so many of the chefs I know are like, "Yeah, when I get home from work, I do not cook things." Or, "I use a meal kit, or I have a pimento cheese sandwich." And I think it's very human and fine. If cooking is too overwhelming and you can figure out a way to feed yourself in a way that you never have to chop an onion, I'm not going to tell you that you have to learn how to chop an onion. I don't care.
Lyz: So, what are you learning about eating alone as you're writing a book about eating alone?
Margaret: Well, one, it turns out to be a really fascinating conversation topic, just talking to people about what they make when they're alone. Two, I think what counts as easy is different for everyone. What counts as a put-together, throw-together assembly meal just differs so widely. At least in my brain, there are certain tasks that just become so difficult and insurmountable that I would rather skip them. Sometimes getting out a cutting board and a knife, I'm like, "No. Hard no. I can't do it. I couldn't possibly." So, I’m just a dirtbag with some kitchen shears and it works and it's great.
But for my husband, he's like, "I don't care about the chopping things, but I couldn't possibly sauté this."
Lyz: Statistically women are still primarily the home cooks and do the majority of the grocery shopping. Home cooking is still primarily a women’s task. And women are socialized to see it as their task.
I say all of this because I often hear a lot of men (and sometimes women) say, “Food is fuel!” when I ask questions about eating or feeding themselves.
What have you noticed when you're having these conversations? What are you seeing?
Margaret: I mean is food fuel? Yeah, sure it is. But that's not the only thing it is. Food is community. Food is labor. Food is vast systems that produce a tomato and then deliver it to your door. Food is history and culture and a vehicle for passing all those things down. And if what works for you is just Soylent, and you are a person who takes absolutely no joy in meals with other people or otherwise, and you would like to just reduce it all to a pill, okay, that's an aspect of humanity and I respect it.
If you only repeat that food is fuel, you're just ignoring the vast other parts of food. Thinking that the only reason that anyone eats food or gathers for food is literal caloric input, which is obviously an important part of it, but god, how sad to never have pleasure in anything you're eating and to never look forward to a meal with friends. I don't even think it's even possible really to narrow down every food to find the optimal one-size-fits-all menu for humans.
This reminds me of when I was working at Food and Wine, we always had this stupid joke that it would be like a “Nathan for You” episode where we found the one food and one wine and then shut down the magazine.
I did a big piece on peppercorns last year and it involved me just talking to farmers and middle managers and hearing all this spice drama. And, it was about history too. It was literally about colonialism and the spice trade. And if you were like, "That sucks. I like Soylent," okay, there's no police. I'm not going to come to your house and remove it from your refrigerator.
I would say, people who think food is about community and history and culture acknowledge the fuel argument and the fuel argument does not acknowledge the emotional argument, and if that's not a metaphor for gender relations, I don't really know what is.
Lyz: Okay, any last thoughts on how should one feed oneself however one fucking wants?
Margaret: I think the thing to keep in mind is there's not a wrong way to feed yourself. There isn't. There are many, many concerns that you can weigh in your head, and we didn't even touch on labor relations and climate change and all these vast complications, but basically if you are keeping your body and soul together and doing the thing that feels right for you and is right, there's not a wrong way. And I'm not here to judge you and frankly, anyone who can enjoy only having calorically approved meals, that will be their reward, but you and I get to have cake.
Here is Margaret’s story on black pepper.
Claire Vaye Watkin’s essay “On Pandering.”
Rebecca Firkser’s essay “Finding My Way Back to Food in the Face of an Eating Disorder.”
And as always, everyone please read Virginia Sole Smith’s newsletter Burnt Toast, which is dedicated to deconstructing the ways we eat and view our bodies.