I don’t live alone now. But I did for quite a few years on and off, and for all that I loved having a room of my own at last (how pleasant, not to have to extract someone else’s hair from the shower), there were always lonely moments. When I was burgled, there was no one to comfort me after the police had left. A couple of boyfriends dumped me (though to be fair, I dumped a couple back). Sometimes, having cooked myself a proper supper, I would have one of those sad, out-of-body experiences when you suddenly see yourself as if in a heavy, gilt frame, and think: oh my God, I look like Picasso’s absinthe drinker, only a bit less cheery.
I have found myself worrying about all sorts of people during this lockdown; it isn’t easy for any of us. But thanks, perhaps, to memories of that first mushroomy basement flat, my mind turns most often to those who, for whatever reason, are cloistered alone like secular nuns (or monks, if you prefer). “I’m sick of my cooking,” said my friend, C, the other day, an announcement that made me both happy (good, she’s cooking for herself) and a bit anxious (oh no, I hope she’s not going to stop cooking for herself). It’s so easy not to bother when you’ve only yourself to please – a habit that’s also dangerously cyclical. The less you bother, the less you’re capable of bothering.
Which brings me to Cooking Alone: a book, first published in 1954 and now cleverly reissued by Faber, whose gloriously named author, Kathleen Le Riche, understands better than most how the single and the solitary may grow neglectful of themselves in the kitchen. Having come up with a series of characters – the Bachelor, the Bed-Sitter, the Career Woman – Le Riche proceeds to identify their particular habits and needs, and thence to make suitable culinary suggestions for each one: minor tweaks and temptations that will put an end to their inertia and low spirits, yanking them gently out of their toast-bound slump.
Yes, it’s a period piece. Evaporated milk and rosehip syrup are still pantry mainstays, and the words “au gratin” are as exotic and enlivening as tea at Claridge’s with one’s most bohemian aunt. But it also includes lots of ideas worth nicking, from pouring booze over stale cake to make it “tipsy”, to putting a little ketchup alongside your bacon just before it comes off the grill, the better to warm it. Make “a great fuss” of this or that ingredient, she urges the reader – the point being that by indulging it, you will ultimately indulge yourself. This is good advice.
I don’t struggle to remember my bachelor girl kitchen hacks; most are still in use now (though I haven’t bought Dairylea triangles for a while: in my sophistication, I’ve graduated to mini Babybels). I always, for instance, take home a bunch of the spring onions that look so pathetic at the corner shop. They keep for ages, and I like to sauté them in butter with frozen peas when I’m low on fresh vegetables (and, to be frank, when I’m not). Chopped nuts – hazelnuts especially – are good with pasta, in all its variations: just add chilli flakes, garlic and parmesan. Blackberries freeze better than other fruit, and I keep a tub (from the supermarket, not foraged) in my tiny freezer, to be poached with whatever alcohol is around – my mum’s sloe gin, or that ancient creme de cassis whose provenance is unknown – and served with yoghurt or ice-cream.
All this said, if you are living alone, and don’t much feel like eating on any given day, so what? It’s fine. I’m the greediest person I know, and even I sometimes go to bed on a crumpet (not a euphemism). “What’s weird is that I don’t usually like them very much,” said my friend, A, of some marrons glacés she found herself devouring the other afternoon (she wanted sugar; they were all she could find in her cupboards). But as I told her, one’s appetite is a bit like a certain kind of lover. His presence is not always guaranteed. His desires are sometimes hard to predict. But what harm is there really in trying to keep him happy? When he’s content, so are you, to a radiant degree.