Dinner Party for OneCooking for Yourself in the Age of Social Distancing

Chef Klancy Miller, author of Cooking Solo: The Fun of Cooking for Yourself (Photo credit: Tara Donne)

Living alone has long been a sign of independence: Almost 30 percent of Americans—or a little more than 35 million people—live alone, and the number is only rising due to divorce, people choosing not to marry or getting married at older ages, and periods of relative economic prosperity that have helped people secure their own singleton digs. And because of the coronavirus pandemic, even more of us are eating at home and alone. Ordinarily this would be viewed as a positive, but so few Americans actually cook that David Tamarkin, the chief editor of Epicurious, had controversially claimed in 2017 that “home cooking is dead.” So what’s a solo resident to do during this new age of social distancing, when you can’t pop out for a bite with friends? Klancy Miller, a Brooklyn, New York-based Cordon Bleu-trained chef and author of Cooking Solo: The Fun of Cooking for Yourself, has some suggestions. She talked to Bitch about finding joy through cooking for yourself during a crisis. 

It seems we admire cooking as a social activity, or something you do for others, and stigmatize it when you do it alone (or you choose to eat alone). What’s your take on that?

I don’t think that cooking alone or even that eating alone is sad. I would call myself an extroverted introvert. As much as I enjoy a busy social life, I personally need to refill my own cup. And that goes for times in my life when I’ve been single or in a partnership. I think it’s really cathartic to be with yourself. Some people may do that by going for a run. Cooking can be meditative and quieting for the mind. I believe cooking and eating are something we should do for our community and family, but it’s [also] really healthy to spend time with yourself. Now, we are being told to social distance, [which] could potentially be a good moment just to recalibrate.

Why do people find it hard to cook at home?

It depends on what you’re comfortable doing in the kitchen. A lot of us aren’t comfortable at all. Home economics classes haven’t existed for a while, maybe in people’s parents’ generation. And it’s fun to go out. I don’t think the average person has the skill set in the kitchen, and it can be intimidating if you don’t cook for yourself. Most cookbooks cater to recipes for four to six people. And if you are a person like me, you don’t really like having leftovers for more than a few days. If you’re cooking a recipe for four to six [people], you may not know how to repurpose them. Cookbooks are great, but they often aren’t taking into account that some of us are cooking for one.

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What’s in your pantry at all times?

A lot of ingredients for baking: flour, baking soda, dry active yeast. And I’m crying because I’m out of yeast. It’s like everyone in New York decided they’re going to bake now that we’re all holed up. It’s nice to give yourself something decadent when you’re on lockdown. And you can have some today, freeze it, and [then] have some for later. I also keep honey and different vinegars. I have a ton of beans—canned beans, dried beans, white beans, black beans. And lentils. I bought lots of pasta, lemons, and limes. I bought a lot of kale, and I have tortillas because I like to make tacos.

What’s the go-to item or dish that’s bringing you joy right now?

Anchovies. Because they are so nice and salty, and they give us that whole umami flavor. I will chop up a tin of anchovies, a clove of garlic, finely chopped walnuts, lemon, olive oil. That’s great over pasta, sautéed kale, or different vegetables. It’s bright because of the lemon juice and [they’re] perfectly salted. Adding anchovies to a sauce or vinaigrette just makes everything pop. I’ve been doing a little bit more decadent cooking than I usually do. I’ve been thinking about making cinnamon buns. I made pizza twice this week from scratch, and that was fun. I’ve been more open to making things that take longer. And I bought flowers: tulips. I am an aesthetically driven person. I like to keep my plants thriving.

Is the pantry of a one-person household fundamentally different than that of a family?

It depends on the style of cooking (and I like a lot of Mediterranean-inspired dishes), what people like to cook, and how frequently they like to go out. I’m pretty well-stocked, and I used to go out on a daily or every two days to get that star ingredient. Maybe the fresh fish. I grew up in a family that would go to the grocery store for today’s meal. And it depends on how often you go out to eat. I don’t go out to eat four times a week, which is probably normal for most New Yorkers. And I’m not a fan of [prepared meals by] delivery because I like my food at the right temperature, and I like my own food.

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Have you been shopping differently during the pandemic?

I did four huge grocery runs. Like a lot of people, I keep panic buying. I need more beans, more beans! More pasta, more pasta! I just kept thinking [about] nonperishables. I wasn’t thinking [about] fun recipes. I’m cool with having oatmeal for breakfast every day for two weeks. If I had to redo these past few weeks, I would pull out some cookbooks and plan.

You emphasize that cooking solo is an act of pleasure and provides nourishment. Do you have any tips for finding pleasure in solitary cooking and eating in times of self-isolation?

To be really honest, my pleasure is going out, going to see friends, and going out to eat with friends. This new normal is making me pose an interesting question to myself: How can I have pleasure when the thing that gives me pleasure is denied? I’ve been looking at Twitter and a bartender was making recommendations so people can make cocktails with whatever they have on hand. [Washington, D.C.-based bartender and author] Derek Brown made one with tequila and St. Germain liqueur that was really delicious, like a margarita with St. Germain taking the place of Cointreau.

What food might people be surprised to find in your kitchen?

I have an absurd amount of nut milk. I don’t know how I’m going to use it all. What am I going to make? And now I’m going to out myself: frozen dinners. Let me be clear: I don’t usually eat frozen dinners, but sometimes you need something quick in those random moments of exhaustion. And I like Mexican food and know I won’t be able to get it for a while, and I tried those Amy’s frozen meals once—the casserole one—and thought they aren’t that bad.

Cooking and eating are something we should do for our community and family, but it’s also really healthy to spend time with yourself.

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You offer recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in your cookbook. What about snacks, an important part of a stay-at-home-order regime?

I wish I had bought more snacks, some nachos or something. I have a lot of peanut butter on toast. The pizzas I made make great leftover snacks. I’ve gone crazy with cinnamon buns before, and it’s not a good look. Maybe I’ll make crackers. It’s just dough. If you can make focaccia or pie crust, you can make a cracker.

How are you getting your farmers market fix—without actually going out?

During the first week or so of this quarantine, my initial reaction was to just stay inside and avoid going to markets. After the first week, I started learning about initiatives to help farmers, other food producers, restaurants, and restaurant workers. Many farms are now selling directly to customers instead of at farmers markets. Doing some Google searches on greenmarkets can help you find information about curbside pickups and [community-supported agriculture] options. There are also great companies like Local Roots NYC that offer an easy way to buy local and organic food from local farms—and they provide delivery now. For people who are able to, it’s also helpful to support GoFundMe efforts for people in the food industry or to contribute directly to people you know who are in need. There is a great article by Nikita Richardson in Grub Street about all of the GoFundMe campaigns that restaurant workers have launched.

Another thing people can do is to call their elected officials and ask them to increase the CARES Act [the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which allocates funds for large businesses, small businesses, airlines, and individuals]. Buying merch and gift cards and [having food] delivered is great, but more help is needed to support small restaurants. Calling your congressperson is a free thing you can do to help the restaurant industry. Here’s a recent piece about chefs asking for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Cynthia Greenlee
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