When I was nineteen, I went to London and, while walking the old and twisting streets, felt the simultaneous thrill and melancholy of solitude, as if for the first time. It was also in London, at a special exhibit I attended for class, that I first saw Edward Hopper’s Automat, a 1927 painting of a woman sitting alone at the café, which was on loan from the Des Moines Art Center. The woman in this painting is not eating, but she has a teacup in her hand and is looking down toward the saucer. Alain de Botton says of the painting,
Hopper invites us to feel empathy with the woman in her isolation. She seems dignified and generous, only perhaps a little too trusting, a little naïve—as if she has knocked against a hard corner of the world. The artist puts us on her side, the side of the outsider against the insiders.
I read this passage years later, but it articulated this feeling I had of being aligned with this woman. I didn’t pity her; I was her. I had begun feeling more comfortable in isolation the year before when I’d started eating alone. In the mornings, in my college cafeteria, I would take my breakfast and find a corner away from the other freshman who were so desperate to eat with another person that they would spend awkward meals with anyone, everyone. I wasn’t ready for small talk before an 8 a.m. class. A quick internet search reveals that college is a popular site of initial forays into solo dining; I turned up several college-paper op-eds detailing the small joys of eating alone.
These days, I eat alone all the time. I’m single and finishing up a PhD program, shuttling between teaching, meetings, writing center consultations, and dissertation work in my library carrel. I love to take a break in the middle of the day and eat somewhere while I continue to work or just scroll through social media. There is a restaurant on the east side of Athens where I go when I want to unwind, celebrate, treat. I go there in part because I will rarely run into anyone I know.
I eat alone so often that I forget it’s unnerving for so many other people. I always associate eating alone with literature, too. M. F. K. Fisher, who dealing with more social stigma to this practice, wrote about dining alone even at home as a kind of compromise. She says, “I felt firmly then, as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality. If One could not be with me, ‘feasting in silent sympathy,’ then I was my best companion.”
Perhaps too romantically, I have often linked solo dining with writing and observation; it is a freedom to be in one’s own thoughts. In Stephanie Rosenbloom’s essay “Eating Alone,” which was an excerpt of her book Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude published on Longreads, she says, “To eat out alone is to partake of a city.” To go out into the world and eat a meal with myself can connect me to my environment; it can make me feel like I know something about a place and that it’s possible to know this thing all on my own.
In my master’s program, I liked to try new places and I would bring along a book, often reading at the bar and ordering a beer on a Saturday night. Cities are more amenable to such action; no one would have looked at me strangely in Chicago, but in suburban Iowa, it invited the stares and comments of others. The pleasures of eating alone—particularly for women—exist often side-by-side by the uninvited comments of men. The unaccompanied woman, even if she is wearing headphones or has a book open on her lap, often has to ward off unwanted conversations. It sounds unfriendly, but it’s tiring—our careful placation, the subtle and evasive flattery when we just want to be left undisturbed.
While the solo restaurant eater has more celebrants, the public snacker can remain a target of disgust and judgment. But not everyone has the leisure time or money to take their solitary meals in a dining establishment; sometimes we must eat wherever we have time, in whatever breaks materialize. On the bus or while walking or sitting on a bench. In Taste, Liza Corsillo defends eating in public in both writing and illustration, including drawings and captions of people like “man using cell phone to crack shell of his hard-boiled egg,” “nut mix throw back,” “the end of a salad,” and “avocado toast while scrolling.” Corsillo says, “Who among us has the luxury of leaving work in time to prep, cook, and sit down to dinner at a reasonable hour? That kind of wholesome lifestyle must be bought and skillfully organized, a privilege we don’t all have.” I find myself often snacking on the go to save money and time, but as someone who is not thin, I admit to feeling more self-conscious about any public eating that occurs without the context of restaurant or café. I sense my choices and timing to be more open to scrutiny.
I love eating alone, but I also think it’s possible to overstate the pleasure. To become out of balance. Just as a friend has reminded me, it can be tiring for extroverts to have introversion relentlessly over-championed in recent years, sometimes eating alone too often can reflect a deeper isolation, a cutting of oneself off from the world around us. As James Hall explains in a recent Telegraph article, research done through the Waitrose Food and Drink Report for 2017–18, confirms a rise in solo dining and explained that our cell phones are partly behind this increase. In the report, women especially cited their phones as allowing them to dine alone more frequently than before. I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing that phones provide comfort and connection, but I recognize in myself the need to sometimes push beyond the ease of a solitary dinner into the restorative social experience of a shared meal.
After May, I will have spent eight years in graduate school—three for my MFA and then five for my PhD. I have a habit of comparing these as different eras and the PhD has been more solitary. It just has. I’m older and more of my friends are partnered and have children. The PhD is more demanding, pays less, and brings more stress. So often, my classmates and I seem to run on next to nothing; it can feel like I am just moving through these years. During my MFA, my cohort and I had regular potlucks and more meals were shared. My roommates and I would cook together often and I do miss that. It’s also true that I often long for holiday breaks and summers when I return to Michigan and eat meals with my parents and siblings, often in front of the large, stone fireplace in my parents’ house. It’s true that I don’t always want to eat alone. But sometimes it is also perfect and quiet. Sometimes, I am off to the side and yet, in my own way, part of everything at once.
Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, which was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Tigue writes fiction and poetry and has been published in journals such as Verse Daily, Blackbird, and the Indiana Review. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a James Merrill fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and a former assistant to the editors at the Georgia Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
Read earlier posts from Walking Through here.