Learning to Cook for One During a Global Pandemic
Skye McAlpine on Longing For Dinner Parties and the Self-Care of Meal-Making
For me, cooking has always been about the people I cook for, more than it is about the food I actually cook. As much as I enjoy the process of magicking flour and eggs into cake, the real joy for me is that moment when I sit down to share the cake with everyone who has gathered with me to eat it. Consequently, when I write a recipe I do so with the intention of providing something you can practically and easily make to share. This might not be explicitly said in the body of the text, but will almost certainly be at the back of my mind when I’m writing it: my recipes begin with variations on the theme of “serves four” or “serves six,” even “serves eight.” Almost never “serves one,” and only very rarely “serves two.” Cooking for a crowd is really what I love most.
I was pondering this point the other night, as I made roast chicken, what I call “Aphrodite’s Chicken.” Chicken cooked this way—the whole bird roasted atop a layer of thinly sliced potatoes so that half the potatoes, the ones directly under the bird, soak up the cooking juices and the other half, those at the edges, crisp like chips—is something my mother used to make often when I was growing up. In fact, the recipe came to me via her, from an old family friend, Aphrodite: hence the name. Growing up, my mother would cook this chicken often, always on weeknights and almost always for guests; usually she would roast two whole birds and then serve them up with a simple green salad. And while the same recipe works perfectly fine for two or three (and I’m not short on ideas of what to do with any leftovers), it suddenly felt odd, uncomfortable even, not to be cooking it for the gang of friends who, in normal times, would indulge us with their company round the dining table.
Growing up, my parents ran an open kitchen: lunch and dinner at the long stone table in our garden was very rarely just us, instead always an eclectic and merry crowd. There was a constant flow of guests—old friends, new friends, friends-of-friends—who joined us for lunch and dinner each day. Cooking for others became a way of building a family of sorts away from the one we had left behind in England (we moved from London, where I was born, to Venice when I was six years old); I grew up in a household that believed food tastes best when shared with others.
When I turned 18, I left home to study in England. Although British by birth, having lived now in Italy for the best part of my life, I once more found myself in what felt like a new and foreign land. In my first year at college, I lived in a dorm room: no access to a kitchen, but I had a toaster, an electric kettle, and a sink to wash my plates in. I used to invite newfound friends for afternoon tea and we would sit on the floor, cross legged, eating toasted crumpets and English muffins smothered in butter, and talking earnestly about things that seemed all-important at the time but that now, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what they were. Food was how I knew to make friends—for me, it was all about the friends.
In my third year at college, I moved off campus and into a shared apartment with access to a kitchen, and that is when I think I really I learned to cook. I read cookbooks voraciously seeking answers on how to roast things, I called my mother almost daily for advice on how to plan a menu, I whiled away days in the library when I should really have been studying, daydreaming instead about what I was going to cook for dinner that night and who was going to join me. Dinner parties for friends, gathered cross legged on the floor round the coffee table in my bedroom (still no dining table at this point) were an unsophisticated and haphazard business, but probably my happiest memories from that time. I still remember so clearly walking into the big old bookshop near college in search of a birthday cake recipe. I bought Nigella Lawson’s How To Be a Domestic Goddess without a hint of irony: I too wanted to be a domestic goddess—of sorts, at least. I was sold then on the notion that cooking and baking for others, showing love by feeding your friends, gives you a high quite like no other.
I read ancient Greek and Latin literature at university, but in truth I remember little of the grammar and verbs I spent so many hours studying. The lasting and most meaningful lesson from my college years has been a true appreciation for the fact that there are few greater pleasures, or privileges, in life than eating in good company. And so, more than a decade on, many lessons (culinary and otherwise) learned, I wrote A Table for Friends: I wanted to create a companion guide that would help others enjoy cooking for their friends as much as I do—and inspire them to do it more often.
And then the world changed: the pandemic hit and Europe went into lockdown. It was no longer possible, responsible even, to share food with friends. The past few months have undoubtedly changed the way I cook—and in many ways for the better.
As with all dark clouds, there are silver linings. I am scrappier now—and more ingenious with my kitchen scraps. I rely on recipes less, and improvise with what I already have to hand more. Ingredients have been harder to come by, and no longer able to amble through the aisles of the grocery store seeking inspiration for tonight’s dinner, I have become more thoughtful and methodical in the way I cook. New habits, like investing in a well stocked freezer, thinking ahead for mealtimes, or batch cooking and freezing—the sorts of things I have always known I should do but never really got round to—have become second nature.
Same goes for leftovers: where shamefully I have wasted food in the past, I find myself now treasuring each last little piece of lunch and thinking about how I can creatively repurpose it as part of tomorrow’s dinner. I bought a book by Suzy Bowler called ‘Creative Ways to Use Up Leftovers’—and it is my new bible, my new how-to-be-a-domestic-goddess, as it were. Source of hours of inspiration, entertainment and joy—I still love cookbooks as much as ever.
Now, my hunger to cook for those I love has translated into a kind of self care. Without friends to feed over the past months, I have cooked for myself; and I realize now that my life has been much the richer for it. When at times it has felt like the world is crumbling around me, a proper lunch has gone a long way towards making things feel better. I have found comfort, optimism, relief even, in the mundane act of making something out of my meals: taking the time to lay the kitchen table prettily, eating dinner by soft candlelight, making a spoiling pudding to follow on from lunch—even with no friends to share it with. Especially, you could say, with no friends to share it with.
As this global pandemic lifts and, little by little, the world opens up, without doubt what I look forward to most is sitting once again round a table in the company of those I love and eating together. I look forward to roasting two chickens instead of just the one. But for now I’m plotting tonight’s dinner, leafing through cookbooks looking for food I long to eat; and then taking the time to cook it just for me. There is joy—lots of joy—in that, too.
A Table for Friends by Skye McAlpine is available now from Bloomsbury Publishing.