The words ‘eating alone’ conjure up images of a loner, an anti-social soul, a sad person. Do not judge. Yes, sometimes the solo eater might be all of these, and I know some such sad loners (see, I am judging now). But there is a time for social eating, and there is a time for solo eating.
Let me compare this with solo travel. When one travels alone, to trek in remote mountains, wander through rainforests, visit secluded monasteries, and daydream by a sparkling bubbling water stream, no one calls that person a sad loner. Solo travel has been romanticised to the level of an artform. There are so many positives of travelling alone – you are the master of your own itinerary; you need not visit every sunset point in the travel guide; you need not follow other people’s choices on where to stay and what to eat.
In solo travel, you need not engage in mindless chatter with your travel group. You can take in the sights and sounds and smells of where you go – amble down the path less travelled; serendipitously discover unknown gems; find hole-in-the-wall delights that guidebooks and travel bloggers had missed. You travel like a traveller, not a tourist. We think we are travellers, but in a group, we become tourists.
Group travel turns every journey into a tourist trail – ticking off places from a list – 6:45am mandatory sunrise selfie; 7:30am shaky picture of the temple as you drive past; 8:30am soggy croissants and lukewarm coffee at the industrial buffet breakfast hall. Burn the list and the guidebook; go where your soul leads you.
There may be a time for group travel. That is all I have to say about this form of travel. I am not going to wax lyrical about this touristy travel format.
That brings me back to where I started – the joys of solo eating. When solo travel has such an exalted aura around it, why is then solo eating often frowned upon? There is an existential tension here. We are told that food brings people together, that social eating is social bonding, that breaking bread together breaks barriers. And then we are told to eat mindfully. How does one eat mindfully, when one is expected to engage in small talk with the person on either side of you at the table, and dodge the uncle across the table guffawing at his own joke and spraying a mist of pesto in your face?
Before you label me a sad loner, let me repeat – there is a time and place. I have done more than my fair share of communal eating. And it is fun; especially when eating bad food. The company distracts you.
Here are the often-underappreciated virtues of eating alone.
When eating, I want the food to be the hero, not my dinner companions. I will be companionable with them before the food, and after the food. But leave me alone when I engage all my five senses in enjoying the delights on my plate, not the not-so-delightful people at the table.
When the food is delightful – the food I cook, for example (just saying, hypothetically) – leave me alone. I want each bite to be an event. I want to feel the aroma in my nose, feast my eyes on the colours, feel the texture on my teeth, hear the crunch and the slurp. That is even before my tastebuds go into overdrive. All five senses, standing up to attention.
Finally, when you eat alone, you get to eat what you like, not what you think you ought to like. You don’t need to impress people; you don’t need to pretend you like kale (inside scoop – no one likes kale; it is the star of a whole global faux-wellness industry built on pretentiousness).
This Professor Cooks. And talks about food ideas, food science, food culture, food hacks, and food history. Watch this space for some food, and a lot more food for thought.
Ravi Miglani is a home cook and consumer insights professional. Following a corporate career spanning eight countries and three decades, he is now a professor at Ahmedabad University (when he is not cooking).