the hungry, hungry question

toast. brushed lightly with olive oil. sliced tomatoes on top. a little more olive oil and balsamic vinegar drizzled over the tomatoes. a sprinkle of salt. garnished with fresh parsley, cilantro, or basil. if i’m feeling crazy or lucky, there might be a little sliced onion or avocado.

even before i began to read deborah madison and patrick mcfarlin’s book what we eat when we eat alone, i began to understand the absurd fascination with this question. just from hearing the title of the book i was about to read, people began telling me what they ate when they ate alone. that reaction in itself proves the most impressive and amazing point about this book – you don’t need it. the book is completely and entirely unnecessary.

that’s not to say that what we eat when we eat alone (henceforth to be known as wwewwea) is not a good book. it’s interesting. it says a lot. the pictures are fun. it gives recipes that have been tried and played with. there is some examination of our inner, solitary psyche. but at the end of the day, the question upon which the book is based on is bigger, and much more interesting, than 270+ (index included) pages could possibly encompass. what those pages do do, which is relatively commendable, is provide the basis for self-reflection. that is, it provides the basis for self-reflection as long as self-reflecting is your sort of thing. as yet, though, i haven’t met anyone who didn’t immediately start thinking – or openly sharing – what they eat when they eat alone upon hearing the title question.

so what’s the problem here? as captivating as the idea is, madison and mcfarlin don’t do anything with it. the information and insights provided into menus are interesting, but not anything really new. the light hand and delicate side-steps they take around some focal points hint at a hesitancy to really address the very question they’re asking. a decent sampling of comments suggest how we eat alone is as important as what we eat, but less focus is given to where we eat (other than over the sink or not), when we eat, and how we eat with others affects our decision-making processes. only one chapter really looks at people who eat alone on regular basis – people who live on their own for whatever reason or who simply self-seclude themselves from the world around them. much is made of gender differences, but very few cultural indicators are really examined. and what is examined feels almost lost in the banks of recipes at the end of each chapter that disconnect the reader and break the text up disjointedly.

i read an anthropological study called two bits last spring or so and i hated it. granted, it was for a class, but i actually enjoyed most of the anthropological studies i read for my degree. two bits was an anthropological study of free software and i hated it for two reasons. the first was very simple. i didn’t think it counted as an authentic, anthropological entity. i do believe that the internet and technology has helped create and form communities that are worthy of anthropological accreditation, but as i read the book i became less and less convinced that free software counted as a community in itself. the second reason why i severely disliked two bits was the reason why i felt the book was trying to pull a fast one over its readers: the communities and people studied and interviewed were all first or second acquaintances of the author. and, as the text progressed, the author hinted at becoming so self-involved, his perception was likely being skewed by his excitement and interest in his own projects.

anthropology, despite its participant-observation principles, generally appreciates a modest dose of distance between the observer and the observed, if only to allow the ability to differentiate between what the observer assumes and what the observed is actually doing/believing/practicing and to hopefully pick up on these differences. that’s anthropology. not every observer, author, or anthropologist follows this philosophy, and i try to be understanding of that. but at certain times, the lack of such decorum, such as in two bits, causes me to question the authenticity of the text. and that very same second reason that i disliked two bits is the reason why i question what exactly i read in wwewwea.

madison and mcfarlin stress strongly that they asked this question to anyone and everyone they met over several years. yet many of the discussions and consequent observations felt limited to closer friends and acquaintances. the sprinkling of nameless, passing strangers’ meals felt just like that – a dusting or a garnish that was tossed to the side of the plate and not fully incorporated into the dish. and the big problem with focusing on first or second acquaintances is the people we know or know through people tend to be like us. in general, we make friends based off of similarities and shared experiences, not differences. by limiting the amount of random people on a random bus who were asked what they eat when they eat alone, madison and mcfarlin have essentially given us a glimpse into the dietary habits of their world, not anyone else’s. there’s nothing really wrong with this except for the fact that this limitation is completely unacknowledged. had there been some self-awareness as to the source and self-proximity of their subjects, i think there might have been more to say in wwewwea, and with that awareness would have come a respectable dose of integrity.

everything being said, should you find yourself wondering what on earth my opinion actually is of this book, let me sum it up for you: i liked it, but i wish it had been less marshmallow fluff and more salmon cake surprise. but like all things here, that’s just my opinion. and i do feel the question is a valuable and insightful one. so, what do you eat when you eat alone? that is, assuming you do eat alone. or eat at all ;)