Dinner For One

When you grow up eating alone, sometimes a terrible dinner is all you can ask for.

Jeremy D. Larson has written some stories for New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time...

Recent Articles

 

Dinner is dying, but of course it has always been about death.

Take Macbeth, who, among other things, once threw a dinner party. It was going fine until Macbeth saw the ghost of the recently murdered Banquo and proceeded to commit a dreadful faux pas: Terrified, he screamed one thing or another about Banquo’s cold blood and marrowless bones in front of the entire banquet of lords and noblemen. Can you even imagine such a spectacle? I am embarrassed for Macbeth just thinking about it.

For a king and a host this was assuredly a rupture in the decorum of a royal feast, even in the wilds of 11th-century Scotland. Naturally, the guests were a bit perplexed, but Lady Macbeth, a woman of propriety, covered for her husband’s breach of civility as if all this howling bloody murder were simply routine here in the castle: “Think of this, good peers, but as a thing of custom: ‘tis no other.”

Ghosts or no, the specter of death circles the table at every occasion. Be it animal or vegetable on the plate, the process of dinner is a celebration of both life and its attendant hereafter. Eating is killing: we slaughter then cook, harvest then bake, carve then chew. Even before the first bite hits the mouth, we have prayer and sacrifice to remind us that we share meals as mortals in waiting. We are down here, alive for a moment, pawing at the spring vegetable medley, elbows off the table, until the candles flicker out and we are allowed to dine with the gods. From last meals to Last Suppers, death becomes dinner.

Understandably, there are some who don’t ascribe this sort of gravity to our evening meal; a Thickburger combo at Hardee’s tends to amount to less than a communion with death (though eating it will make you want to die). Most people just make a habit of dinner, and in America, its importance wanes at the same pace that life accelerates: we cook the least and eat the fastest. For those who aren’t deeply committed to an epicurean lifestyle or simply lack the free time to plan meals, dinner is largely an inconvenience. At best it is free, at worst it is poisoned, so most nights we’re just happy to land somewhere in the middle.

There is much to love, though, in the trappings and trimmings of dinner. The food, sure, fine—but the heart of the meal lies in tensions that simmer beneath the decorum, and the violence that waits just outside of good courtesy. “The sauce to meat is ceremony,” says Lady M. This is what dinner is all about. We have rules and etiquette in place to keep all this conflict, all this imminent death, at bay. Burnt offerings, royal tasters, saying grace, formalwear, string quartets. Emily Post and Judith Martin are shields at our disposal. There are weapons in the cutlery, in our social status, and in the food if you’re the unlucky 14-year-old brother of the Roman emperor Nero, poisoned at the royal table. As Margaret Visser says in her indispensable book The Rituals of Dinner, these acts and observances are what separate us from the animals from the gods.

*

My obsession with the theater of dinner doesn’t come from experience—as much as we all wish it were true, I was not a young dauphin fêted in the court of Versailles. Rather, it comes from the lack thereof. As a kid, I spent the majority of my dinners alone in a room watching television, while my parents sat in another room, watching another television, often eating an entirely different meal. My table was an old wooden TV tray, the structural integrity of which could hardly manage a plate and a glass of skim milk. My prayer was none, my sacrifice was a normal childhood, and the death that circled my table was probably some latent dysfunction that hums through my nervous system to this day, slowly corroding my heart. The upside was that I got to watch a lot of The Simpsons.

But without any actual supervision in my cloistered cartoon room, I would become easily distracted, and the meals they made for me would get cold—my dad’s delicious weekly chicken and rice dish (baked chicken, brown rice, dried onion soup with an entire can of cream of mushroom soup poured over it) would be room temperature before it was even half gone. At some point, they became frustrated with how slowly I ate.

I dream of the worst dinner I never had: Could it match the ones in books, movies and TV? Was there a louder silence than during the Last Supper after Jesus said, “One of you shall betray me”? Does it get any worse than the Prophet Muhammad being poisoned by some lamb? Or Eve and the apple?

Bless them now, please, my father especially, who is a kind and loving retired professor of school psychology, tenured at the time at a small state school in Wisconsin, where he, my mother, and I all lived. He is to this day the smartest person I have ever met, and for no other reason than I was his only child and a pretty smart kid who puttered around the yard building forts, he would sometimes use me as a subject in his work. It was always low-impact—mostly just a few questionnaires here and there.11Once, I played a hapless kid in one of those old VHS tapes that taught students how to spot bullying in school. You know, the ones where a big stop-sign graphic appears after a scene and the teacher hits the pause button and talks to the class about why it was wrong to repeatedly push a kid in the back when he’s trying to drive the lane and make a lay-up? I say this to emphasize that what follows was not, I believe, any sort of social experiment on me—my parents were simply interested in modifying an irritating behavior of mine. Either way, one day when I was about seven or eight, my dad stuffed his pipe full of tobacco, sat in his office, and made The Tape.

The Tape was a recording of my father’s baritone voice repeating the words, “Take a bite” every minute or so, and then … silence. “Take a bite …” Silence. “Take a bite …”

One night, as I sat down for dinner, they put The Tape in a cassette player next to me, pressed play, and left the room.

“Take a bite … take a bite … take a bite.” It was to be a prompt, a one-man band to beat the measure of my meal. It wasn’t a nagging tone—more like a lilting reminder, an aural prod. Am I cheerfully misremembering a lack of grim subtext? Or was he really just trying to convince me, his analog arm around my shoulder? I ate, the television on, buttressed by the hiss of a tape player and my father intoning those three words over and over.

At some point, The Tape’s message changed. “In 15 minutes,” my father’s voice said, “the television set will go off.” This was, again, followed closely by, “Take a bite … take a bite.”

Later: “In 10 minutes, the television set will go off.”

Would he come in? Was he listening? Did he have his own timer? I never found out. The intimidation of The Tape playing next to me as I ate was great enough that I finished my chicken and rice in an uncommonly timely fashion. I felt punished, unable to bear the embarrassment of requiring the refrain of every cue and actually reaching the end of the recording. I don’t think I ever did.

And that’s the story of The Tape. It would be right at home playing in the corner of some inscrutable art exhibit at La Biennale, no? “Listening to the tape I am haunted by its contextless voice,” the critics would surely write. “What could it mean? A metric reminder to ‘take a bite’ out of society, to consume, to swallow that which is rightfully yours. Or maybe a premonition of our self-destruction, a doomsday clock for a nation of consumers at the hands of the entertainment industrial complex. A master stroke!”

But no, it is just a relic of weird parenting, and it only existed for about a week in our Wisconsin house when I was seven or eight until my parents sort of agreed that it was beyond the pale, even for us. Post-Tape, I resumed eating my own meal in my own room, at my own tempo, with my own manners—the apex of my entirely odd dinner traditions growing up now in the past. It was the best ritual we had, one that put an incalculable distance between three people: The Tape.

*

Some top-tier dinners, in no particular order: The transcendental undertones in the opening scene of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks; the colossal Midwestern repression underneath all the table scenes in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; the baroque climax in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse; the aforementioned Macbeth meal; American Beauty, when Kevin Spacey blithely throws a plate of asparagus against the wall; Richard Dreyfuss crying while eating mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; any number of tread-lightly pasta orgies in The Sopranos; the “I drive a Dodge StratusSaturday Night Live sketch.

Those balletic Anglo-Christian dinner scenes that play out like small mealtime Cold Wars occur just out of frame of my childhood; the “bad dinner” trope exists to me only in books and movies. I live for these scenes. I imagine myself inside of every one as a fly on the wall. Because dinner is a place of silence, of Simpsons, of quick meals and disconnect. The truth around the ritual of my dinner was traditionless and beige, save for The Tape.

There is, of course, no scientific proof that regular family dinners would have made my upbringing any better or worse. They wouldn’t have kept my mother and father from sleeping in separate rooms or getting a divorce when I was 17. But it was the idea that all the feelings were left unsaid—or, at best, said on tape. The ceremony of one dinner divided into two different television sets and three separate meals.

I dream of the worst dinner I never had: Could it match the ones in books, movies and TV? Was there a louder silence than during the Last Supper after Jesus said, “One of you shall betray me”? Does it get any worse than the Prophet Muhammad being poisoned by some lamb? Or Eve and the apple?

Give me a war, give me peacocking of social status, give me arguments over the proper way to carve a roast. Give me the ancient Egyptians parading around a skeleton after dinner. Give me lavish State Dinners with gilded china and extravagant pièces montées, give me tuxedos and gowns, give me prayer, give me speeches and airs, give me the sound of a fist hitting the table and the rattle of the silverware like a snare, give me a something to surround the one thing that makes us human. Give me catastrophe and blood, give me ghosts and tears, give me the voice of my father saying, “Finish your meal” and the good and the bad that comes with everything around a real dinner.

There is one tradition that’s been handed down to me. It’s simple and familiar, and imbued in it is the unyielding love I have for my father. I am this person, this meal, this one artifact from my childhood dinners, and I treasure it and find so much love inside of this recipe. It tastes incredible. I want to share it with you, as my father shared it with me. Take a bite.

*

One cut-up chicken, about 3.5 lbs, give or take (skinned, reducing the fat content)

One can of mushroom soup (Campbell’s Healthy Choice Mushroom Soup, has less fat and salt)

One package of Mrs. Grass or Lipton dry onion soup (Mrs. Dash Onion and Herb flavoring, has no salt)

One cup uncooked brown rice

Heat your oven to 335 degrees.

Pour the rice into a PAM-sprayed 10” x 14” (approximately) baking pan

Add two cups of water, keeping the rice evenly spread across the bottom of the pan

Spread chicken parts on top of rice

Cover chicken with the dry onion soup (or sprinkle liberally with Mrs. Dash)

Cover chicken with the mushroom soup using a rubber spatula

Bake uncovered on middle rack for 90 minutes, then cover pan tightly with aluminum foil for 15 more minutes to make it moist

Next

All That Is (Almost) Good (Enough)
Words can’t possibly capture the experience of being a parent, but when you need a name, who do you become?

Previous

A Warrior Woman’s Work
Furiosa isn’t history’s first female fighter, but she is the latest to remind us that women’s place is everywhere.