Why Eat Alone?

Bernarda Chiriboga

Why is Eating Alone the Best Thing that New York Has Taught Me? 

Among the chaos of a manic city, I found some ease at the back end of a restaurant on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones St. The paralyzing wind of December’s winter, the sloppy sidewalks of the city and the waves of people -- all walking at different paces and to different directions on a thursday afternoon -- screamed for a warm tea, relaxing music and a nice meal. It wasn’t the first time in the three years I lived in New York that the intense, and sometimes overwhelming, activity of Manhattan had sucked the energy out of me. The tranquility and peacefulness of the place seemed just the right getaway from the boisterous environment. And, for the first time ever, I voluntarily decided to enjoy a pleasant dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in the city by myself. 

In a frenetic city like New York, most often than not, New Yorkers find themselves eating alone. The city enforces solitude, whether it’s a matter of convenience or simply a tight schedule, it's not occasional to find New Yorkers having a solitary meal at a casual restaurant. And indeed, eating alone has become a mundane activity for a busy working day. But, it is not about those 30 minute meals or those in-home dinners, that i'm talking about. The dinners, lunches or even breakfasts I am talking about go beyond time, convenience or necessity constraints. It is rather about those voluntary getaways one decides to take -- one hour dinners at delicious and exciting places – that i'm talking. And that, I discovered, not all people have subjected themselves to, not even lonely New Yorkers. 

The premise that dining is a social event is ancient. In Fact, these types of gatherings have flourished into entire cultures, traditions and beliefs. The last supper, for example, was the foundation for diverse christian costumes, including the Holy Communion and Easter. In 1790, the first of three agreements that would reunite the United States as a country was made during a simple dinner party. Thomas Jefferson, who at that time was the secretary of state, noticed the growing fracture between the northern and southern states. With the efforts to  alleviate the situation and  pretending to ignore the states’ debates, Jefferson hosted a dinner with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton who represented opposing sides of the conflict; The rest is history. Frankenstein, on the other hand, was too a result of a dinner conversation Mary Shelley had with a group of friends during a summer night in 1816. After some chit chat and wine, the group challenged each other to write the scariest story they could, days after the iconic scientific love story was born. Not to mention, diners could also save lives; in 1969 Sharon Tate declined an invitation to a dinner party at a friend’s house, had she accepted the invitation, she, her unborn baby and other three friends may not have been brutally killed. Dinning, for that matter, has broadly shaped the course of history. 

It is not hard to understand why “the dinner” has become a symbol of unity, for it has become a space of sharing and a place where one plays part on a collective role. And, as the social beings humans are, we are always seeking for company to complement our time. Sometimes, we’ve even come to assign value to the size of the table – pretending that the congestion of people speaks to the power or likeliness of a person and admittedly  we’ve  found ourselves seated in a place we rather not be more than once. To no one’s surprise, we tend to unconsciously and almost automatically accept dinners we don’t want to be because “dining with someone is better than dining alone”. The social standards that have been imposed taught us to avoid that vulnerability of being alone in public. Thus, the lonesomeness of a solitary meal is not an individual perception, but a culture-made assumption. Yet, the belief that dinner should be a social matter is perhaps one of the biggest fallacies of our time. 

In New York lonesomeness is an unavoidable and almost conscripted fact. That is something everyone knows but few understand. This frenetic city that never sleeps is full of frenetic people living in their own, very strict, schedules. Flexibility has become a fictional ability and this is often how New Yorkers cope with the pressures of productiveness. Loneliness, for that matter, is  generally embraced as the cost of a “productive” time. Occasionally, however, I’ve been forced (like I imagine many have) to embrace such lonesomeness in an “unproductive way”. Such times when the hectic thoughts in my mind can’t find the discipline to commit to a single idea. Instead of hiding solitude behind work, I’ve obliged myself to ponder. I’ve gone for extensive walks uptown, where Rockefeller meets Saint Patrick’s and the warming smell of the pretzel truck dodges within crowds of people. There I’ve been reminded of some of my earliest childhood memories, walking with my mother into Saint Patrick’s and watching the 5th avenue Christmas light show in the darkness of 6pm light for the first time ever. Moments that have allowed me to clear my mind, automatically ceasing the pressure of productiveness, ending logic constraints and leaving a vacant room for conscious freedom. Embarrassing true loneliness compelled me to learn astonishing truths about myself which otherwise would have been covered by a social agenda.

Yet, after a while, New York is transformed into a never-ending social-working place. The longer I lived in the city, the less time I had for long walks and the more people I met, the less lonely I was. And still somehow, bringing many incredibly interesting people into my life pushed away someone within me. The further that someone went, the lonelier I felt, again. When I first arrived in the city, being alone was the hardest part. Although it was expected, little did I know how shockingly hard it was to find friends or to meet with acquaintances. And in a very strange way the loudness of the traffic and crowd becomes silent as you community back home. It is not until I accepted such solitude that it backfired with fine company – when I learned to feel full on my own. So, as my roots were growing deeper into the city’s concrete the more I missed the uncomfortable feeling that pushed my boundaries. That which challenged me to genuinely encounter myself -- I felt I was losing a part of me I had just started to know. 

In order to uphold that person I was becoming  I have to dedicate her some time, what better way to do it other than dining with myself? Sharing with that one person I would never fully understand and I would never get to fully know because it keeps changing and growing fast and interesting enough that it’s important to provide such time to acknowledge such information. Sometimes, especially in today’s productive culture, it's hard to find lonesomeness, and it wasn't until I was forced to embrace it that I discovered its relevance.  Being constantly surrounded by friends, family and loved ones -- as pleasing and fulfilling as it is -- disregards a key player of our well-being: our humanity. It is not that we have to learn to be alone, it is that we have to learn to be with ourselves. To confront us; What we feel, what we think, what we want, who we are and to enjoy and bring to light our  authenticity. Jay Rayner, food critic and journalist, puts it this way “eating alone should be dinner with someone you love.”