Oh the quirks of living alone! One has all the scope, space and time one needs to acquire, then mature, the strangest habits; time to hothouse idiosyncrasies, let them run unchecked so that, when pointed out as peculiar, you have no idea what your accuser is talking about – like when you begin to see the field bindweed that’s choking your garden as pretty. A friend recently confessed to me that when she lived alone she fell into the habit of reheating tea. The thought of this sent shivers down my spine until I quickly remembered that, on occasion, I reheat coffee left in the moka pot from the day before. Really, there is no difference. Only when someone comes to stay do I realise that I’ve begun to present myself with meals I would not dream of serving up to another human. One red cabbage and six onions: that’s the sort of challenge I’ll set myself when I’m down to the bare bones of provisions. “Sure isn’t there bound to be something delicious you can make with that?”– I’ll tell myself. There isn’t. And loathing (as I do) the idea of wasting food, I will chew myself to an almost sickening conclusion.
My father liked to cook. He had a broad repertoire but I don’t think he would have liked my red cabbage and onion concoction and he definitely didn’t share my scruples on waste. He passed on an irresistibly nourishing recipe on how to cook salted ling. Here goes: Soak the piece of salted ling in a bowl of milk overnight. Cover it with a damp tea towel. Store in a pantry that isn’t too warm or too cool – say around 10 degrees. Ensure it doesn’t soak for any more than eight hours or any fewer than seven. Do not poke or stir. Once this ritual is complete, drain the milk into a bowl. Dig a deep hole in the back garden – as far from the house as you can. Bury the ling in the hole and quickly fill it up again with earth. Give the salted milk to the cat. (Top tip: Glass’s, in Bushmills, sell salted ling.)
I think a lot of people who live on their own fall into the trap of not cooking meals; rather, they assemble them. I like to cook, and do cook for myself, but there will be consecutive days when I assemble food. All breakfast cereals (including porridge) fall into this category, along with eggs (done any way), and salads, and toast, and cold things, and tinned things, and frozen things. Yes, one can get by adequately, assembling rather than cooking, although it’s a bit like wearing black all the time…. it can become exceedingly boring. When my husband travelled with work, he would phone home from abroad to see what I’d had for dinner. He’d impress upon me that a packet of Nairn’s oatcakes, a hunk of cheddar, an apple, and a can of Harp did not constitute a square meal. I suppose not, but I still, occasionally, find it an oddly comforting one.
It used to be that when dining alone – say at breakfast – one would read the side of a Cornflakes box, listen to the radio, or just stare at the wall. These days, I have to stop myself from looking at my phone or computer when I eat alone at the table. Every so often I’ll remember Galway Kinnell’s poem about breakfasting solo, and, following his lead, I’ll invite someone to join me. It’s a great game, and my imaginary guests never seem to mind what I serve up. I’m sure they wouldn’t even baulk at a little salted ling.
Oatmeal, by Galway Kinnell
I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
I eat it alone.
I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
Its consistency is such that is better for your mental health
if somebody eats it with you.
That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have
Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary
Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal porridge,
as he called it, with John Keats.
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him:
due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime,
and unsual willingness to disintigrate, oatmeal should
not be eaten alone.
He said that in his opinion, however, it is perfectly OK to eat
it with an imaginary companion, and that he himself had
enjoyed memorable porridges with Edmund Spenser and John
Even if eating oatmeal with an imaginary companion is not as
wholesome as Keats claims, still, you can learn something
Yesterday morning, for instance, Keats told me about writing the
“Ode to a Nightingale.”
He had a heck of a time finishing it those were his words “Oi ‘ad
a ‘eck of a toime,” he said, more or less, speaking through
He wrote it quickly, on scraps of paper, which he then stuck in his
but when he got home he couldn’t figure out the order of the stanzas,
and he and a friend spread the papers on a table, and they
made some sense of them, but he isn’t sure to this day if
they got it right.
An entire stanza may have slipped into the lining of his jacket
through a hole in his pocket.
He still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the
configuration of a Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up
and peer about, and then lay \ itself down slightly off the mark,
causing the poem to move forward with a reckless, shining wobble.
He said someone told him that later in life Wordsworth heard about
the scraps of paper on the table, and tried shuffling some
stanzas of his own, but only made matters worse.
I would not have known any of this but for my reluctance to eat oatmeal
When breakfast was over, John recited “To Autumn.”
He recited it slowly, with much feeling, and he articulated the words
lovingly, and his odd accent sounded sweet.
He didn’t offer the story of writing “To Autumn,” I doubt if there
is much of one.
But he did say the sight of a just-harvested oat field got him started
on it, and two of the lines, “For Summer has o’er-brimmed their
clammy cells” and “Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours,”
came to him while eating oatmeal alone.
I can see him drawing a spoon through the stuff, gazing into the glimmering
Maybe there is no sublime; only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.
For supper tonight I am going to have a baked potato left over from lunch.
I am aware that a leftover baked potato is damp, slippery, and simultaneaously
gummy and crumbly, and therefore I’m going to invite Patrick Kavanagh
to join me.