I have always been very uncomfortable eating alone in public. I feel awkward and ungainly, like everyone is looking at me and wondering why I couldn’t find anyone else to eat with. I can feel my face start to burn, and the back of my neck gets prickly. I generally end up spilling some ketchup or grease down the front of my shirt as well, instantly turning whatever moderately pleasant ensemble I’m wearing into a Badge of Shame and Clumsiness.
Maybe my discomfort comes from eating in school cafeterias where the Lone Diner was always a target. I usually ate with a small group of Cafeteria Friends, but I could see what befell the folks who ate alone.
After I graduated from college and was living on my own, I decided to face this borderline phobia of Single Dining head on. Sort of. I went to the mall to eat. Not at the food court, though. I don’t think there even was a food court at that mall back then. Anyway, I went to the Woolworth Drug Store. They had an attached diner called Harvest House Cafeteria that you could enter either through the store or from the mall. I entered via the store and sat down at a table in the corner after considering and then discarding the idea of sitting at the counter on a maroon pleather-covered chrome swivel stool.
I had come armed with a book, reasoning that eating and reading alone is Less Awkward than just plain eating alone.
I ordered The Harvest House Grilled Cheese Sandwich. It was assembled from American cheese on thick-ish white bread cut on the diagonal and was served with a pickle spear and fries. The time between my ordering and when my be-aproned waitress swooshed it to me from the large brown cork-bottomed tray she carried seemed an eternity. But I doggedly kept my nose in my book, taking the occasional sip from my Coca Cola and trying to appear Nonchalant while attempting to ignore the prickling at the back of my neck.
The grilled cheese sandwich from Harvest House attached to the Woolworth Drug Store was a miracle of contrasts. A thin layer of deeply golden brown crispiness—uniform from crust to crust on both sides of the sandwich—gave way to a bit of chew in the bread and then the oozing, mellow smoothness of the cheese, and it tasted like salvation. My book was just a prop, the sandwich was the reason. Eating it, in all its warm, comforting glory justified my being in that restaurant. It gave me something to do. A task. With the book, I probably read the same sentence over and over again. With the sandwich, I couldn’t repeat the same bite, so I marched my way through every crisp, buttery mouthful until all that was left to do was lick my fingers.
If grilled cheese hadn’t been my comfort food before my pilgrimage to Harvest House, it certainly was from that moment on. I even seasoned a new cast iron skillet—my very first—by making a grilled cheese sandwich every day until the pan was black and slick. I highly recommend this course of action.
To all of you who enjoy dining alone, I salute you. Know that, if I see you eating alone at a restaurant, diner or food truck, I’m looking at you with admiration, not with contempt.
Happy Grilled Cheese Month to you all, and thank you so much for spending some time with me today.
You may have noticed that there is no official recipe for this dish. You will find descriptions of how I made the different components in the photo captions, so I leave it to you to make your own or to put your own spin on it. Enjoy, and remember: #Fearlessin2013.