“A Dinner Table at Night” / John Singer Sargent

After I made the reservation, opentable.com asked me if I wanted to send an invitation to the other guest(s). I smirked to myself at the flaw in their system that it would ask such a question after making a reservation for one. But then I considered how uncommon it probably was to make a reservation for only one. I thought about how most dinners for one were probably eaten at casual cafés, or at home from defrosted meals, take-out, or through non-laborious preparation; sometimes eaten at the table but often standing up over the sink, in front of the TV, or at the computer.

Two days later, while I walked down Witherspoon Street to the restaurant, I found myself thinking about this past Valentine’s Day. I had plans with my closest friend from high school who was visiting from NYU. I bought him a large heart-shaped tin of Lindt chocolate truffles and eagerly awaited the Dinky he was planning to arrive on. He had texted me when he was on the NJ transit train, and we had had these plans for weeks. I knew he was on his way.

When the Dinky came, people with flowers and suitcases excitedly stepped off the train, greeted by hugs and kisses. My friend was not among them. I called him and found that his phone was off and figured he missed the transfer and would be on the next train. I wasn’t worried, yet as the couples started filing away from the station, I began to feel extremely self-conscious. A few people even gave me sympathetic glances because I was standing by myself shivering with chocolates in hand and clearly nobody had come for me. Or maybe I was just imaging that their looks were sympathetic. I felt some kind of urge to explain myself. “No, we’re just friends. And I’m positive he’s on his way.” I waited fifteen cold minutes on the opposite sides of a bench with a boy whose head was in his hands. Was he being stood up? I bet he thought I was being stood up.

My friend did arrive bearing red roses and rosé. I was thrilled not only to see him but also that I wouldn’t have to walk back up campus feeling unjustifiably dejected. I clearly knew that I was not being stood up by a date, so why did I care what random people at the Dinky station thought? And if some hypothetical person that I had a Valentine’s date with had failed to give me the courtesy of communicating that they would no longer be coming and left me waiting for their train, why would this be an indication of the kind of person I was?

As I neared the restaurant I told myself that a month later, I was better than that. I didn’t care who saw me enjoying a nice meal in town by myself. I have always considered myself a very independent person. But also, I secretly hoped that I wouldn’t run into anyone that I knew. I wanted to have dinner truly by myself and had left my phone in my room. I wanted to see what it was like.

I walked in and the hostess showed me to my table for two (for one) and quickly took away the place setting opposite to where I sat. I struggled with the menu for a while. I don’t have a large appetite and hate wasting food so I usually depend on people I’m with to finish my meals at restaurants. What would be good to take home leftovers of if you don’t have a convenient way of re-heating it?

I decided on a vegan stew and found that I focused much more on what I was eating. I enjoyed my meal more and paid closer attention to flavor and texture instead of merely shoving spoonfuls into my mouth while listening to what whomever I was with was saying before it was my turn to talk. As predicted, three quarters of the way through the dish I was too full to continue. I knew I wasn’t going to bring home this stew for me or anyone else to eat in the future and resigned to having my plate cleared. The young man who cleared it asked me, “You really couldn’t finish that, sweetheart?”

“Nope,” I replied curtly and wondered where he got off calling me sweetheart. I considered whether he would have still have called me that if I was with someone else—especially someone male. Probably not.

Although that small encounter annoyed me, I had an overall nice time at dinner. I had interesting conversations about what I was studying with two different waiters. I didn’t feel lonely or that I had no friends because I was not with them. Yet I didn’t completely lose that self-consciousness and paranoia of other diners thinking I was somehow of a lower worth because I was not eating with anyone.

During frosh week a junior told me: “It’s totally fine to eat meals alone in the dining halls. Except dinner—that’s just kind of sad.” I do not mean to say that everyone agrees with this or feels uncomfortable eating dinner alone, but since then countless people have explained to me their various methods of coping with dinners in the dining hall where they do not know anyone well enough to sit with, which range from scarfing down their food in the refectory, smuggling out sandwiches or slices of pizza and bringing it back to their room, or, for those more bold, “working” at the table—which usually entails glancing occasionally at an open book between bites.

A handful of other universities have dining hall policies of different color cup options, and if a person is sitting with a certain color cup that signifies an open invitation to sit with them, even, and especially, if you don’t know them. So why hasn’t Princeton adopted a similar approach? Would it work here—where people join eating clubs that ensure they’ll never have to eat alone at Princeton again? Would it be too awkward to have a conversation with another person who is at the dining hall friendless?

So what is this stigma associated with eating alone? Why is it sad? And why are people less willing to spend their money and time on culinary experiences when they are by themselves?

I understand it can be very nice going out to dinner with someone or a group of people. I love to cook for my friends and family and take great pleasure in sharing something I worked hard to make with people I care about. But to be honest I more enjoy cooking with someone than actually eating with the same person. I grew up cooking with my mom and have always loved the process of dancing around our kitchen, listening to Talking Heads, and talking about the books we’re reading or other interesting developments in our lives while cooking. If I have something important to tell her, this is when I do it, never while actually eating the food.

I’ve found that at Princeton the most common phrase uttered after running into someone you haven’t hung out with for a while is “Let’s get a meal soon! I’ll text you.” We all know most of these never come to fruition. But it reminded me of something my mom told me before I went to college—to try to not limit my social interactions, especially with new people or acquaintances, to eating. Wouldn’t it be more fun to go for a bike ride, visit a museum, or go to a concert? Granted, these activities might take up more time than a meal in the dining hall, but they would certainly offer more of an opportunity to get to know someone—whether it be an old or new friend or a romantic development.

I wholeheartedly agree with this and have found my closest friends here are the ones that excitedly make plans to see the next concert of a band we both like or go on a day hike before I’m even certain of the pronunciation of their last name. While some say, “food is love” I think that we don’t have to limit our love to food. Expanding social interactions to other mediums can be really incredible and rewarding. And eating alone can even be fun if you stop worrying about what others might think of you.