Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2016

Dining Alone, Stories from the Table for One, edited by Barbara Santich #BookReview

Dining AloneI don’t often read short stories, but this collection intrigued me for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it’s edited by Barbara Santich, the food historian who wrote Bold Palates, Australia’s Gastronic Heritage and more recently Enjoyed for Generations, the History of Haigh’s Chocolates, both of which introduced me to a different kind of ‘food’ writing; and secondly because a collection based around the topic of dining alone sounded interesting too.

It was only when I actually started reading the book that I realised that the collection is the work of students of food writing at the University of Adelaide from 2007 – 2013.  Who knew?  I would have taken that course for sure if it had been around in my student days! Not only did they have fantastic teachers like Kerryn Goldsworthy; Brian Castro, Nicholas Jose, Gay Bilson (who wrote Plenty, Digressions on Food); and Marion Halligan who always includes evocative descriptions of food and eating in her novels, (most notably in The Point which was set in a restaurant);  – but these students also visited markets and dined in restaurants for research so that they could practise writing about them.  A bit different to my days researching in dusty old journals down in the bowels of the Bailleau!

The first six stories all won prizes in the Penny’s Hill/Adelaide Review awards: my favourite is A Recipe for Nourishment by Marianne Duluk.  A woman married to a romantic Frenchman dines in splendour when he’s away on business trips but her affair is with flesh of a different kind:

On Rémy’s trips away, my covert life takes form.  Diners gawk and waiters are startled by a long satin gown flowing into the room with no clumsy male trailing two steps behind on the polished marble tiles.  The whispers are fairly loud.  Why is she alone?  A loner, desperate, a failure? Little do they know that true contentment surrounds me, knowing that a night of culinary ecstasy lies ahead.  Of the meat kind. (p.19)

Rémy, you see, is a vegan.  Before she met him, she had never imagined that ‘French’ and ‘vegan’ could share sentences.  She is dining alone so that she can have bacon, beef, confit duck and decadent desserts in one sitting…

I liked Table for One, by Julia Jenkins too.  It’s clever because the story is told from the perspective of a supercilious waiter:

One-tops.  Waste of a table.  They eat light, barely drink and rarely, if ever, order dessert.  And they’re so needy.  They either need you to hold their hand the entire night to ensure they don’t get lonely or feel the dire need to impress upon you their knowledge of this wine or that Scotch.  Or worse, they shroud themselves in their anonymity and melt into the shadows the entire night.  Waste of a table.  (p. 22)

I was cheering when his expectations were subverted!

These student-writers seem to be a well-travelled bunch.  There are stories set in Times Square, Paris, Greece, China, the Camino in Spain, snowy climes obviously far from Adelaide – and India.  The cuisines range from gourmet French to vegetarian eaten with the fingers.  Characters are in love, or not; ‘alone, together’ or on the verge of separation; waiting hopelessly for someone or else dating themselves, dressed for the occasion.   There’s a story about the classic nightmare scenario, the one where you’ve recommended your favourite restaurant and the diners not only don’t like it but also make no pretence at hiding it so that you feel embarrassed about ever going back there.  There’s even one set in a plane with a passenger who likes airline food!

Almost all the authors are women, and it’s quite striking that almost all the stories betray a tension about dining alone.  These female characters feel either angst or bravado; either way they are self-conscious about it.  One of the stories is even called Sydney 1993: Getting over dining alone and there’s another called Don’t Dine Alone, take an iPad to dinner.  I find this surprising in this day and age; I’ve often dined alone for various reasons and I like the experience.  I never attend the dinner for the conference delegates; I slip out to the nearest nice restaurant and enjoy a peaceful meal by myself.  Perhaps it’s because I’m an unrepentant introvert that it seems odd to me that today’s confident young women might feel the want of a companion? Do they feel like this, I wonder, in lunchtime cafés too, where as  David Gilligan says in his story A Late Lunch it’s more common to eat alone?

Dining alone in a café is expected and welcomed.  Your table becomes a refuge from where you choose to engage or observe. Some diners look for company and conversation; others make it clear – this is their time. (p. 71)

There’s a couple of duds in the collection but there’s good variety in the way that the students have tackled the topic (which was an assessment task).  Carli Ratcliff’s Dinner for Two features a diner being stood up – but with an unexpected twist; Karen Reyment’s Velvet celebrates the triumphant beginning of a new life. The most macabre is Catherine Shepherd’s Cherry Pie featuring the last meal of a condemned serial killer…

From the brief profiles at the back of the book, it’s obvious that many of the authors have gone on to have careers in food journalism or some other kind of writing.  I’ve come across a few collections of student-author short stories before but none of those collections have been as impressive as this one.  First published in 2013, the collection went into reprint, so obviously other readers thought so too.  A talented bunch of writers indeed!

Editor: Barbara Santich
Title: Dining Alone, Stories from the table for one
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781743052686
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press, including as an eBook, or from Fishpond: Dining Alone: Stories from the table for one


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