Lifestyles of the Single and Under-motivated
People who live alone harbor the secret belief that they can eat anything they damn well please--and this belief induces breathtakingly irresponsible gastronomic behavior in people who should, and do, know better.If spouses are often the legally wed stand-ins for Mom, then the presence of a spouse (partner, whatever) acts as a control to renegade dining. It shames us into trying to select from at least two of the famous four food groups each day. In the absence of this matrimonial superego, we essentially go hog wild and dine from the very bottom of the feeding pool--or at least the shallowest possible end.This working premise may turn out to be a cheap shot at my partnerless brethren, but don't be too sure. Let's just take a casual stroll through the central hearth, the mother shrine so to speak, of any neighborhood Safeway. I'm about to prove my point, so gather 'round. As you observe the restless stalking that takes place near the temples of Kellogg's, Post and Nabisco, you'll notice several things. One is exactly what you'd expect-- half of the shoppers browsing through the vitamin-enriched halls of cereal are women with small children.But look again. Notice all those grown men and college-aged pre-men? Those are bachelors--guys released on their own recognizance from the moderating influence of women or other species of regular partner--and they're cruising for breakfast, lunch, dinner or an immediate calorie fix.Eyes glazed over, these packs of solo guys are contemplating something quick and loaded with flavor--artificial or otherwise--that they can buy and consume without a trace of preparation.Their choices are stupendous--as big as the American Dream and the state of Kansas put together. Cheerios-- time-honored. Wheaties--still the breakfast of champions. Quaker Oats--only the instant kind, of course. It's touching how remarkably true men are to their childhood cereals. Snap, crackle and pop.Also vying for attention is the sweeter category of Pop-Tarts. While these sometimes require the application of heat, bachelors know that these little monuments to fat, sugar and chemical additives are just fine when served at room temperature.Even on our own, however, we all (not just men) shop with our internalized mother figure--she's watching just to make sure we don't stray into forbidden territory. I mean, even if you want to, you just can't in good conscience make a meal of gin and chocolate. French fries and chocolate, maybe.We always eat under the gaze of the Inner Mom. That's why a dinner of strictly tortilla chips immediately induces third-degree guilt. Nonetheless, self-deception of heroic proportions drives the solo diner to that inevitable pilgrimage to the altar of chips. Potato or corn, it scarcely matters. All that is important is the numbing quantity, vertiginous variety and stupendously high sodium content of the chip phenomenon.The chip has the virtue of being affordable--lots and lots of munch time is gained with only a $3 purchase. The chip is instantly available for oral contact--just rip open the bag with your teeth and proceed to masticate. That's m-a-s-t-i-c-a-t-e, guys. The chip practically explodes with the immediate pleasure of salt. And it's got crunch to boot.Cold Comfort FoodA college-age bachelor informant--let's call him Noah--confesses that his refrigerator contains a lonely jar of mustard. "What am I going to do with it," he wails, a self-identified victim of Late-Night Safeway Syndrome. "I guess it could go with bread," he concludes, "but I usually forget to buy bread."Noah has a theory that bachelors are incapable of remembering to buy any food that they have recently consumed. The consumption of, let's say, peanut butter, erases all the neural nets that remember peanut butter as a future food. The existence of peanut butter appears to be stored--at least during the two-hour digestion period--in some irretrievable memory bank. It is only downloaded--uselessly--after the shopping trip is over.Noah has taught himself to make sandwiches--for which he keeps a "bachelor-sized" small jar of Best Foods mayo in his refrigerator. He also keeps an industrial-sized slab of Monterey Jack cheese around--for tearing huge bites out of, or for the more elaborate act of slicing with a knife and putting between two pieces of bread (when he remembers to buy bread). "Plus I add some avocado if it's a big event," he adds.Noah freely acknowledges that a cheese sandwich can serve as any meal whatsoever--breakfast, lunch or dinner. He also likes Skippy peanut butter on Ritz crackers.Noah's friends--let's call them Rod and Brad--have refrigerators in their dorm rooms full of two-liter bottles of faux- cola beverages and beer. Nothing else, just cola and beer. The resourceful Brad also orders carry-out pizza from Domino's--cheese and pepperoni-- each night, then sells enough slices for $1 each to pay for his own three-slice meal.Noah speaks for many single male diners when he admits that he and his friends are "too dumb to know that they're hungry." Waiting until the last possible minute, they experience that sudden wake-up call from the stomach, only to find that their modest kitchens are totally unprepared to answer that call. Hence the last-minute, late-night cruise through the chip aisle.Then there's the issue of condiments. Very old condiments inhabit bachelor fridges, like artifacts in a paleontologist's lab. Worcestershire sauce--the use for which is imperfectly understood by bachelors--has materialized in every bachelor refrigerator in the country. Mustard. Mayonnaise. Ketchup. All in brands that mom used to buy.It's very comforting to bachelors to have recognizable shapes, sizes and brands in their refrigerators. Condiments appear to occupy mythic status. Like the Roman gods of the hearth, their function appears to be purely ceremonial. They are not actually consumed except in emergencies.Pickles are also a highly prized bachelor side dish, and can be bumped up to main- dish status at any time in the "I need food and I need it now" event horizon. In fact the entire category of pickled foods is archetypal. Olives, capers, marinated artichoke hearts, those little tins of smoked and pickled seafoods--these are all items that pack intense flavor hits into a single bite. The quick fix that substitutes for laborious, complex preparation beyond the bachelor bandwidth.Grilled cheese sandwiches and omelets are the designer foods of bachelor existence. Macaroni and cheese is considered a gourmet item, and highly prized by hungry bachelors of all genders. Trader Joe's tortellini and potstickers, while popular bachelor items, require the application of heat and thus are considered "company" foods.On the feminine side of the refrigerator spectrum, canned tuna, salads and cartons of yogurt are the specialties of female bachelors, who make a slightly greater effort to include protein in their diets.Female bachelors appear to crave protein and sugar--lots of jars of jelly and honey show up here, plus eggs, chicken breasts and cottage cheese--more than salt and grease. They are also big fans of The Frozen Dinner. Bachelorettes love popping containers of what will eventually mimic a home-cooked meal into either the oven (an advanced cooking genre) or the microwave (easier to negotiate).Smug satisfaction is taken in the well-rounded results. A steady diet of frozen dinners will, however, induce well-roundedness onto bachelorette hips with alarming speed, and drive the rotund single back to a more spartan regime of rice cakes, yogurt and coffee.Pathos of Least ResistanceWatching two male bachelors dining at a cafe recently, I experienced an epiphany. French fries--a sacramental item for male bachelors--are simply a ketchup-and-salt delivery system. I watched the younger of the two--twentysomething and growing taller by the minute--fill his plate with a thick lake of ketchup. Using heavily salted French fries to soak up the sweet red goo, he consumed everything on both plates in under four minutes.The other bachelor, in his early 50s, revealed that once, when driven to desperate measures by the craving for a quick dessert, he'd poured Campari over a bowl of stale granola. Eating it with great relish, he claimed that it had done the work of a slice of tiramisu. (And tiramisu, just so we remain on the same page, is not a staple of the bachelor kitchen.) Once again creative substitution had been the bachelor's mother of invention.A classic case was revealed to me by a 65-year-old bachelor I know. Capable of whipping up wonderful, multi-course meals for company, this same grown man--alone in the privacy of his kitchen--will scarf down anchovies, smoked cocktail clams and cold cereal moistened with milk, followed by an entire bag of artificially flavored chips. Such is the power and irrationality of the bachelor dining syndrome.When the natural tendency toward the path of least resistance (i.e. laziness) meets rampant hunger, the results can be nothing short of astonishing. I give you the case of Jeffrey, a true martyr of the bachelor pantheon. In his impoverished youth, he had created a house specialty he called pasta ala Polacko, an innovative plate of spaghetti sauced entirely with ketchup, vodka and lard. This is a true story.But Jeffrey, like all singles, rarely had such a dazzling array of ingredients on hand. Usually his refrigerator contained but two items--vodka and mustard. The jar of mustard went untouched. It occupied that well-known culinary twilight zone--too old to eat with confidence, but not in any obvious way old enough to throw out. Besides, he couldn't get rid of it. If he had, the truth of his mostly liquid lifestyle would have stared him in the face.The inventory of classic bachelor foods and food habits is rich and compendious. The traditional fraternity house breakfast of warm beer and cold pizza has nursed many guys through their undergraduate years. Coffee, donuts and cigarettes--a personal triad of my bachelorette days--has gone the way of all politically incorrect menus.Yet I still carry a torch for those simpler times, when cooking meant putting English muffins in the toaster, and setting the table meant inserting a spoon into that half-gallon of butter pecan ice cream. While the memories are heartwarming, some mysteries still remain: We will all go to our graves searching for the true meaning of Worcestershire sauce.