In search of Caribbean sunshine, I hopped a jet to Belize last week. But I arrived in that Central American country just as the sun was setting, which forced my thoughts from equatorial rays to my rumbling stomach. I've traveled alone quite a bit over the years, and I always find the moment of hunger to be a somewhat distressing one. I'm caught been the intense desire to try a new cuisine and the stressful thought of eating by myself. Before I enter the restaurant, I sense that the hostess will pause when I ask for a table for one. And I wince at the thought of the empty wait between ordering and eating--the time when I feign reading to convince other diners that I've chosen to dine solo.
The problem with traveling is that at some point you have to eat in a restaurant, which is a very public activity. Surrounding you are other diners, clinking wine glasses with their co-workers or singing "Happy Birthday" to their loved ones. Alone, I long to do the same. At home, when I dine without company, I never feel solitary, because I am engaged, chopping onions or simmering soup. (Are my cubes even? Has soup been on low for 10 minutes?) But in a restaurant, I eat quickly and silently, wishing to be a part of the social food scene. That first night in Belize City, I ended up in a touristy restaurant, the only one open on a sleepy Sunday evening. While I waited for my spicy jerk chicken, I picked up my first vacation book, Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, a collection of essays about eating and dining alone. Over the next several days, as I traveled through the Belizean highlands to the coast and off to the cayes, I learned that left to her own devices, Ann Patchett ate dinners of saltines and salsa and desserts of saltines and jam in graduate school. Eating by herself, Laurie Colwin begins with an eggplant, then, depending on her mood, adds Chinese plum sauce or garlic and honey. Each of the book's contributors have strong opinions about eating solo, but they don't concur on whether this should be a private or a public occasion. Colin Harrision, in "Out to Lunch," raves about the people-watching from his street-side Manhattan table, and Jami Attenbery acknowledges that going out for sushi alone on a Friday night beats the break-up blues. But Laura Calder's piece, "The Lonely Palate," calls eating alone "depressing," and Marcella Hazan says the only time she orders up a single table is if it's at home. Now done with both my book and vacation, the question still remains: Should dining alone be a public or private affair?