Lunch for One (Or How I Maintain Sanity) by Maggie Hennessy
Mom, enjoy this guest post by writer, food pro, and my friend, Maggie. I like to live vicariously through her Instagram feed, which is packed with pics of beautiful meals and the best witty bits about eating them.
I’m Maggie Hennessy, the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago and a freelance journalist on all things food and drink. I want to tell you about the best self-care decision I’ve ever made, called lunch for one.
Lunch for one began as a cry for help, really. I was working for a daily online news site that covered the packaged food and beverage industry—everything from coconut chips to ready-to-drink cold brew coffee, GMO labeling and the soda tax. Because I wrote two articles a day, I usually spent my morning doing a couple interviews, transcribing them and writing feverishly; then I’d break for “lunch” (aka shoveling alternating slabs of cheese, bread and tomato into my mouth) before repeating this insane ritual in the afternoon.
Depending on what your professional life entails, this either sounds like a staggering amount of work or incredibly run of the mill and unimpressive. For me, coming from the slow-paced background of monthly magazine editing, this was nothing short of a daily Sisyphean slog through hell.
One afternoon, I was waiting for a source to call me back to comment a breaking story on GMO labeling, when I thought I had just enough time to scramble up a couple eggs for a civilized lunch. I’d barely whisked the eggs and minced the chives when my phone rang. I knocked out the interview and posted the story, and was smugly strolling back to the kitchen thinking aloud, “So this is what having it all means,” when I came upon a truly piteous sight.
The fridge door hung open, its incandescent light casting a sickening glow on 16 or so chives that were strewn all over the kitchen rug next to half an egg shell from which a string of egg white was forming a crust like dried-up drool. The counter situation was somehow sadder: a visual orgy of indecision. Four different-sized pans sat next to a flabby wad of softening goat cheese still halfway in its plastic jacket. I’d pulled the entire loaf of bread out of the freezer (yes, I keep bread there—you should, too) to retrieve a single slice, which hung there half attached to the rest of the thawing loaf like a hangnail.
Jesus. What sorry excuse for a human being did this?
It was in that moment—eight months into a job that caused me more missed lunches and canker sores than I could count as I stared down my 30th birthday—that I realized it was time for a change.
I’ve been a full-time freelance food writer for almost four years now. It’s hard and sometimes frightening, and requires an exhausting amount of self-motivation. Oh, and the pay sucks. (I’m grateful to have a mister whom I could lean on in the leanest years.)
But the work, oh the work.
Digging into strange, sordid ingredient histories like caviar; reviewing Chicago’s latest, greatest and sometimes overrated bars and restaurants; making a sommelier help me buy wine at Target; tracking the stunning trajectory of plant-centric eating around the U.S.; profiling Chicago’s unsung dive bars. The potential for stories is limitless, the characters who feed us nothing short of fascinating.
As a magazine editor, you often don’t spend a lot of time writing, which for those of us who got into this business to be storytellers who require a stable income source with health benefits, it often ends in a tradeoff. I consider the ability to write every single day a gift.
Back at the beginning of my career, I was a financial journalist desperate to be a food writer, and as a result, I cooked desperately. I thought I had to prove I was extraordinary in some way because that was the key to everything panning out in the career that wasn’t going the way I’d hoped.
Now in my mid-30s, cooking is an honest-to-goodness release—especially at lunchtime for one, because the only person I have to feed or impress is me (and occasionally a very food-motivated pitbull).
A year in culinary school notwithstanding, I cook pretty much the same shit I did before, possibly slightly better because of the extra practice. Because my job often requires consuming irresponsible amounts of sodium, butter, Flintstone-sized hulks of meat, and weeknight wine (because I still haven’t overcome my fear of being seen as a teetotaling stiff), lunch for one is usually vegetarian or vegan, and almost always eggy. Things like shakshuka and sweet potato hash, 15-minute palak paneer with store-bought halloumi, lemony tuna salad and grain-based salads tossed in my favorite tahini dressing (recipe below; you’re welcome).
Self-nourishment aside, lunch for one is also a real good time to do things like: act out a mournful goodbye scene with a flawless Scottish accent in the fake play you’re starring in, re-interview a Republican senator whom you think David Greene let off a bit too easy that morning on NPR, have long conversations with your materialistic dog whose voice sounds a lot like Gollum, and/or do-over any personal- or work-related arguments as if you gave fewer fucks.
“Yes, I do have a problem with you pushing the publishing date back three months, as I’ll be much older and will have evolved past the story by then.”
“Actually my work is worth twice that amount, you human fart.”
Now I do realize that weekday lunch is not a possibility for everyone for a whole litany of reasons. But the great thing about it is this idea translates. For instance, do you brew a perfect cup of coffee or stir the fuck out of a negroni? Could you construct an impeccable lattice fruit pie in your sleep?
Whatever your thing, the essence of lunch for one is to carve out time for yourself and by yourself to recharge with a little activity that puts you square in the present moment. It’s meditation for the meditation-averse. That’s why cooking works so beautifully. You have to eat anyway; plus, it’s pretty hard to successfully half-ass it. I should know, I once covered my entire kitchen in chives and dried-up raw egg and shame.
Sumac-seared cucumber salad w/ tahini dressing
Serves 1 hungry person
I came up with this recipe while trying to think of an interesting way to use the half cucumber languishing in my fridge. If you’ve never cooked cucumbers before, holy shit, do it. They soften in texture like pickles and take on a squash-like flavor, which means you can sub them in anywhere you might use zucchini or summer squash.
Julia Child certainly wasn’t the first person to bake a cucumber, but she was the one who introduced me to the idea in her magnificent cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Searing them is also surprisingly easy and doesn’t require any pre-salting nonsense before cooking, despite their high water content.
Note: If all you have are regular cucumbers, peel them till they’re striped, and scoop out the seeds and gunk before chopping them.
1/2 cup Israeli couscous
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp tahini
1 tsp plain yogurt
1/2 English or regular cucumber
Salt and pepper
1 shallot, sliced into rings
1 tsp(ish) sumac (could sub za’atar)
4 leaves Tuscan kale, stems removed and shredded
1. Cook couscous according to package directions. Drizzle in some olive oil and stir to keep from sticking. Set aside.
2. Meanwhile, make the dressing. Finely chop the garlic. Sprinkle it with salt, then mash it into a paste with the side of your knife. Add the garlic to a medium bowl, along with the juice of half of the lemon, the tahini, yogurt, sat, pepper and a splash of water, whisking till combined. Slowly drizzle in a tsp or 2 of olive oil, whisking constantly. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
3. Cut the cucumber into 2-inch segments, then cut said segments into quarters the long way to make wedges. Pat the flesh dry with a paper towel.
4. Get a skillet hot, and add a few glugs olive oil. Season the flesh part of the cukes with salt and pepper, and sear until each fleshy part is blistered and soft—about 3 minutes per side. (You might need a few more minutes for that first side. Seriously, let those babies BROWN.) Turn them skin side down. Add another dribble of oil if the pan seems dry, and toss in the shallots and a bit more salt and pepper. Cook 2 to 3 minutes more, till the shallots are soft and slightly caramelized. Squeeze in the other half of the lemon, and sprinkle in the sumac.
5. To assemble, toss the couscous and hot cukes into the dressing until well-combined and you smell the garlic (mmmm). Add the shredded kale, tossing again till everything is mixed.
Serve! (P.s. it’s good room temp too.)