“Eating Fish Alone” Fennel & Orange Sea Bass

by Cara Nicoletti on April 29, 2015

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I was eighteen when I moved to New York, and I missed my family every time I sat down to eat: in dining halls with people I wasn’t sure I liked yet, in my apartment with the roommates I slept inches away from but barely knew. At home, eating was always communal. Even if we were eating pop tarts in the morning, we were eating them together, and at night we always gathered as a family for dinner. Here, in this new city, I wanted badly to feel at ease eating by myself because in my mind, this would mean that I was really living on my own as an adult. In high school, out of necessity, I mastered the art of going to movies by myself—something I still do happily and often—but eating something more substantial than popcorn, out in the daylight for all to see, was an entirely new hurdle. We’re taught early on to fear the prospect of eating alone—it is, after all, always the least popular kids who sit alone in the cafeteria. Type “dining alone” into Google and prepare yourself for pages and pages of solo-eating anxiety, including information on a café in Japan that seats lone diners with large stuffed animals to help them feel less awkward.

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Not to get all “when I was a kid” on you, but during those first gut-churningly homesick days eleven years ago, there were no smartphones—I had a Nokia the size of my foot with a jewel-green plastic covering that didn’t even have texting capabilities. These days, it’s much easier to go out to dinner on your own—if the loneliness starts creeping in, you can always reach for your phone and text your friends, or scroll through and see what they’re up to on a thousand different social media platforms. It’s nearly impossible to feel completely alone. This sounds, in theory, like a positive thing, and certainly sometimes it is, but I am forever grateful that I came of age in a new city before that was an option—that I had so many moments of true, unrelenting, public solitude. That I let the loneliness wash over me completely and still came out on the other side.

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Eating with someone, sharing a meal, is a deeply personal thing—we know this, of course. It’s the reason that eating scenes in literature are often so telling—who a person is eating with, how they are sharing the space of a dinner table, what is said between bites—these things matter more, somehow, because they’re happening over a meal. People who love to run might say that they are never more aware of themselves than when they are hearing their own hard, steady breaths, or their elevated pulse pounding in their ears, or smelling the scent of their own sweat. Eating is my meditation, the lens through which I see most clearly and know myself best—I am never more aware of my own self than when I am alone, listening to myself chew.

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One of my favorite writers, Lydia Davis, devotes an entire essay, not just to eating alone, but to eating a specific food—fish—alone. “I am alone with sardines on white bread with mayonnaise and lettuce, I am alone with smoked salmon on buttered rye bread, or tuna fish and anchovies in a salade niçoise, or a canned salmon salad sandwich, or sometimes salmon cakes sautéed in butter.”

For Davis, eating alone in a restaurant is ritualistic, rife with habit.
“I bring a book with me, though often the light over the table is not very good for reading and I am too distracted to read. I try to choose a table with good light, then I order a glass of wine and take out my book. I always want my glass of wine immediately, and I am very impatient until it comes. When it comes, and I have taken my first sip, I put my book down beside my plate and consider the menu. My plan is always to order fish.”

Until I read this essay, I had never considered what my own rituals are surrounding solo restaurant eating, but it made me realize that I never ever order fish. I have no idea why this is. There is something lovely about sitting alone in front of a whole roasted fish. Rather than seeing one part of the whole—a salmon filet fried in butter, a fatted fluke liver, whisper-thin slices of crudo—you face your sustenance in its entirety, you are alone together.

pancake

On another note entirely, today is the last day to vote for yummybooks in the best writing category of the Saveur blog awards. I should have been pushing you all to vote for weeks, but something in me went silent and froze when I was nominated a month ago. I felt so touched and humbled by the nomination that it somehow made it impossible to write a word—does that make any sense? Probably not, but if you feel so inclined to send a vote my way you can click the image above or here to take you to the voting page. Thank you all for reading my words, I appreciate you more than you will ever know.

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Fennel and Orange Salt-Baked Sea Bass
Serves 1 hungry person
Ingredients:
1 whole Mediterranean Sea Bass, 1-1 ½ pounds, gutted and scaled
½ a navel orange, cut into ¼ inch rounds
stems and fronds from ½ a fennel bulb
2 sprigs tarragon
2 sprigs dill
2 sprigs chervil
6 cups coarse kosher sea salt
4 egg whites

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Directions:
Preheat oven to 400F. Stuff the cavity of the fish with the orange, fennel stems, tarragon, dill, and chervil.
In a medium bowl, mix salt and egg whites together with your hands until it resembles the texture of wet sand. Spread a 1-inch layer of the salt mixture on a baking sheet and lay the fish on top of it. Cover the fish with the rest of the salt mixture, packing it on to form a tight seal all around.
Bake the fish for 25 minutes.
Crack the salt crust with a wooden spoon to expose the fish. I just sat and ate it right off the pan, because that’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re alone, but if you want to be more civilized about it, please feel free.

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Leave a Comment

Seymour Salett April 29, 2015 at 12:52 pm

Cara,
As usual you make me hungry . Maybe , one of these days , you and I can have a meal together . Obviously I’d prefer that you cook it but we can also pick a good restaurant .
Your fan,
Seymour

Reply

Sara Chisholm April 29, 2015 at 1:41 pm

I voted for you, and that says a lot because I hardly ever vote for anything of this sort.

Speaking of fish and oysters, I would be stoked to see the clam chowder from Moby Dick ;)

Reply

Cara Nicoletti April 29, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Hi Sara!
Moby Dick clam chowder was one of the first posts I ever did! I’ve since removed it to rework it for the book, but August 18 there will be a recipe for it in Voracious–Thank you so much for reading and for voting. xo

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Sara May 4, 2015 at 12:17 am

Good to know! Well, I was planning on getting a copy of the book anyway. I’ve been wanting to make chowder for the first time since I found a great (predominantly shellfish) seafood market near my place, so that recipe will be the first one I go to! I look forward to seeing how you connected with the scene from the inn–it was the moment I realized I was really going to enjoy Moby Dick. Cheers!

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Nicola Miller of The Millers Tale April 29, 2015 at 2:10 pm

I’ve always been fortunate in that the Lucillus dining with Lucillus thing has never bothered me. In fact I adore eating alone and always have done.

The table has to be just so, book, newspaper, condiments, not too many other accoutrements and restaurant/cafe staff who are happy to adopt an approach of benign reflect.

Heaven!

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Nicola Miller of The Millers Tale April 29, 2015 at 2:11 pm

Benign NEGLECT

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Kristin | Tasty Joy April 29, 2015 at 2:34 pm

This is lovely. Congratulations on your nomination :-) I’ve never made a fish like this, and you certainly inspire me to try it. Do you think if it was wrapped in foil that it could cook in the coals of a fire? Or does it need to be exposed for steam to escape? I know, random question, but I was just thinking… :-)

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Sam April 29, 2015 at 7:24 pm

Each time I read a post, I get more and more excited for your book. Is August here yet??

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Elizabeth Aquino April 29, 2015 at 11:49 pm

You’ve certainly nearly outdone yourself here — the incredible photographs, Lydia Davis, the intriguing subject — and, of course, your writing. Of course I will vote for you — I honestly don’t know another blogger as original as you who seemingly has it all goin’ on!

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Angela Brown June 2, 2015 at 9:52 am

Lovely post. I just discovered your site and have no idea how I didn’t know about it earlier. I’m a small restaurant owner in NYC, and am also a food writer/lifelong literature lover, so I just adore the whole concept here! Really beautiful stuff. I look forward to visiting your site often and reading your posts. Feel free to pop by my site sometime :)

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