Have you ever had a meal so good that it made you cry? Probably not.
Simran Sethi has, though. She is a journalist, author, and educator whose writings focus on food, sustainability, and social change. Over the years, Sethi has spoken at universities and UN panels around the world, and has even appeared on Oprah a couple of times to discuss the environmental implications of our eating habits.
Yet, for all of her worldliness and understanding of food, there was always something gnawing at her, and it wasn't until a plate of grilled octopus brought her to tears during a solo meal in Lima, Peru that Sethi realized what it was. MUNCHIES spoke with Simran Sethi about the importance of eating alone and how it ties into the larger picture of a planet connected by food.
MUNCHIES: Hi Simran. In your book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, you talk about how uncomfortable it was for you to eat at a restaurant alone. Where do you think this stems from? Simran Sethi: I had this weird moment of eating alone and being traumatized by it. I was 15 and joined my mom for a work conference. She had an evening function so gave me her credit card and steered me toward the nicest restaurant in the hotel. The staff was not interested. I had on my fanciest dress and most mature affect but they seated me—the kid—in the corner.
And this continued into adulthood for you? For sure, I have been reluctant to be stuck in the corner again.Years later, I was in Italy doing research for my book and had requested a table for one. The flirty waiter said, "You're so beautiful! Why are you alone?" And I was like, "Dude, it doesn't work that way!" It has nothing to do with looks. But this Italian waiter was fawning over me, which is only slightly better than being ignored.
It's about being present in your life, and being able to really show up, and just to be comfortable being who you are.
In your book you also talk about an epiphany you had in a small Lima restaurant that profoundly changed your attitude. Yes, about five years after the flirty Italian waiter incident, I had travelled, like, 48 hours to Peru to give a speech at a UN event about climate change and food systems. The speech ended up being cut down to like one minute and I felt like, "This sucks, I deserve a good meal!" I just said, "No mas." I really wanted it to be good so I went to El Mercado, in the Miraflores district.
What exactly happened there that was so transformative for you? I ended up having one of the most beautiful meals of my life. I cried at this meal. I didn't want to be the weird lady crying over a plate of grilled octopus, but it was really about the beauty and the deliciousness of the food and realizing what I denied myself.
You've been on Oprah a bunch of times, spoken at countless conferences, and have travelled pretty much everywhere, yet it seems like you weren't able to fully appreciate it because you imposed barriers on yourself. Absolutely. I've travelled all over the world, but when I travelled, I would always get takeout or room service. I would never sit down and have a meal by myself even though I had so many beautiful opportunities to do so. And in that moment at the restaurant in Peru, there was a part of me that was like, "This is what I gave up while I was waiting for one to become two!" So I told myself, "I'm never going to do that again! I have to feast on my life."
Can you describe the importance of that realization? Something magical happens when it's just you and the food. It's not about reading a book or being on your phone the whole time while you're eating. It's about being present in your life, and being able to really show up, and just to be comfortable being who you are—that's what that experience was about. It's just about owning it and redefining it. Eating alone is the exact same act but it's one that for me has been radically redefined after that meal.
It made me realize the whole interdependence that every meal requires—from the weather to biodiversity to the farmers to the fisherpeople who caught the octopus to the chef and the waitstaff; you're not by yourself.
So I take it you don't care too much about eating alone on Valentine's Day? Even if I did have a sweetheart this year for Valentine's Day, which I don't, I realized that you're never really alone, you're always with yourself, and that companionship is superlative.
How did the grilled octopus epiphany affect your perspective on the things you write about, like the environment and globalization? It made me realize the whole interdependence that every meal requires—from the weather to biodiversity to the farmers to fisherpeople who caught the octopus, to the chef and the wait staff; you're not by yourself. I don't want to over-romanticize anything but I felt a moment of connection with the restaurant and it was really beautiful. You're never alone because the whole world is on your plate, and that was the culmination of the book.
That's really interesting, because you really needed to be alone to realize how interconnected everything is, which is kind of paradoxical. Exactly—beautifully put. I wish I had written that in the book. It was such a moment of reckoning, like, "Who do you want to be? Look at what you're depriving yourself of!" I wouldn't have been able to have that experience if I was eating with someone else because I would have been too busy having a conversation with them, and being present with that person.
I feel like there could be a bit of a gender dimension here as well. As a guy, when I got to a bar or restaurant alone, I'm pretty much 100-percent certain that nobody is going to hit on me. I don't want to get too hyper-gendered or anything but I do think that men are a lot more comfortable going out alone whereas younger women aren't really. I'm 45 now and I've have older women read the book and tell me, "I'm going to try it now! I'm going to start eating alone!" Of all the things in the book, I never thought that the act of courage was going to be that, but it is.
Why is there a stigma about women being alone in public spaces and not a man? I wish I had the answer to that questions. As a feminist, I believe that I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any dude but it's surprising how much stigma I carried into that situation and put on myself. You could probably write a dissertation about taking up or occupying public spaces as and gender differences and the male gaze.
I had been depriving myself of the opportunity to really savour foods because I kept waiting for there to be someone with whom I could eat.
Where do you stand on drinking alone? I have a very strong aversion to sitting at a bar and ordering a drink by myself. If I go out for a drink alone, it's not me trying to be picked up. I'll speak for myself, as a straight woman, when I say that I've never walked into a bar and seen a guy alone and thought to myself, "I'm gonna buy that guy a drink!"
How does this realization tie into the broader conversation about food in Bread, Wine, Chocolate? The book is about the journey that I took with food. It's about foods that I love. But there is also the bigger question of "What does it mean to feast on our life?" Like to really savour things, including food. At the end of the journey which was five years and six continents, I realized that I had been depriving myself of the opportunity to really savour foods because I kept waiting for there to be someone with whom I could eat.
I'm also a huge proponent of eating alone. If ever you're in Montreal, it would be great for us to eat alone together. [laughs] That's like the greatest invitation ever. Alone… together. We could sit back-to-back or side-to-side at different tables or something! That sounds great.
Deal! Thanks for such an interesting conversation. My pleasure.