Clio Chang is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. When not traveling alone, she covers politics, culture, and more.
One night, early in quarantine, I roasted a whole chicken. I had just isolated myself in a friend’s empty one-bedroom apartment, away from my roommates, and was celebrating living alone, however temporarily, for the first time in my life. I bought a five-pound honker, lugged it home in my straining bike bag, and prepared it the same way I usually did: I went heavy on the salt and pepper; skipped the trussing because literally what am I, a chef; threw the chicken over some vegetables; and shoved the whole thing in the oven for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until I sat down to carve and eat it that I realized what I had done. I had made five whole pounds of chicken, plus a Thanksgiving meal’s worth of roasted vegetables, for just one person.
People often feel daunted making big meals to entertain guests, but the hardest task is cooking for one. As I quickly found out, it’s far easier to make too much rather than just enough. And guests will usually lie and tell you something tastes good, on top of bringing over beer and wine to wash down whatever you make.
I ate that chicken for weeks. I ate it in sandwiches, I ate it on ramen, I ate it straight out of the refrigerator when I excused myself from a Zoom hang to “grab a beer.” I made broth from the bones, even though I don’t really like broth, because honestly, what better things did I have to do? Eating chicken and chicken byproducts became my job, which I did better than my actual job, from which I was later laid off. And yet I still had chicken left over, a Strega Nona-style cursed reminder that not only was I alone, I was alone alone.
Months later, as I set off for my first trip outside of New York City in four months, I was still thinking about my isolation chicken. I hadn’t left Brooklyn since March, aside from two stints into Manhattan for protests and noodles, and I had imagined it would feel like a satisfying, full-body stretch. It would be my first time driving a car in months, my first time moving more than 30 miles per hour, my first time seeing the green rolling hills that lined the highways on the way to my destination, a small A-frame cabin in the mountains of Vermont that I’d found at the last minute on Airbnb. But all I could really think about was the chicken.
My goal was to take a vacation — to escape, even for a brief moment — as safely as possible during the pandemic. I would be doing the trip solo, which might feel less like a break and more like a test. I would be taking time for myself after months of having more time to myself than I’d had in my entire life. Why would I want additional time in my own brain, which was already filled with manufactured chicken anxieties?
But I was determined to enjoy my four days off. After all, my world was going to suddenly expand in an explosive way: I would get to see regional billboards, smell the forest air, hear the sounds of nothing at night. I resolved to not ruin it by creating another monster; a constant, edible reminder of the fact that I could not share a space or a table or a trip with my family and friends.
The day I left, Brooklyn was in the middle of a heat wave with little reprieve, and the air was swollen and heavy. Because I was going from a high-density area to a low-density area, I resolved to buy all of my groceries before I got out of the city, stopping at H-Mart on the way. I’d had “make a grocery list” on my to-do list for days, but the ghost of my chickens past did not help me overcome my extreme laziness, and I did not, in fact, “make a grocery list.” With no plan, I ended up buying a random assortment of foods, including four pieces of cooked mackerel, one steak, one conch, 12 clams, a packet of matcha sponge cake, king oyster mushrooms, and the kind of eggplant that is both long and sexy. As I walked out of the grocery store, I passed a Trader Joe’s that had an endless line of people waiting six feet apart to enter. I felt smugly superior until I got to the car and realized that my impulse mackerel purchase was stinking up the whole backseat. A friend, of course, would have gently advised against the idea.
The only thing I hate more than being alone is coordinating with others, so I’ve ended up on many solo trips. Contrary to their premise, solo vacations don’t usually entail being truly alone — in traveling on your own, you open yourself to meeting new people. Any solo vacation movie will tell you this: In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Lily James (as a young Meryl Streep) goes off to Greece alone, only to meet and befriend the three men who become co-fathers of her child, one to two Greek people, and a horse. The movie ends with James singing a number with all of her new friends and family, including Meryl Streep (as an old Lily James).
And then there’s Under the Tuscan Sun, which revolves around a recently divorced Diane Lane, sent by friends to go alone on a gay tour of romantic Tuscany. Lane, who is straight, gamely dons a hat that reads “Gay & Away,” and by the end of the movie she ends up with a new house filled to the brim with the patchwork family she has collected on her trip. One of the Polish workers Lane hires to renovate her house sums up her situation most succinctly when he asks her to join them for dinner: “It’s unhealthy to eat alone.”
Movies tend to exaggerate, but on my own solo vacations, I almost always manage to con someone into being my friend, even if just for a day. But this type of antisocial trip, where I wouldn’t interact with anyone, was new for me. (This particular region of Vermont was also new to me, although one friend helpfully told me that my cabin was two towns away from where she played high school soccer.) I got tested for COVID-19 a week before the trip, but because the results hadn’t arrived when I left, I decided to be extra cautious and avoid seeing anyone when I arrived at my destination. I passed farm stands, imagining all the chats I could have with Polish workers, and spurned pit stops for coffee, thus eliminating the possibility of meeting the ghost of Meryl Streep.
Because I was literally not here to make friends, I ended up inventing them. When I was about an hour from my destination, my car kept flashing an image of a coffee mug and asking me, Do you want to take a break? I thought this was both rude and forward. But I found myself saying back, “No, haha, I’m fine,” somewhat fondly. Ten minutes later, as I craned my neck to look at a billboard advertising fine homemade furniture, my car started screaming “BRAKE! BRAKE!!” I also started screaming and we screamed and slammed on the brake together to avoid hitting the car in front of us, which had slowed down to turn. “Car is friend,” I thought to myself.
When I got to the cabin and stepped outside the car, I was immediately met with a wall of crisp Vermont air. Over the next three days, I would spend most of my time hiking alone, reading under a small covered porch when it rained, or curled up in bed watching TikToks until late in the morning. Away from New York, my new surroundings were a balm, and I found myself wishing I could share them. I showed off the lush trees to friends over FaceTime, and breathed in enough air for a small city. But I resisted the urge to connect: When I trekked to a small, remote pond, I walked a wide circle around the group of teenage boys wrestling to see who could more casually throw themselves off the cliff into the water below. I stuffed away my instinct to talk to anyone, and for a small, brief moment, while I sat in the sun by the water, I felt my brain unspool with the promise of a lazy summer afternoon.
The majority of my time, though, was spent cooking. In the small cabin kitchen I made Taiwanese night market-style king oyster mushrooms, brushing them in a chile soy sauce as they grilled and tossing them with Thai basil and garlic. I made H-Mart marinated short ribs with sauteed Chinese mustard greens on the side. I cooked down the sexy eggplant with a simple teriyaki sauce made from garlic, sugar, and soy sauce, making extra to drizzle over $6 worth of flank steak for one. I also wanted to make pasta al vongole, but realized I had only bought racchette pasta — the type shaped like a tiny tennis racquet for a Hamptons mouse — because I thought it had “vacation” vibes at the time. So I ended up with a dish of clams over tennis racquets.
As the cabin’s only cook and diner and Yelp reviewer, I was acutely over-aware of the quality of every item of food that I made, relishing dishes when I pulled them off and despairing when I made mistakes. The memory of my isolation chicken lingered on the edges of the kitchen — as I cooked, I was careful to curb my impulse to make all the food at once, and instead cut down my portions to a manageable amount for one person. Everything took more time to make and plan than I expected, especially since I was unable to find any Tupperware in the cabin, which meant I was preparing three new meals every day. Unlike at home, I’d have to throw away whatever food I didn’t use. And so I became my own wretched Tupperware, overindulging on each dish.
Yet even though I did everything well, more or less, I still found myself tired of prepping food, cooking it, and cleaning the dishes. Completely removed from my community at home, all of this labor on behalf of myself only became more obvious. I thought about how I used to sit on the floor of my friends’ living rooms, gossiping with their discombobulated voices as they made me dinner in their kitchens. I missed the dishes that my mother would sneak hot peppers into because I “had to learn” how to tolerate spice. I thought about my favorite nights at restaurants, like the time when the table next to us got up and left and our waiter hurried over to inform us that yes, that was, in fact, the Carlos Santana.
I was also upset with myself for thinking these thoughts during a global recession when so many were struggling to feed themselves at all, and for feeling worn out by cooking for myself every day when so many were making food for entire families. I knew these feelings of guilt were useless on their own.
But what I was grasping for wasn’t really a reprieve from cooking. Rather, I missed the person I was around others. Ruth Reichl recently wrote about a night at a Paris restaurant when the maitre d’ whisked away her 8-year-old son to take part in games being organized for the neighborhood children. When her son returned, he told Reichl that he thought it was “a very fine restaurant,” to which she replied that he’d only tried the french fries and cake. “C’mon mom,” her son replied. “You know restaurants aren’t really about the food.” Those words stuck in my head for weeks. It turns out that it’s only really just about the food when you’re cooking for one.
In my isolation, I also began thinking about the idea of leisure time — specifically, the pervasive American ethos that holds that time off is an extravagance that must be earned. It’s so deeply ingrained that I even felt a pause taking my vacation, as if time off is a scarce natural resource, as if time alone is selfish. But though isolating myself further seemed somewhat redundant, taking a break had made me feel more settled and clear-headed, a feeling that should be more available, not less.
If anything, the pandemic should remind us that everyone deserves leisure time, even if it must be in solitude or at home. There’s something to learn from the countries where our solo vacation movie protagonists escape to — in both Greece and Italy, workers are entitled to 20 days minimum paid vacation every year, while in the United States, workers are guaranteed no paid vacation at all. If there is one thing in Under the Tuscan Sun that makes complete sense, it’s that Diane Lane never returns home.
On the day I left Vermont, I was so sick of planning and preparing food that I ended up eating a breakfast of matcha sponge cake and packed a lunch for the road, also of matcha sponge cake.
As I started the four-hour drive to the city, I felt strangely anxious to get back. I thought about how my generation was once credited with killing both the restaurant industry and vacations, and I laughed imagining someone trying to make that argument now, as our government allowed the pandemic to destroy small businesses and communities with abandon. Even though it would be a long while until I could cook a roast chicken for my family, or meet a friend for drinks at a bar, I knew that being closer to my own community and the businesses I love still felt better than being farther away.
During those four days in Vermont, I found that there was a difference between being alone within a community and isolated from it. In the course of all my complaining, I had forgotten about the times when my friends and I would bring beers or snacks or order a pizza to hang on a stoop or at a park, or the day when my mom taught us how to make scallion pancakes over video chat. I forgot that while I was eating my big chicken, I was often chatting with friends and family over the phone, making that chicken as much a comfort as it was a curse. Even though we constantly had to negotiate with ourselves and each other — eating six feet away, bringing our own glasses, taking dinners to Zoom — we found ways to connect. There are other ways to share a table; by figuring out how, we will be able to start picking up the pieces again.