Food and Eating

Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective
– By Robin Fox

Eating Out: Styles and Settings

Apart from travellers, for whom eating out was first invented, few people eat out from necessity. Even more than in the home, eating out is a ceremonial event and must be considered as such. There are basically two types of eating out: entertaining oneself and entertaining others. In what sense is the family’s taking itself out to dinner ceremonial? Just as much as the family’s having the grandparents round to formal Sunday tea in the dining room. It is a special occasion marked by special dress and behavior. At its lowest level it can depart little from eating informally at home: a visit to the local burger or fish and chip joint for a quick meal, for example. But even these places usually do not allow one in half dressed. You cannot lounge around the local pizza parlor in a dressing gown or underwear. To go out in the street at all one must put on footwear. It all requires an effort that does not go into the informal home eating.

Then there is the matter of choice, usually conspicuously lacking on the home menu. Even the humblest "eat out" place has some choice, and this alone can provide an excitement that the home meal lacks. Also, however lax the standards of the eat-out joint, most of the behavior tolerated at home will not be tolerated there. Some considerable restraint is required, particularly from the young, and this again serves to mark it as special. It becomes an important socialization experience for young children, when they learn the basic etiquette of eating in public, although not fast enough to please most of the adults around. But they must learn to sit still, to keep their voices down, to wait patiently, to eat in an orderly manner and not throw their food about. Of course, they learn these things at home, but the pressures are much greater when eating out.

For the parents, or even a childless married couple, eating out is usually marked by even more ceremonial behavior. Except for the very affluent, it is usually regarded as a special event, and people prepare for it in a way that they would not do for the regular home meal. In particular, they will weigh carefully the type of setting as much as the type of food. If eating out were only about food then the setting would not matter. And of course there is again a reverse snobbery which pretends to despise the concern with setting and to praise the brilliance of the storefront operation that produces such wondrous and authentic Indian food - and so on. But if it is an event - and all eating out is expensive relative to eating in - then people usually pay great attention to setting. This is often not more articulated than a request for somewhere "nice," but the slightest pushing on details will reveal the niceties of the distinctions. One place is too big and too garish and has noisy waiters; another is too small and crowded and the service is too slow; another is too brightly lit and there is no sense of privacy; another is so dimly lit that one cannot see the food. In the great days of the great restaurants they had to be brightly lit and large, with every table in sight of every other so that the essential business of showing off could be accomplished. The alternative was the small and exclusive restaurant which need not be super smart but which accomplished the showing off without further ado. Today the latter is preferred, but grand dining is by no means out.

When entertaining others out, setting has to be considered carefully with reference to purpose. The main purposes of eating out with others are the same as their home counterparts: to impress on the one hand, and to be different on the other - to make a change. At home we do this by departing from the normal routine in dress, setting, and cuisine. When we go out, the latter two can be taken care of for us, and we have much more choice as far as style, setting, and expense are concerned. There are relative degrees of intimacy involved. It is usual to entertain the grandparents and in-laws at home; it would be a real treat to take them out somewhere impressive, a treat we would reserve for a special occasion. On the other hand, it would be more normal to go out to eat with the boss and his wife first, and then, once intimacy had been established, to invite them to the house. In all of this, it is the setting rather than the food itself that is considered. Of course the food has to be "good," but the type and kind are less important than the aura surrounding the service. There used to be, in the 1950s, two Indian restaurants in London off the Charing Cross Road, in an area catering to Indian students. One was called the Agra, the other the Agra de Luxe. The same kitchen served both and the food was identical. But in the Agra students clustered around communal long tables, which were covered with oilcloth. The food was cheap and casually served, and the Indian music (recorded at local Indian films) was loud. In the Agra de Luxe there were curtains and carpets, there was a liquor license and good wine was served, there was quiet sitar music in the background, the tables had immaculate white linen, and there were uniformed, attentive waiters. The food, as we have seen, was exactly the same as in the humble next-door café, but it was four times the price. It was every male student’s aim to make it in the world so that he could take his girlfriend or mother to the Agra de Luxe.

Setting is all. The perfect business lunch requires a bright setting: papers have to be exchanged perhaps, and the faces of the parties have to be clearly visible so that moods and intentions can be read. But the tables should be rel- atively well spaced so that conversations do not overly intrude on each other. The romantic meal, however, is more suitably placed in the evening (closer to bedtime and hence suggestive?) and in a quiet and dimly lit candlelight atmo- sphere conducive to quiet, intimate conversation, and even, with its dim light, thick carpets, heavy drapes, and brocade furniture, somewhat reminiscent of a bedroom. The casual lunch with a friend, however, can well be in a fairly in- formal, wicker-furniture-with-ferns-and-plants kind of setting, conducive to colorful salads and bright gossip. If we do not think setting (as opposed to food per se) is important, imagine a man promising his date a romantic dinner and taking her to the local ice cream parlor for a hot dog and sundae, or for fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. This can only work if she has a good sense of humor and is willing to invoke reverse snobbery again.

The point here is that it almost does not matter what food is eaten. That can be a matter of personal preference. It is usual to serve more elaborate meals in the evening, but these are often not that different from the lunch menus except in size and number of courses. There are certainly restaurants that serve the same food at dinner as at lunch, except that at dinner they double the prices, light the candles, dress up the waiters, and have live entertainment. This tactic, which again has little to do with the content of the food, is based on the shrewd observation that not much business is done in the evenings; people come for entertainment and are willing to pay for it as for any other entertainment. They come to be cosseted, spoiled, smoothed down after the business of the day, made to feel like royalty, allowed to indulge themselves in a leisurely fashion, and generally to feel as far removed from eating at home as is possible.

Purists will object that there are many people who seek out restaurants purely for the food. This is doubtful. It would be possible to do an experiment in which such a purist’s favorite food was transferred from the plain little bistro with ambiance where he usually gets it, to a completely alien setting (a stand-up stall in a fish market perhaps, or the lobby of a grand hotel at ten times the price) and judge his reactions. The little bistro will turn out to be as important to his enjoyment as the authentic brandade de morue he so prizes. Of course the food is important, but when entertainment or even business is the issue, it takes second place to setting. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret certainly searched out fine cheap food in nondescript cafes that happened to have devoted and brilliant cooks; but he would never have taken Madame Maigret to them for dinner. At least in Paris, wherever he ate, he would have had good waiter service. His waiter would have been trained, expert, and, what is more, professional and proud of it. This used to be true throughout Europe, but especially in France and Switzerland. All the European capitals certainly had professional waiters. And these were particularly important to the setting - to the feeling of being catered to, spoiled, and made special. The idea of waiting as a profession came, of course, with the high standards of the great establishments, but it percolated down. To be a waiter in a good establishment was to be a proud member of a proud profession. It required skills and patience - customers were notoriously difficult, but always right. It was much much more than just carrying food from the kitchen to the table. It was a combination of knowledge and social work and a canny judgement of character. And the pay-off was a big tip. There was no sense among these men of being in a menial job; quite the contrary. The aim of most of them was to save enough to open their own establishments, and many of them were very successful at it.

In England and America, however, outside the grand establishments in the larger cities which more often than not employed Frenchmen, there was no such tradition. Waitresses were more common than waiters since they were cheaper labor. But by the same token they rarely regarded their jobs as a career, and usually saw them as temporary. If they were permanent, like men in the same position, they were usually disgruntled at being in a menial, dead- end job. They often took this resentment out on the customers, and the surly waiter or unpleasant waitress became something of a cliché. Today, more than ever, the job is transient, and more and more young people take it on as part-time work between school and job or between other "worthwhile" jobs. New York restaurants seem to be staffed with out-of-work actors, dancers, and musicians, or non-English-speaking immigrants. There is never the same feeling about such a restaurant as there is about one staffed with real professional waiters, but the change seems permanent, and one of the great paradoxes of the eating-out revolution is its failure to persuade anyone that to be a waiter or waitress is a worthwhile career. And until, in the Anglo-Saxon (or for that matter the Slavic) countries, waiting tables is treated as more than a menial, low-grade job, it will remain a blot on the gastronomic landscape.