Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective
– By Robin Fox
Most food has been made and consumed domestically throughout Western history. Eating out was for travelers, in inns and taverns where the customers were served more or less what would have been on the domestic table anyway. Regular eating out, and eating out for status with special foods reserved for the occasion, is a predominantly French institution of the Industrial Revolution. Our words for eating out are all French or translations - hotel, restaurant, caf6, menu, entr6e, chef (chef de cuisine), wine list (carte des vins), cover charge (couvert), maitre d’hotel, restaurateur, hors d’oeuvres, hostess (hotesse) - only with waiter (and waitress) do we remain stubbornly Anglo-Saxon, "boy" sounding a bit strange in the context.
Essentially at first an upper and upper-middle perversion, and to do with the desire to move conspicuous eating and spending into the public arena, eating out has become vastly democratized with technology, affluence, and overemployment - leaving less time for preparation at home. The great chefs, who previously cooked in the great houses, moved out to the great restaurants. The French upper classes had previously made a great public show of attending court or church. When both these institutions declined in importance after the Revolution, attendance at great restaurants became a substitute. The "great codifier" Auguste Escoffier laid down elaborate and rigid rules of cooking procedure like a pope: cuisine became "haute," and chefs ruled hierarchically organized vast kitchens like tyrannical cardinals. The great restaurants came to resemble renaissance palaces or cathedrals. The very word "restaurant" comes from the verb "to restore" and has more than practical overtones. (The original restaurants were in fact legally "health food stores.") From these grand beginnings, eating out came to be imitated by the bourgeoisie, ever anxious to give themselves upper-class airs, and finally became general in the culture and in all Western countries.
If the rituals of eating out have become less grand for the mass of people, it still retains its aura as an "event." The grand aspects are retained in expeditions to restaurants offensively overpriced but ritzy (after the Polish- French founders of the greatest of the great establishments). We spend not so much for the food as for the entertainment value and the naughty thrill of being (we hope) treated like royalty in an otherwise drab democratic environment. Even lesser expeditions still have the air of an event. The family outing to the local burger joint still has an air of preparation and difference; it can still be used to coax youngsters to eat, and provide a mild enough air of difference from routine to be "restorative." Even the necessary lunch for workers who cannot eat at home has been made into a ritual event by the relatively affluent among them.
"Doing lunch" in the business world is regarded as a kind of sacred operation where, the mythology has it, the most important deals are made. A puritanical campaign against the "three-martini lunch" by the then President Carter (Southern Baptist), had Americans as roused and angry as they had been over the tax on tea that sent their ancestors to their muskets. The business-meal tax deduction was fought for with passion, and the best the government could do was to reduce its value by 20 percent. There may not be a free lunch, but it sure as hell is deductible. Very little of this has to do with business, of course, and everything to do with status. Just to be having business lunches at all marks one down as a success in the world of business, for only "executives" (the new order of aristocracy) can have them.
At the other end of the scale, reverse snobbery asserts itself in the positive embrace of "junk food," otherwise condemned as non-nutritious, vulgar, or even dangerous to one’s health. (In fact, cheeseburgers are no more dangerous to health than strict and specialized vegetarian diets.) Junk food can be socially acceptable if indulged in as part of a nostalgia for childhood: the time when we were allowed such indulgences as "treats." So giant ice cream sundaes with five different scoops of ice cream, maraschino cherries, pecans, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream; sloppy joes with french fries and gravy; malted milk shakes and root beer floats; hot dogs with mustard, ketchup, and relish - all these are still OK if treated as a kind of eating joke. Hot dogs at football games, or ice cream at the shore (seaside) are more or less de rigeur. The settings in which these are eaten vary from the simple outdoors to elaborate ice cream parlors with bright plastic furniture and a battery of machines for producing the right combinations of fat, sugar, and starch. Ostensibly these are for children, but adults eat there with no self- consciousness and without the excuse of accompanying children. But for adults, as for children, these places are for "treats," and so always remain outside the normal rules of nutrition and moderation.
We continue to make eating out special when we can. Romantic dinners, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, retirement dinners, and all such celebrations are taken out of the home or the workplace and into the arena of public ritual. Only the snootiest restaurants will not provide a cake and singing waiters for the birthday boy. The family outing is specially catered for by special establishments - "Mom’s Friendly Family Restaurant" can be found in every small American town (although the wise saying has it that we should never eat at a place called Mom’s). But even in the hustle and bustle of these family establishments the individuality of the family is still rigidly maintained. No family will share a table with another. This is very different to the eating out of the still communalistic East. Lionel Tiger, in his fascinating description of Chinese eating, describes how people are crowded together in restaurants - strangers at the same table all eating from communal dishes. And far from having a reservation system, restaurants encourage a free-for-all in which those waiting in line look over the diners to find those close to finishing, then crowd behind their tables and urge them on.
The democratization of eating out is reflected in the incredible burgeoning of fast food joints and their spread beyond the United States. McDonald’s is the fastest-growing franchise in Japan, and has extended its operations to China. When it opened its first franchise in Beijing, it sold so many burgers so fast that the cash registers burned out. Kentucky Fried Chicken has now opened in Beijing, and has become the chic place to eat in Berlin. These are humble foods - a ground meat patty that may or may not have originated in Hamburg; a sausage of dubious content only loosely connected to Frankfurt; deep fried chicken that was a food of the rural American South; a cheese and tomato pie that probably came from Naples. But they have taken the world by storm in one of the greatest eating revolutions since the discovery of the potato. In a curious twist, two indigenous foods of the East are rapidly turning into the fast food specials of the yuppies who would not be seen dead eating the proletarian hamburger: the Japanese raw-fish sushi, and the Chinese dim sum (small items bought by the plate) lunch. It is the oriental revenge for the McDonald’s invasion.
The proletariat has evolved its own forms of eating out. The transport café in Britain with its huge portions of bacon and eggs; the French bistro, which was a working-class phenomenon before reverse snobbery turned it into bourgeois chic, with its wonderful casseroles and bifstekpommefrit; the Italian trattoria with its cheap seafood, again gentrified in foreign settings; the incomparable diner in America; the grand fish-and-chip warehouse in the north of England; the beer-and-sausage halls of Germany; the open-air food markets in all the warm countries. If we could do a speeded-up film of social change in the last fifty years we would see a grand ballet in which eating moved out of the home and into the public arena on a scale which makes rural depopulation look like a trickle. Sociologists, as usual, have still even to figure out that it is happening, much less come up with an explanation.
Dining out became a paradise for ethnic immigrants in the huge migrations from country to country that have characterized the twentieth century. What started as cooking for each other has burgeoned into a huge industry of ethnic eateries. The Chinese led the way, usually in ports and bigger cities, Chinatowns were exotic, and it became fashionable to eat there in San Francisco and New York. Chinese cooking with its marvelous variety and use of virtually everything eatable became the rage. The quick-cook method with small pieces of food had been a necessity in China because the use of human excrement as manure meant that thorough cooking was essential, and the lack of fuel meant it had to be done quickly. But this was a wonder to the Euro- American palate jaded with overcooking and heavy sauces. Chinese cooking spread like wildfire, and Chinese families branched out endlessly to open cafes in the most remote places.
What is more, the food was amazingly cheap. It was the first "foreign" food to capture both the gourmet market and the populace at the same time. Although the compromise "Cantonese," or chow mein, version remains popular with the masses, the gourmets pursue the Hunan and Sezchuan refined versions. Status differences assert themselves in short order in the West. If we are all going to go Chinese, then there has to be a form of Chinese that is more high class than the rest. Conveniently, northern Chinese cooking stepped into the gap. Now the cognoscenti can laugh at the vulgarity of sweet and sour pork and moo goo gai pen, while extolling the virtues of Mongolian beef with scallions and Colonel T’so’s chicken. The world remains safe for snobbery.
What started with the Chinese has spread to a wide variety of immigrant cuisines. Even small towns in Europe and America now have a huge variety of worldwide ethnic establishments. Drink has followed food, and sake and retsina, espresso and green tea, guava juice and tequila, are available everywhere. In all this eating out, food reflects the internationalizing trends in fashion generally. It gives us all a chance to show off our cosmopolitanism in a world that values it more and more. It is astonishing when we think of it. In any one month we may order food in ten or more different languages, none of which we speak, and which can be as different as Urdu, Thai, Cantonese, Italian, Arabic, Armenian, and Hungarian. There is now an industry of critics and restaurant writers as large and as attentively followed as the theater, sports, and fashion critics. To be literate in the world of eating out - to be even ahead of the trends (knowing that fantastic little Portuguese bistro that no one has discovered) - is to demonstrate that one is on top of the complex cosmopolitan civilization of which eating out has come to be a metaphor.