Dining with a thump

ONCE, WHEN WE WERE DINING OUT in Sydney’s Leichhardt in the late 1960s, the noise became so unbearable that the Italian waiter whistled shrilly, everyone quietened, and then we gradually talked louder to be heard, until he whistled again.

That’s changed, because many restaurateurs now unapologetically drown out conversation. No longer young and silly, and with hearing aids, I have in recent years shied away from at least two restaurants as soon we felt the racket, and I have also put up with the noise in more than one highly-fashionable place where I’m not keen to return.

Discriminating among voices becomes harder with age (too much rock n roll when young). But now speakers thump imperiously beneath the clamour. Managements seemingly welcome the “Lombard effect” (people speaking louder to be heard). They must mistake deafening exuberance for buzz.

Certainly, several waiters have obligingly reduced the volume. Yet in Summer Hill, a young woman turned the sound down, only for the manager to turn it up. When we explained that we’d asked for it down, he said something inaudible about other customers (there were only one or two other tables). He then devoted himself to shifting around paper packages awaiting meal deliverers. Without soliciting our order, he remained unconcerned as we departed, and discovered a cheaper, much friendlier take-away around the corner, with a few tables and wine glasses.

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells actually mounted a “ringing defense” of noise. Constantly implored to condemn raucous places, he realised he didn’t find loud restaurants a problem.

The truth is, I love them. Not all of them, not all the time. I enjoy more than a few quiet restaurants, too, where you can concentrate on the food and the conversation without auditory distractions. But so many of the places I enjoy most tend to be at least somewhat noisy.

His illustrator did not seem so keen…

 

In a study of reviews in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, researcher John Lang found that restaurant noise could affect the critics’ evaluations. Strikingly, the correlation between comments on noise and overall rating was reversed between east and west coasts:

That is, in the Times, as noise increases, restaurant ratings decrease; while in the Chronicle, as noise increases, so do restaurant ratings

The quality of food had double the impact of service on overall rating, followed by “atmosphere”, while noise remained a lesser, but still “significant predictor of the overall restaurant star rating”.

The Zagat “State of American Dining” report in 2016 had already found that, for 25% of customers, noise was the most irritating component of dining out, and the internet abounds with complaints. Various apps – including iHEARu and soundprint – been launched to share information about the noise levels of particular restaurants.

So why raise the volume? Researchers found that tasters rated beer more highly when listening to music by a familiar band.

A pair of professors of marketing, studying restaurant “servicescapes”, have identified the “environmental cues” such as lighting and music that “strongly” influence eating behavior. For example, loud noise and bright lighting increase the quantity eaten, and decrease the pleasure, without an overall effect on the money spent. They also found that “softening the lighting and music led people to eat less, to rate the food as more enjoyable, and to spend just as much”.

Acoustic engineers around the world, including at Flinders University, have advised of how to mitigate the effects of minimalist, hard surfaces.

Noise could become a problem for us at the Uraidla Aristologist in the Adelaide Hills (and so could curmudgeonly customers, but let that pass). A shouty table of six or eight could ruin it for everyone. After we had added a kilim and tapestry to the walls, a further, smart suggestion was to fix egg cartons underneath the long, central serving table. Confession: our notorious cat clawed them down.

Certainly, near-silence could be embarrassing for, say, just two tables of two. But we never succumbed to the increasing pressure to add “atmosphere” with any recorded music. Instead, we often achieved the beautiful hum and clink of contented conversation and dining – one pleasure I still miss.

Surroundings are enormously important to dining. Big money is spent on chairs, walls,  bars, benches and lights. Restaurants run from closeted haute cuisine to blaring television echoing around hard surfaces on the other side of the Alps. In recent times, some owners have chosen to deafen customers, and some have chosen to stay away.

With the pandemic, crowding gave way to muffling masks, social distancing, and outdoor tables. But then the clamour came crashing back. Restaurant reviewers ought to include a noise indicator.

@GoldingCartoons

Morrison, “fake”

SCOTT MORRISON would never make a good waiter. He’s a total “fake”, as certified by recent Australian of the year Grace Tame.

She responded to the Prime Minister’s attempt to effuse sympathetically, when a mother inquired about cuts to NDIS payments for her child with autism.

Scott Morrison and his wife were unable to conceive for the better part of two decades. Nearly giving up on IVF, at the age of 39, Jenny gave birth to the first of the couple’s two daughters.

“She is our miracle child, the answer to a lifetime of prayer and 14 years of painful, invasive, heartbreaking treatment,” Scott wrote in 2009.

So, in a televised leaders’ debate the other night, he replied, concerning the future of the NDIS, “Jenny and I have been blessed, we’ve got two children” – and here he stumbled – “that don’t – that haven’t had to go through that.” He added: “And so for parents, with children who are disabled, I can only try and understand your aspirations for those children.”

Grace Tame and fake (to her right)

Along with the famous photo of her sideways look at Morrison, Grace Tame tweeted that “autism blesses those of us who have it with the ability to spot fakes from a mile off”.

In a classic non-apology, the Prime Minister later said he was “deeply sorry” about the way his comments were “sought to be represented by our political opponents in the middle of an election,” and that he had intended to “respect the challenges they [?] face, not the opposite”.

He’s a fake leader. He pretends to the role – as a “bully” to some, and “friend” to all the “quiet Australians”, while leaving CEOs, lobbyists and cronies to run the place.

Serious waiters are not fakes. They actually care for people. They help them have a good time, and cope with the full range from angry ignorance to gratitude. They have seen it all – couples in love, couples parting, two-timing spouses, drunken politicians, business wheeler-dealers, tearful families, wedding parties, and new-borns in baskets. They have studied the strangest dietary preferences, and all manner of anxiety.

We have had personal experience. Strangers would try to say the “right thing” when confronting our beautiful son, whose disabilities were in plain evidence. They would say things like: “It’s wonderful what science comes up with”. Or they promised a “miracle” from God.

At restaurants, Lawrence would often cry, and possibly be calmed by listening to the Wiggles. But, truly, the better the restaurant, the happier he was.

Perhaps the noise levels were more comfortable. Perhaps he joined our enjoyment. Perhaps the waiters knew what do. Whatever it was, we confirmed the effect time and again.

There was much that Lawrence couldn’t do (he was blind, never said a word, and remained unable to walk or even grip an object). But, among some wondrous abilities, he could spot fakes.

At good places, waiters would organise clear soup or a mash, so we could feed him. (Ultimately, though, he was happier and healthier just being tube fed.)

And, invariably, good waiters did not carry on about science or God; they just said something sensible.

We can’t exactly remember the best-ever response, but we know it was by a waiter, and where he was – Café di Stasio in St Kilda. His intent was something like: “He will look after you, and you will look after him.”

I dedicated my latest book, Meals Matter, to “Marion, Dorothy, and Lawrence Symons Maddox (1999-2009), who together have taught me so much about meals, and thereby everything”.

“Delicious” joins the great foodie movies

Words are the aspect of meals that helps their planning, description and acclamation.

Likewise, movies are additions – before, after, or with a glass of wine or popcorn –  that can also proclaim dining’s centrality to human existence.

Any good movie is bound to include meals. Charlie Chaplin shares his boiled boot in Gold Rush (1925). Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play battling barristers in Adam’s Rib (1949), so that George Kukor establishes their happy domestic relationship by them working comfortably together in the kitchen.

It’s not enough just to show pretty food to make a foodie movie – that’s like bringing in stars like Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal without actually establishing their love.

Foodie movies (initial list below) have to bring the whole world together, however fleetingly. As Italian cook Primo reveals in Big Night (1996): “To eat good food is to be close to God.”

Délicieux (Delicious) (2021)

Where does Eric Besnard’s new movie, Delicious, rate on the foodie scale?

Not up with Babette’s Feast, but what is? But it sits alongside, say, The Truffle Hunters (2020) and Pig (2021).

Some movie reviewers mustn’t be blessed with the “sacred fire” that Brillat-Savarin described, so that they “regard meals as hours of enforced labour, put on the same level everything that might nourish them, and sit at table like an oyster on its bed”. Accordingly, critics who found Pig merely a trite satire revealed they had missed the central, dramatic point.

In Delicious, another big, obsessive chef has also retreated to the woods, but, whereas Nicolas Cage’s recluse produces one overpowering meal, Grégory Gadeboi’s character ostensibly opens the first restaurant a few days before the French Revolution.

Not that Delicious even tries to be accurate in its details. By 1789, a new kind of dining had already emerged based on restoring broths or “restaurants”, served in private booths. Even more to the point, Antoine Beauvilliers had already brought aristocratic dining to the streets of Paris.

I talk about these developments, and explain why true restaurants are “open domestic households”, in Meals Matter.

Overall, nonetheless, through unashamedly fictional means, Delicious makes bigger statements about the fundamental importance of gastronomic pleasure, and its relationship to French foundation myths.

It is, for example, entirely believable that the French Church decried underground produce as further from God – chef Manceron combines potatoes and truffles in his little pastries that give the movie its title.

In anticipation of you catching Delicious, I won’t give more of the plot, except to disclose that Isabelle Carré, although not so well known outside France, is mesmerising.

Initial list of foodie movies:

Tampopo (1985); Babette’s Feast (1987); Chicken and Duck Talk (1988); Au Petit Marguery (1991); Like Water for Chocolate (1992); Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994); Big Night (1996); Chocolat (2000); Mostly Martha (2002); Sideways (2004); Ratatouille (2007); The Trip (2010); The Lunchbox (2013); The Truffle Hunters (2020); Pig (2021); Délicieux (Delicious) (2021).

Add your favourite foodie movies in the comments.

Is the movie “Pig” for or against foodies?

(Perhaps it’s post-foodie)

The movie Pig, starring Nicolas Cage, tells of a recluse who leaves the woods in search of his stolen truffle-hunting pig in Portland, Oregon, where he was once an influential chef.

It mightn’t be everyone’s cup-of-tea; it’s filmed grimly almost entirely in the dark; Cage speaks somewhere between a growl and a mumble;  but I thought it great.

It’s a counterpoint to both the Truffle Hunters, about Italian men and their dogs, and SBS’s The Beach, showing Warwick Thornton cooking, and looking, for himself.

An even closer (although less successful) comparison would have to be the recent ABC-TV series, Aftertaste, about an authoritarian chef seeking to redeem himself back in the Adelaide Hills.

Mind you, Pig starts out deceptively as if about a brutal guy – with only a pig to share his meals – fighting the world. But it soon heads elsewhere, although exactly where, as in any decent artwork, can withstand endless interpretation. I won’t reveal too much, in case you intend taking the journey.

While the orthodox movie critics, with few exceptions, praise the movie highly, and especially the performances, the rest of the internet helps answer the big question, which is whether it’s pro- or anti-foodie.

Take this from the New Republic:

Pig cuts straight through foodie hypocrisy

The overwrought film from Michael Sarnoski contains a fundamental truth about a very sick industry.

It’s about time America became disenchanted with foodies. Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s foodie noir about loss, love, and labor in Portland, Oregon’s restaurant scene, doesn’t leave them much room for redemption…

This critic, Jan Dutkiewicz, disapproves of “obnoxious” restaurants and “foodie writing—think Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and their literary progeny”. He opposes “elitist” fetishizing. And he congratulates the movie, which he didn’t seem to like much, for also exposing the industry’s abuse of workers and animals. (As a scholar, Dutkiewicz works on “improving the treatment of animals through the legal system”.)

The scathing, non-comprehending reviewer in the New Yorker declares the movie’s key moment to be when our martyr apparently learns “the awful truth of the restaurant world and of the world at large”.

Or we could take this:

‘Pig’ Review: A truly brilliant foodie movie

Not wanting not to spill the beans, Nick Johnston writes:

What I will say is that this is one of the great modern Food movies, and I would not be surprised to see allusions to it pop up in culinary culture over the next few years … It’s about our authentic relationships to the food we eat and the emotions and memories that come along with any given meal.

Other commentators remain enticingly ambiguous, like Sydney Morning Herald’s Jake Wilson, who says:

Moody, foodie drama with a menacing side serve of parody

… But he’s a foodie not a fighter, and the kind of reverential treatment that might be given to a samurai sword in a Tarantino movie is here more likely to go to a salted baguette.

Hillary Dixler Canavan organised a roundtable for the foodie website, Eater.com, where she’s a restaurant writer, familiar with Portland, and “obsessed” about the movie.

A Heated Discussion About ‘Pig,’ the Movie of the Summer

Eight Eater editors debate and dissect the new Nicolas Cage film about a man’s search for his beloved truffle pig

The foodies’ reactions turn out to be mixed, including Canavan’s:

It would have annoyed me much less if the film’s most important women weren’t dead or in a coma.

Needless to say, the theme of women gone missing is central to the movie. When a sympathetic baker recalls former times, and she finally hugs the grizzled hero, the camera pointedly retains its distance. A woman suddenly revealed in close-up is an intense movie high point.

So, is Pig foodie or anti-foodie? One answer could be that it’s anti-bad-foodie and pro-good-foodie, but I hesitate to divide foodies into, say, “deep” and “shallow”, even when I suspect fetishising.

I’d rather think of Pig as post-foodie in that it treats restaurant dining – and transcendent meals, in particular – with the utmost seriousness, while at the same time satirising ridiculous hype.

It’s not just about sublime tastes either, but very much also about the pleasure of sharing with a loved-one. At the climax, the tragedy turns out to be dining in the absence of not just a pig, but treasured human companions.

Murals matter

9780231196024
Diego Rivera, “Wall St Banquet”

VISUALLY, MY BOOK OPENS and closes with murals. The cover borrows the “Wall Street Banquet” of Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and the back flap author photo was taken in a restaurant in Germany. I suppose it’s a coincidence that the book is walled-in, so to speak, although there’s something about murals …

Rivera’s “Banquet” is part of a huge set in Mexico City, covering three floors and staircase of the Ministry of Public Education building, taking Diego and his team six years to finish. That was in 1928-29, as Wall Street crashed.

In this panel, eight diners share champagne, while being served ticker-tape streaming the latest stock market prices from the golden machine under a glass dome. Behind that is a bank vault with megaphones. A Statue of Liberty lamp balances on the table in the foreground.

Rivera, “Dinner of the capitalists”

At least some of the well-dressed guests are historical figures, including a Rockefeller, whose family would commission Rivera, who was an on-and-off-again communist, to work in the U.S. Inevitably, in 1934, the family instructed labourers to scrub out his most ambitious American piece, a huge mural in the foyer of The Rockefeller Centre, New York.

Meals Matter might almost equally have been illustrated by a nearby  mural in the Mexico series – “The dinner of the capitalists”, which shows a ruling family served coins, with revolutionaries with abundant food in the background.

Both murals belong to the building’s third level, which illustrates the “Ballad of the proletarian revolution”. Over the Wall St banquet, the banner translates as: “the rich man keeps thinking how to double his money.” The words over the capitalists’ dinner say: “Gold is worth nothing if there is no food”.

I came across Rivera’s murals when idly searching for an illustration of banquets, whose interpretation is important in Meals Matter. (I ended up with a photo of an electric chandelier in Glasgow!) The Wall St version is not strictly a banquet; in this case, “banquet” connotes privilege.

Symons portrait Max 7

The back flap author photo was taken in mid-2019 by my wife, Marion Maddox, in Hannover, Germany. She took out the phone at the Max Walloschke restaurant, where we went several times. Our revisits explain the two versions (shown here) in different clothes in front of different still lives.

Max Walloschke, who was a weightlifter, professional wrestler and German bowls champion, opened the Kneipe (“pub”) on 19 June, 1952.

IMG_20200323_124344735_HDRIn Berlin, I suspected that smart locals crowded old-time Austrian restaurants, because they could not admit to enthusing about what some might call “heavy German kitsch”.

However, Max Walloschke remains unapologetic, calling itself “Das Kultrestaurant am Steintor” – the “cult restaurant at the Steintor”, that is, the place with a dedicated following at the city’s old “stone gate”.

Another of their claims is “Hier gibt es das wahrscheinlich beste Eisbein der Stadt” –  “probably the best pork knuckle in town”.

The restaurant’s official slogan, “Gutbürgerliche Küche und gemütliches Ambiente seit 1952“, uses two words that are allegedly untranslatable. “Gutbürgerliche” suggests “homely” in the sense of lots of sausages, potatoes, and beer. And “gemütlich” hints at a “cosy” atmosphere, and more, because: “Cosy captures an element of it but crucially lacks those of friendliness and belonging.”

Max postcard
Max Walloschke postcard

The restaurant also boasts “authenticity” and “tradition”, which we can believe, and “Herzlichkeit” (“warmth”), which we can confirm. (I plan to say more on this.)

As immoveable artworks, genuine murals (rather than wallpapers) have tended to be sponsored for public places, including cafes and restaurants, where they often employ faux architectural elements to give the illusion of grandeur, space or being in the homeland – sometimes all at once, such as a panorama of the Bay of Naples through trompe-l’oeil pillars. The more Gutbürgerlich murals of beer, pork and vegetables encourage Gemütlichkeit.

I must find out the name of the painter, whose food murals contribute so warmly to Max Walloschke’s welcome.

“Wall St Banquet” on left

How our “consolation of profit” thesis helps understand restaurants, megachurches, and Trump

MARION MADDOX AND I have just published a paper, “The consolation of profit”,* in New Formations, a journal of contemporary culture and politics.

Perhaps the quickest introduction is bottled water. Why do people pay for something they can get out of the tap?

Marion and Michael 3
At Max Walloschke, Hannover

Certainly, the hefty marketing promises health and status. But to those familiar explanations, we add another: the insistent hawking itself arouses a reasonable expectation that sellers are so desperate for profit that they will risk no other complication. If it’s outside the market economy, can it really be safe?

The “consolation of profit” arose from attempts to understand consumer anxiety when Jennifer Hillier and I ran the Uraidla Aristologist restaurant more according to our own earnest ideas than the Market’s.

 

Along with a funny name, the Aristologist had no piped music, no Coca-Cola, no smoking (except in a special room or outside), and otherwise signalled more than mere profit-seeking. The precipitating incident was a sweet, young couple looking at the menu, and asking if they might repair instead to a nearby restaurant. Our food would be “too spicy”, they explained, although, in reality, this would have applied more to the other place.

A more likely explanation was that the Aristologist might seem to require savoir-faire, an unfamiliar wine, reflection on the experience, or any number of other interactions.

McDonald’s redoubles the assurances. Their so-called “restaurants” advertise utterly predictable food – “Do you want fries with that?” – and stilted interactions – “Have a nice day”. The hammering of cheapness backs the warranty: no any other demand.

As a religious studies scholar, Marion added the second case-study. Why have megachurches been on the rise, when mainline churches have generally declined? Megachurches have replaced old liturgies with the forms of rock concerts and television tonight shows. Theirs is “Jesus lite”.

The “consolation of profit” thesis adds that, whereas a tight, more traditional congregation might threaten personal, social or deep theological challenges, these “growth churches” preach a simple message, “we want your money.” The merchandising in the foyer, donation buttons on web-pages, repeated onstage appeals shout out the safety of profit-seeking. The upfront demand for money could risk no challenge.

Our third case study asks how could anyone vote for such a shallow charlatan as Donald Trump? Together with lies and racism, his heavily-funded election campaign came with the “consolation of profit”. Trump never pretended to be anything more than a super-salesman with advertising slogans in place of policies.

This self-professed artist of “the deal” grew up in the congregation of prosperity gospel preacher, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, author of a string of business self-help titles, most famously, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Peale officiated at Trump’s first wedding.

Voting for the celebrity money-maker guarded against any untoward governmental decisions. Selling himself as the greatest, Trump offered no “deep state” threats. Denouncing elite expertise, he ostentatiously ruled through Fox News tweets.

With the pandemic, the Symons-Maddox thesis sees a hard-selling, anti-intellectual braggart struggling with an unanticipated crisis. “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it”; “I like this stuff. I really get it,” etc, shows he has nothing to sell but himself.

How enduring the consolation proves against obvious lack of social commitment, we’ll find out in November.

*Michael Symons and Marion Maddox (2020), “The consolation of profit,” New Formations 99: 110-126

99: Cultures of Compensation

Now for something completely different … cheese savouries

Mini croque monsieur bites on eatlivetravelwrite.comSOMETIMES THINGS fall into place so neatly as to be scarcely noticed. But I have never let myself forget the good fortune in discovering a simple savoury that we served to every customer from the first night of our restaurant in Tuscany in 1979 until Jennifer Hillier shut the doors on the Uraidla Aristologist seventeen years later.

The cheese savouries became minor celebrities, and various recipes have popped up in magazines and the internet over the years. Oddly enough, no-one seems to have revealed our source, until now.

To quote a recent correspondent with this blog:

Hi Michael – way back when living in Adelaide, I visited several times your lovely Aristologist restaurant in Uraidla – and so often reflect on the wonderful food that came to our table. I was wondering if your recipe for those lovely ‘cheese aperitifs’ that greeted us at the table as we began our evening was available in any publication? Sitting here in London on a grey morning, with this awful virus being the latest ‘panic’ we are facing, I was thinking how lovely it would be to be guided as to how to rekindle the taste buds with these lovely ‘bites’. If you could send me in the right direction, that would be wonderful.
with warmest wishes
Jill

A quick online search showed up this version, “Grown-up grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches” on the blog of Mardi Michels, now living in Toronto, and who admitted she first ate them “at the legendary Uraidla Aristologist restaurant in the Adelaide Hills, where I was fortunate enough to dine a few times when I was way too young to really appreciate it”.

Mardi has added tomato in Toronto

 

That’s Mardi Michels’s photo, here. She wrote about them again as “Croque Monsieur bites”, which is the photograph at the top. We only ever grilled them draped in grated cheese.

On the night before we opened the Cantina di Toia, we were still desperately seeking something to serve with a glass of the Fattoria de Bacchereto’s vin ruspo, the local, fresh, light, rosato-style wine that makes an excellent aperitivo. The best Sydney restaurant back then – Tony and Gay Bilson’s Berowra Waters Inn – would open with something with a glass of champagne. If such a welcome was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. Like them, we offered a fixed price meal (with several choices), which we thought of as a “licence for generosity” (a description Gay agreed with).

Il Libro della vera Cucina Fiorentina: Paolo Petroni ...

In desperation, where does a person turn? We loved Paolo Petroni’s serious local recipe book, but wanted something less familiar for our customers. Italians scarcely knew even basic French things like quiches, let alone the Antipodean Pavlova (both of which we served). So, I checked out Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Mastering the Art.

It was in this last that I found “Croûtes [Toasted Bread Cases]” on page 222 of the Penguin paperback edition. The selected filling became “Fondue au Gruyère [Cream Filling with Swiss Cheese]”, two pages later. I presume that was the original filling – in my head, it’s just a thick, white, cheese sauce. A béchamel, if you will.

To summarise our method: we purchased white, unsliced “supermarket” bread a day or two early (slightly older is easier to handle). Take off the crusts, then cut into approximately 4cm-thick slices, which are divided both ways, to come up with cubes. Next, the tricky bit. After doing this countless times, I became committed to a perfect, little, sharply pointed knife, with which I hollowed the cubes out exceedingly neatly. Brush with melted butter, and crisp a little in the oven until pale gold.

Meanwhile, you will have made a thick white sauce. That is, heat flour and butter in a saucepan to make a golden paste, add milk, slowly at first to stir out even the possibility of lumps. Add grated cheese. Following Beck, Bertholle and Child, we “enriched” with an egg yolk or two. (Did we grate in nutmeg? – not sure.) Fill the cubes, covered with a pinch more cheese, and brown them in the hot oven.

Think that’s right, Jill! It’s many years since we made them. But you now have the source recipe.

Cheese savouries Mastering

The end of the world? In many ways, but maybe, you never know…

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)

EMPTY SUPERMARKET shelves. Flights banned. Cruise lines taking a holiday . . . That’ll pass.

But Parisian bars, cafes and restaurants totally closed? That’s the end of some world or another.

More than just locked restaurants across the globe, urban life closes down and, with it, many seeming certainties. How unconvivial could this get?

My new book, Meals Matter, develops a “radical economics” from John Locke, Brillat-Savarin and others. As the first copies are being printed, a major rethink feels even more necessary. As First Dog on the Moon says: “Things are crazy and scary and they were already crazy and scary before.”

Meals Matter laments the two-century dismissal of meals – the disparagement of domesticity, the corruption of the lively marketplace, and the denigration of the wider, political meal. For this last, I reclaim the name, “banquet”. Needless to say, going along with money’s demands, governments so abandoned their meal – the banquet – that it remains scarcely visible.

Along comes the coronavirus, and governments act financially. Save the stockmarket! This is meant to “save jobs” to maintain metaphorical “bread”, although cynics also know that businesses seek to “capitalise the gains and socialise the losses”.

The government “banquet” should be not just emergency provisioning, but a whole meal. After all, any good meal comprises not just nutrients, but also comfort, pleasure, companionship, beauty, health, learning….

The aristocratic and religious hierarchies embellished their banquets with fine architecture and arts, and employed musicians, dancers, clowns, and jesters to tell truths. They staged whole after-dinner operas.

After pulling down monarchies and theocracies, the people anticipated their own mighty, popular banquets. But capitalism rose up within and against democratic republics, preferring only one meal, that of the market, and that merely conceived as prices.

Without government employment, artists were expected to rely on the market, and private patronage.

Suddenly, performers are out of work. I can no longer attend Verdi’s Attila at the Opera House tonight, nor the Bowral music festival next weekend. With a pandemic shaking live music and theatre to the core, government support looks slim indeed.

New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, just wrote:

it’s chilling to witness an entire way of life coming to a sudden horrible halt. So many of the pleasures and consolations that make dwelling in cramped quarters worth it, for those privileged enough to choose city life, have disappeared. Even if they all come back, we’ll always know they’re not permanent.

Things are changing. Social-distancing and self-isolation atomise face-to-face meals. Yet mass banquets reappear on balconies. Neighbours drop food off at front doors. The whole world comes together as never before.

Meals Matter Front flap 3

Just maybe those who survive the pandemic might have been reminded the hard way that meals matter far more than money. If dictatorships haven’t further edged out liberal democracies, the banqueters might appreciate that the political household depends on cooperative health care, decent educations, the performing arts….

You never know, perhaps even mainstream economists will soon disown their slogan, “greed is good.” Governments might re-nationalise airlines….

Michelle Goldberg also wrote: “Maybe when this ends, people will pour into the restaurants and bars like a war’s been won, and cities will flourish as people rush to rebuild their ruined social architecture.”

To help prepare, put in your orders for Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.

 

The sound of music

Bern restaurant 2
Zum Blauen Engel, Bern

We arrived here at our apartment in Bern, Switzerland, conveniently across the road from the conference venue, amid crowds celebrating the opening of the World Cup. Our second-floor accommodation is above a bar-restaurant, circled on four sides by huge screens and temporary outdoor seating. Our host apologised that he had hired a dj for the rest of that night. And so the matches have progressed…

The joke is that the thump-thump beat from below that first evening did not stop me getting to sleep. Instead, I was awoken by huge bells chiming 6 am. The nearby Pauluskirche counts each hour, and notes each passing quarter, and there it goes again. Much, much louder than the huge, sixteenth-century Zytglogge in the city centre with its mechanical jester getting in early every hour with his own bells, and the mechanical cock crowing three times. At least the local chimes shut down between 10 pm and 6 am.

The further joke is that I write in praise of Bern’s quiet. This is in the restaurants.

For several weeks we have moved (for Marion’s work) from Fremantle through Glasgow to here, and I have dined to much thumping beat, the seemingly necessary boost to meals these days. (I’m the old fogie in the corner.)

In Fremantle, we seemed lucky to stay adjacent to Bread in Common, to name a name. Quite good food in a vast warehouse conversion, so popular that you can’t hear yourself think. The thump never lets up, except if managing a coffee during the day at an outdoor seat. Fortunately, Fremantle is awash with great spots, albeit mostly also with monotonous mood-lifting.

Much the same in trendy Glasgow, although I must boast that our flat was between the Aragon and Lismore pubs (the video is from the Lismore), both with traditional musicians gathering in varying numbers on selected nights with their fiddles, flutes/whistles, underarm bagpipes, accordions, guitars, and bodhrán (Irish drum). Usually a fiddler starts off, and away they go, the leader mouthing key changes. I kept waiting for a cellist to come back; he’d led them in a wonderfully mournful selection. On another occasion, a tenor came out of the crowd, some notes wobbly, but he knew he had to hit the last one, and did. All determinedly acoustic.

A fellow whisky-drinker (no, I think he had an ale) explained that an Edinburgh conservatorium course in traditional music had generated something of a glut of young professionals.

Heavy “background” music obliterates the clink of cutlery and murmur of conversation. Accordingly, I recommend a couple of old-style places near here (warning: Bern is not cheap).

Being an unusually warm night, filling the outdoor tables, I was the only person inside at Zum Blauen Engel (Blue Angel). With no music whatsoever, I did get a distant exhaust fan. Otherwise, the dull thud of fridge door, clink of bottles, shaking of pans, sizzling from beyond the bench, occasional waiter exchange, old-fashioned clank of heavy glasses and crockery, my own knife and fork … I even heard the chef cut off a tranche of something. All satisfying.

Bern restaurant I
Waldheim

I felt part of the place, belonging to humanity, the world. Not some shouting cosmopolite out for a good time.

Around at the Waldheim, I lunched again almost alone inside, with just another four old fogies at seemingly their regular table, and across an enormous window-sill to those in the garden. The sound of people chatting outdoors, and birds… I could be dreaming (I don’t think so, even about the birds).

Again, a few clinks, waiter exchanges, the espresso being ground and a puck being bashed out, and people enjoying the peak of civilisation. The only odd note was the occasional phone-call announcing itself to a chirrup of Vivaldi.