I recently read an article by Harvard Historian of Science, Steven Shapin, in the London Review of Books, “Down to the Last Cream Puff”. It was a review of Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine by Michael Steinberger, an account of the history of the rise of French haute cuisine both in France, and in the rest of the world, and an analysis of why it is now going into steady decline. Shapin’s article is really worth a read (you can find the full article here).
One thing that struck me while reading it was the discussion over expense and how it both fueled the rise of French haute cuisine, and also how it is now largely responsible for its demise. The more expensive a meal, the better we expect it to be, and so it is also assumed that the best is always going to be the most costly – or at least, this was what was assumed until recently. Now it seems to me that, amongst people who consider themselves real ‘foodies’, the best is often understood as the hardest to find – the food that takes the most effort to procure. When the effort is on the seller’s end, the cost is going to be very high. When it is on the buyer’s end, it is not. Those people who consider themselves to be real foodies love to find the most ‘traditional’ ‘hole-in-the-wall’ restaurant where they are surrounded by ‘locals’ – people unlike them. It is almost as if the time and energy put into finding good food is how we can express our elitism – this is not something that is open to everyone, and it seems to necessarily require that not a lot of other people are in on it.
I am guilty of this myself, of course. I feel a sense of achievement when I have to go to Chinatown to find an obscure ingredient (obscure for me, of course, probably not so much for the thousands of locals who shop in those supermarkets every day); the beer tastes better if you happen to have made the trip to the micro-brewery in which it was made; your ingredients will always be superior if you have to make several trips to specialist stores, rather than just buying them all from the same place, even if it is as fancy as Wholefoods. What is interesting about this trend is that what you lose out on time and energy, you often gain in price. The man on the street can be a gourmand, so long as he is saddled with enough leisure time. Sure, you are still going to spend more on organic, top-of-the-range produce, and the unusual spices that you buy one-off for a single recipe and never use again, but on the whole prices are not prohibitive because you are putting in so much of the leg-work yourself. You still get the feeling of culinary superiority, and often the food genuinely is very good. (Actually, a lot of these features are amusingly drawn out in the satirical blog Stuff White People Like, which does a good job of pointing out the irony of the situation.)
This makes me wonder, then, why I still feel a sense of sadness that the really high-end French restaurant is in decline. Shapin points out that it is in part the expense of just maintaining the decor, the level of service, and other non-food-essential features that costs so much that it ruins many a restaurant trying to attain three Michelin star status (they say that these things are not important, but it is clear that they are). Meals at these restaurants can cost several hundred dollars a head and it is the fact that fewer people have this kind of money (or are willing to spend it), and that we now have so many other options, that seems to be contributing to their demise. Do I ever think that I will be able to afford such meals? Well, yes – we all have our fantasies. And, to a certain extent, I am not even entirely convinced that they are not worth it. I like stunning decor and impeccable service that you get in extremely good restaurants. What you want from eating is not just the taste of the food, but the whole experience – it affects how you enjoy it, how you remember it, and maybe even how you experience the taste. I am not saying that it is the kind of thing that I would want to do all the time, or that I don’t see that it is a little gratuitous, but I like to know that it is there – that these sort of institutions are continuing.
In fact, this emphasis on more than just the food part of dining is not just limited to the fine dining experience – it is the going out of your way to buy the best food, the knowing of its origins (as is emphasized in the Slow Food movement), or even collecting it straight from the source, that really adds something to the experience of actually consuming it. As does going to an ethnic restaurant where you feel like you are the only non-local in the room.
Are these kinds of experiences just as good as those of fine dining? I am not so sure – but I can’t really put my finger on why. Maybe I just like exclusivity – feeling like there is something special about me as a diner or participant in the food experience. Maybe I have the common human tendency to value what is rare and difficult to achieve.
One thing that interested me about this article was that it suggested that there have been changes in the kind of experience that people expect from their dining experience: “Diners didn’t want to pay as much for their food; they didn’t want restaurants to tell them how to dress; they didn’t want to spend quite so long at table; and they wanted very good food on their plates served up with less grandeur, less hauteur and a lot less froideur.”
I would be really interested to hear what people thought about this. Do you think it is true that people don’t want or need the fine dining experience as it once was? Can you give reasons why really expensive meals are valuable? What was the best meal you ever had – was it expensive, or did you really have to put in a lot of leg-work to get it? Any other thoughts on the matter are more than welcome.