The not so free lunch
Saturday 18 May 1996
I'm not saying that I haven't taken the freebies myself. In my early days as a script doctor in Hollywood, I think I would have lost what little prestige I had, if I had not eaten at other people's expense. When I worked in television - if you can believe this in these stringent, downsized times - I got a weekly five-pack of expense forms, filled out whatever I thought I might have spent on meals and handed it in at the cashier's window (no receipts, nothing!) and he handed me wads of cash.
In the heady days of my sports writing career, I soon learned that some papers did you better than others. The Sunday Times wasn't stingy, but it couldn't hold a candle to the "pop" press. In Kinshasa, where we were all stuck for a long time while Muhammed Ali, poet, tried to learn scansion as he waited for George Forman to recover from injury, it was not uncommon to see great boxing writers fighting over other people's unwanted restaurant bills - not to pay them, of course, but to submit them to their offices in London.
No, no, I have nothing against the privilege of eating at someone else's expense. It is all very good for business, and America started its long slide down into Third Worldism the moment expense accounts began to be disallowed... and then taxed! Privilege is privilege, and I am most awfully sorry to read that, at what used to be some of the better tables, a poverty of spirit has begun to prevail. I refer to the tables of some of the illustrious educational establishments of this world.
Now students, as is well known, were never particularly well fed. It was one of the incentives to graduating, to be able to get out into the real world and eat properly - or, at least, to eat as our masters did at their high table. Those wines, from cellars laid down when England held Aquitaine! Those ports, from our Portuguese allies! That malmsey, in which the unfortunate Elizabethans might well have been upended! After war began, I wound up at the hugely gentlemanly university of Yale, where, despite wartime adversity (Americans could eat only one steak a week), we still ate in a dignified way: at long tables, and served by indigent freshmen on scholarships. It may have been grotty food, but it was done with style.
Since then, however, things have slipped. A very nice lady (who forgot to include her address) wrote to me some years ago about her experience of cooking for "Judas College", Cambridge: she tried to make chilli con carne with rice, for 25-50, with no ingredients but meat and potatoes, and was ultimately fired for using fresh milk rather than dried for her sponge pudding ("over budget") - but not before having to make a celebratory dinner with reheated pheasants (served, of course, on the best college plate). She quite rightly wondered how academic excellence could accommodate to low standards of gastronomy. (Answer: easily.)
But worse than that is on its way, for, if I am to believe the New York Times, Yale University, alma mater to George Bush, among others, is thinking of giving up dining halls altogether and turning those areas over to fast- food malls, serving burgers and yoghurt at all hours. The result of that, I fear, can only be to produce a generation of Bill Clintons (he's a Harvard man, I hasten to add, though his charming wife went to Yale). The news, however, only bears out the theory with which I began: that if you can afford to go to Yale (pounds 20,000 a year without counting drink, pocket money, girls, travel, rock concerts and good causes), you can probably make up for it later in life at someone else's expense.
Alas, it is an unfortunate truth of life that the only things you can really control are the things you pay for. If everyone in London and New York had to pay for what they ate in restaurants, half (or more) of the pricier, more elaborate, more pretentious establishments would go out of business speedily: and not a minute too soon. The truth is: unconscious of price and value means unconscious, full stop. And it is but a step from that axiom to a more generalised theory, that it is the people who don't pay for what they eat, and don't care what they eat (but make a big fuss about it), who destroy food for the rest of us
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