Communal plates: Who said it's good to share?
Alice Jolly is an author, playwrite and teaches creative writing at Oxford University. She is crowd-funding her own memoir of infertility and surrogacy with the publisher Unbound. 50 per cent of the proceeds of the book will be donated to SANDS (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Foundation).
Friday 14 October 2011
On the rare occasions that my boyfriend and I go out for dinner, the conversation will, at some point, assume a familiar format: "Can I have a bite of that?" I ask, ignoring the protective arm curled around his plate. He protests, I insist, and eventually he relents, fussing that I might contaminate it by digging in my fork. Indecisive and naturally greedy, it is impossible for me to sit opposite someone and not want their food.
This happens all of the time. Or at least it did. Until about a year and a half ago, when the Polpo phenomenon kicked off. Polpo, for those who have yet to experience the prosecco-fuelled wait for a table, was the first in what became a small fleet of London restaurants opened by Russell Norman and Richard Beatty. There was Polpo, with its stripped-back cool and Venetian "tapas" (cicchetti, it's called), and then there was Polpetto, da Polpo and Spuntino. All have proven remarkably popular, and at all of them – crucially – the food is shared, arriving at the table in a haze of big and small plates like dim sum. Naturally, it was great news for greedy guts old me. A bite of this, a bite of that: food envy had been dealt a fatal blow.
So... great, you'd think. End of story. Greedy people get what they want, everyone else can go elsewhere, wrap their arms around their plate, and enjoy sole dominion over what they ordered.
Except, increasingly, they can't. As it happens, the success of the small plate didn't go entirely unnoticed by the remainder of the restaurant world. A few other places opened, clutching the act of sharing close to their zeitgeisty hearts. A few more followed, some of them terrific, others... not so much. And then a few more. Sharing platters became de rigueur if you were dining out. Among industry insiders, it is a trend that has become unignorable. "There's been a real shift," says Clare Riley, editor of industry magazine Eat Out.
A few weeks ago, the high-street chain Zizzi announced its own version of cicchetti. "To share or not to share?" runs the tagline. Suddenly, I'm leaning towards the latter. As the BT advert once (almost) said, it's good to share. But not all the time.
"People tell me I should be flattered," says Norman of his restaurants' ability to spawn mass imitations. "But I'm not. It's a bit like telling a cuckold that he should be flattered his wife is sleeping with other men because it shows that she's attractive." And therein lies the problem with "food trends". They start off so well – not a trend, just a great idea. And then they descend into the realms of ubiquity. Diners can't head out without being thwacked over the head with it repeatedly; rarely is the thwacking done as well as the original.
Recently, I found myself tasked with the challenge of sharing a single poached egg. It would have been fine had I been with close friends. But I was at a meeting for work. Another time, I took an American visitor to an innocuous local restaurant, only to find that sharing was not just recommended – it was unavoidable. Pity my dinner date didn't eat meat, wheat, or hard cheese.
So, after a lifetime spent yearning for a taste of everything, unable to choose just the one dish that I want to eat, I find myself rooting for the opposite. I don't want to base my order around a friend's bizarre dietary requests. I don't want to share a dozen dishes with someone I'm meeting for the first time.
I want my food, and I want it to myself. And no, you can't have a bite thank you very much.
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