Which would you choose, burger and chips or a seven-course power lunch? Douglas Kennedy attempts to digest the true meaning of that old saying, 'You are what you eat'

When I lived in Dublin during the Seventies, the average wage was around £70 a week (before tax). I myself was taking home a whopping 85 quid as a theatre administrator - which, after Ireland's punitive tax structure, left me £58 in my hand to pay my rent, run my Morris Minor, buy food, pay for a couple of pints each day, and cover a night out with my girlfriend du moment on Friday or Saturday.

When I lived in Dublin during the Seventies, the average wage was around £70 a week (before tax). I myself was taking home a whopping 85 quid as a theatre administrator - which, after Ireland's punitive tax structure, left me £58 in my hand to pay my rent, run my Morris Minor, buy food, pay for a couple of pints each day, and cover a night out with my girlfriend du moment on Friday or Saturday.

But it certainly would have never covered the cost of a meal at Dublin's most infamous restaurant of the era, The Mirabeau. It was located in the harbour-front suburb of Dun Laoghaire. From the outside, it was an unprepossessing establishment, housed in a small seaside villa. The food, by all accounts, was serious - and it was one of the few places in Dublin back then which specialised in classic French cuisine. But what gave The Mirabeau its well-publicised reputation was the fact that its menu had no prices. You ordered, you ate, and then the maître d' presented you with the bill ... which, according to rumour, was based largely on the whim of the man in charge: whether or not he liked your face, your deportment towards his staff, his fanciful mood on the night in question, the state of the restaurant's bank balance, and half a dozen other apocryphal reasons.

On average, a meal for two was around £100 - a shocking amount of money back then. Sometimes, however, the bill could, allegedly, be twice as much. Then again, if complaints were lodged about the exorbitant final addition, the man in charge would (according to hearsay) frequently tear the bill up. Then he'd inform the remonstrating customers to vamoose, and never show their faces in his establishment again. Indeed, back in the late Seventies, Mirabeau anecdotes were commonplace in Dublin - because, of course, only a small echelon of the community had any real money ... and therefore there was much sarcastic mileage to be made out of the absurdities of the nouveau riche. At the time, Ireland was one of the poorest countries within the European community. There were large pockets of Dublin (and of rural Ireland) which were positively Dickensian when it came to mendicancy and social conditions. Even the Irish middle classes were, by and large, living on overdrafts, and feeling endlessly strapped.

No wonder, therefore, that The Mirabeau exerted such an undue fascination. It symbolised conspicuous consumption, and a Marie Antoinette vision of life. To me, however, places like The Mirabeau succeeded because they played on the ongoing human need for one-upmanship, a need that was largely borne out of insecurity. No doubt, a night there made someone feel endlessly superior ("Look at me: I can actually afford these absurd prices"). But it also subjected them to ritualistic humiliation. After all, the entire meal was overshadowed by the fear that, when the bill was presented, an extortionate amount of money would be demanded ... at which point the question arose, would you display parvenu sang-froid and simply pay the thing without flinching? Or would you raise manifold objections, thus potentially incurring the public wrath of the man in charge; a dressing-down which would let everyone else in the restaurant know that, at heart, you were seriously déclassé?

Any way you looked at it, an evening at The Mirabeau was predicated on a simple philosophy: one way or another, this meal is going to hurt.

And yet, the place was constantly packed. Because, of course, to mention in conversation that you had actually dined at The Mirabeau was to inform the internecine little world of Dublin that you were, verily, a player.

Or a fool.

 

I got thinking about The Mirabeau again quite recently, when I tried to make a reservation at a well-known, highly praised restaurant in London. It was a serious, big deal night out kind of place, where the tasting menu would run to a cool £65 per head. My wife - an ardent foodie - dropped a hint that she'd like to try it for her birthday. Having heard that tables were hard to come by, I called three months - yes, three months - before the date in question.

"I'm sorry, sir," said the person taking reservations, "but we're fully booked for that day."

"You've got to be kidding," I said.

"I'm completely serious, sir," the individual said, sounding like he was holding four aces in our little hand of verbal poker, "But we can put you on a waiting list."

"I'll get back to you," I said, and phoned my wife at her office. When I explained that there was no table at this restaurant for her birthday 12 weeks from now, her reaction was very no-nonsense: "Then fuck them."

A few weeks later, I got a transatlantic phone call from some American friends, saying that they were coming to London (16 weeks from now), and they'd love to take us out to a much-lauded West End restaurant, which they'd read about in Condé Nast Traveler (or some such publication). Once again, I picked up the phone. Once again, this establishment informed me that, alas, there was not a table to be had for the night in question ... though they could fit us in at the unsociable, farm-hand dining hour of 5.30pm. But when it came to obtaining a table for a prime-time slot like 8pm in four month's time ...

"Sorry, sir ... but would you like to join our waiting list?"

A few days later, I happened to mention this conversation to a friend - someone who prided herself on being plugged in to le tout Londres. She actually laughed at me.

"Well, of course, you're not going to get a table there just by calling them up," she said, sounding scornful. "What you need to do is call the restaurant's press agent and tell them who you are. Then they'll get you on The List."

"What list?"

"The List," she said, as if I was a social ignoramus. "Better yet, get your literary agent to call the press agent, and inform her about your books. You'll be on The List before you know it."

"My literary agent is there to negotiate book deals, not to get me a table at restaurants," I said.

"I'm simply telling you how these things work," she said. "If you want a table on demand, then you've got to play the game." At which point, I heard myself saying: "But it's only food." To which my friend tartly replied: "Now that's a silly observation."

 

My friend was right. Food is not simply food. Food is a symbolic entity. Along with shelter and warmth, it is the basic essential of human life. If we do not eat, we die. If we eat badly, we also die ... early. That much-quoted phrase, "You are what you eat," doesn't simply denote the way in which food affects your physical and mental state. It is also emblematic of your economic class, your education, your aspirations, your current financial status, your insecurities and obsessions, your self-worth, your sense of personal discipline ... or lack thereof.

Consider, for example, the response most of us have when we see a "person of size" (to use the current politically correct terminology) waddle down the street. We rarely look with sympathy at a fat person. Because, in our obsessively image-conscious culture, anyone of such proportions is a fleshy testament to over-indulgence, lack of control and all-purpose gluttony. More tellingly, we all know that (with a few exceptions) someone who weighs 18 stone didn't get there because of a dicky thyroid gland. Rather, expanding to his current corpulent shape took a lot of work, a lot of food. To most of us, a fat person is someone who cannot control his appetite, who has to consume far more than they need. No wonder that villains in Victorian novels - the sort of parsimonious swines who evicted widows and children from tenement dwellings just before Christmas - were inevitably overfed. No wonder that the avaricious robber barons of the early 20th century were often accused of having "an insatiable appetite". And when it comes to the corporate raiders of today, the term "fat cat" often applies.

But gluttony is not just an indicator of rapacity. As the rather hefty Cyril Connolly noted: "Obesity is a mental state, a disease brought on by boredom and disappointment." What a pity Connolly himself died in 1974. Had he lived another 25 years, he would have seen one of his other famous pronouncements become a stock-in-trade expression on all those Jerry Springer-style programmes that now so dominate daytime television. Because every time Springer hosts one of his Fat Women Who Can't Wipe confessional extravaganzas, some poor, circumferentially challenged soul stands up and talks about how - deep within the layers of all her flab - "there is a thin person trying to emerge" (a variation on Connolly's self-deprecating comment: "Imprisoned in every fat man, a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out.")

When I was researching a book on the American Bible Belt (In God's Country), I spent a morning in the Christian Weight Watching Clinic on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. About a dozen very large women stood in a circle with a "Christian facilitator", held hands, and prayed, asking the good Lord to lead them not into temptation, and away from that quart of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia. But what was extraordinary about the philosophy of this "clinic" was the way in which high-calorie food was regarded as a form of satanic temptation. One woman talked about how, just that morning, she encountered the devil - in the form of half a dozen doughnuts.

"I ate a real simple diet breakfast - a boiled egg, a glass of grapefruit juice, black coffee. But then Satan started talking to me. Tempting me. Telling me I really wanted one of those honey-glazed doughnuts I love so much. Well, I kept praying to Jesus, beseeching him to give me the strength to resist the doughnuts. But Satan ..." Her voice cracked here. " ... Satan, he was awfully persuasive. Next thing I knew, I was in my car, on my way to Dunkin' Donuts, all the time the tears runnin' down my face, 'cause I knew I was giving in to Satan. 'Cause I knew I was letting Jesus down. But I couldn't stop myself. Satan had me. Satan wouldn't let me be ... " At this point, she began to blubber. One of her fellow Weight Watchers enfolded her in a big, comforting hug and asked: "Did you eat the doughnut?"

"Not just one doughnut," the woman wailed. "Six. Satan got me to eat six doughnuts."

The fellow Weight Watcher thought about this for a moment, then asked: "Were they all honey glazed? Or did you mix 'n' match?"

Fatness, of course, is largely caused by bad diet. In turn, bad diet is considered something of an economic indicator. Fatty foods - fish fingers, chips, white bread, Mars Bars, crisps and so forth - are basically regarded as prolétaire ... just as rocket, fresh parmesan, muesli, designer water, pesto et al, have now become emblems of professional middle classdom. Shopping in my local south London Marks & Spencer, I still play a dumb little mental game which could be called Guess Their Story - in which I size up the contents of my fellow shopper's trollies, and try to work out a scenario about their current circumstances. So, the grey, edgy fortysomething guy in a suit (with deep rings under his eyes and badly chewed cuticles) is undoubtedly something in the City and a recently divorced dad, reverting to M&S variations on comforting school food to see him through a lot of bleak nights, as his basket is filled with easily microwavable versions of shepherd's pie and bread-and-butter pudding. Nearby, there is a slightly plump woman in her early 30s, dressed in a suit that could use a pressing - attractive, but a little too made-up, very conscious of her weight, yet also in need of sensible comfort food, as she's buying a 95% Fat-Free Chargrilled Vegetable Pizza, a 95% Fat-Free Couscous Salad and two of those small flip-top cans of M&S Australian Chardonnay. There's also a small carton of 95% Fat-Free Stem Ginger Biscuits, making me wonder if she'll exercise self-control and just eat one of the biscuits, or if, having just split up with her boyfriend, she'll scoff all six in the package, and reach for the second can of flip-top Chardonnay.

Well, I did warn you that it was a dumb game. After all, the woman I just described might have been in a perfectly happy, stable relationship (and simply having a night in on her own). And the divorced dad might have been an unfettered single man, simply suffering (on the night I saw him) from the usual urban enervation which grips us all. The point here is a simple one: food has become so totemistic that we all use it to classify ourselves and each other. Consider the very American phrase: "He's so damn white bread." Whereas in Britain, white bread has class connotations (trÿs prolétaire), in the States the expression is used to denote a bland, dull, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant kind of guy, who lives in a bland, dull, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant kind of suburb.

Similarly, a writer friend perfectly summed up an era and its aspiring middle-class mentality when he described Seventies Surrey as "The Dubonnet and prawn cocktail county". And my very Upper-West-Side- Manhattan mother recently castigated the dullness of life on the other side of Central Park, by referring to the Upper East Side as "vanilla ice-cream".

The symbolic nature of food also extends into the political arena. Remember when John Major scored one of his very few public relations coups by stopping off to eat at a Little Chef on his way to Chequers? Remember when Tony Blair was getting a considerable amount of stick for plotting the future of the Labour Party in the extra-virginolive-oil confines of Granita in Islington?

Meanwhile, across the water, every pop psychologist was making the usual connections between Mr Clinton's proclivities for frottage and vaginally-moistened cigars with his enormous need for junk food - and his ability to gorge on corn dogs (that's a deep-fried frankfurter for those of you not educated in white-trash American cuisine), nachos with cheddar- cheese dip, and countless Big Macs. He may not have inhaled dope while at Oxford, but Clinton certainly has a reputation for inhaling high-calorie crap. And this propensity - coupled with his well-documented sexual follies - has led many to the conclusion: this man cannot control his appetites.

Controlling your appetite, of course, is something that society constantly encourages us to embrace ... especially these days, when there has been an exceptional backlash against all forms of excess. We are now told that we should eschew all tobacco products. Alcohol is to be handled in moderation. And when it comes to food, we must be sensible. We must think about the cancer-zapping qualities inherent in tomatoes. We must embrace the high-colonic attributes of All-Bran, while at the same time resisting the vein-clogging properties of butter, animal fats, and anything associated with a deep-fat fryer.

Intriguingly enough, this rise in health-Nazi asceticism has taken place at a time when the whole idea of eating out has become such an implicit part of contemporary consumer life. Thirty years ago, restaurant culture was hardly widespread outside of certain major metropolitan centres. Like air travel, eating out was something that only the wellheeled could afford. The family meal was still a daily ritual in a large majority of households. The choice of goods in shops and markets reflected a nation's parochial proclivities. The idea of walking into a London corner shop and buying a packet of fresh pasta, or something as exotic as chÿvre, was unthinkable.

Now, we all eat out. We are all bombarded by choice: both in the range and variety of restaurants, and in the globalisation of our gastronomic expectations. More tellingly, food has become an adjunct of the entertainment industry. The exploits of celebrity chefs are chronicled in the popular and broadsheet press - and the more temperamental the culinary artist, the better the copy. We eat and drink in franchises - not just of the fast-food variety, but also when it comes to generic French brasserie cuisine (Café Rouge) or designer coffee (Starbucks), or good, standard-fare Italian (Pizza Express). And when we want to impress somebody - or remind ourselves of our ability to spend money stupidly - we can always book a table at one of those places where the menu reads like a primer in aesthetics, and where the food appears to be travelling under a series of assumed names. In my book, Chasing Mammon, I described a dinner with an old college friend in exactly this sort of high-rent Manhattan establishment; a place chosen by my chum Toby for its snob value.

"A collection of salad greens arrived, calling itself 'hydroponic lettuce with crÿme fraiche and dill'. The monkfish showed up incognito under a nutmeg and juniper berry glaze, embellished with organic mange tout. Even the lemon sorbet was using an alias of citron frappé steeped in Stolichnaya. Eating here was like being cast in the role of an immigration officer at a contentious border post, and coming to the conclusion that every identity was suspect, that everything presented to you was a heavily disguised version of something else."

Who hasn't tried to impress someone with an overpriced meal at an overpriced joint? Who hasn't attempted to appear knowledgeable about, say, the nuances of Tuscan cooking, or whether a '95 Graves is worth uncorking? In contemporary metropolitan life, food plays to our manifold insecurities - our quest for an image, an identity to call one's own ... and our need to fill the time with endless vicarious pleasures.

And food is probably the most disposable of all consumer goods. Because though you may enjoy it at the time, you void it several hours after taking it in. Like everything else in modern life, it has become weighty with meaning, connotation, social subtext. And yet, at heart, it is just food ... something I was reminded of while visiting Rome and eating at a well-known haunt of the local cognoscenti, right near the Spanish Steps.

Seated opposite me was a father and son. Papa was in his late seventies - an éminence grise of diminutive stature, dressed immaculately in an expensive suit. His son was in his mid 40s - as diminutive and expensively tailored as his father. Like Papa, he too looked as if he was a formidable customer (someone who knew where all the bodies were buried). Like Papa, he also had an impressive roll of fat sprouting from beneath his chin.

As they started to eat, I began to understand exactly how their respective rolls of fat had been fuelled and sustained, as the meal that arrived over the next two hours was of Brobdingnagian proportions: to start, two plates of olives and two baskets of bread (with a Campari and soda apiece), followed by two plates of fried squid (and a bottle of Frascati), two plates of pasta, and two vast, blood-drippingly rare steaks (accompanied by roasted potatoes, a selection of grilled vegetables and a serious bottle of Chianti). There was a 10-minute pause in the proceedings before dessert showed up: two large portions of tiramisu, followed by two extensive selections from the cheese board ... and to conclude, grappa and coffee, and a handful of Italian biscotti.

I couldn't believe the gluttony I was witnessing. As I called for my own bill, I asked the waiter: "Are they regular customers?"

"Our best customers," he said with a smile.

"I'm sure. I've never seen such a vast meal."

"Nah, it's typical for them."

"You must be kidding," I said, "How can they deal with so much food?"

The waiter looked at me as if I was the dumbest man alive. And said: "It's simple. They like to eat."

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