Shut up and eat? We could use less formality in our restaurants for starters...

Food, or the way we relate to it, is making us anxious, says Samuel Muston

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

The latest issue of The New Yorker magazine is an interesting fish. Its nominal concern is food. But within its pages is an essay by John Lanchester, the former food critic of The Observer and latterly The Guardian, in which he argues, over 2,708 deftly chosen words, that foodie-ness has gone too far and that we in the West have come to consider the food we eat as a form of self-expression – a sort of Everyman's easel and paints – and that really it has all gone too far.

It is a lovely read, with more gems than on one of Barbara Cartland's necklaces. (A favourite: "[My mother] was the only person I know who learned to make beef stroganoff as part of the decompression process after running a convent school in Madras.") He also finds time to rail against modern metropolitan culinary mores, complaining of "too much hype, too much page space, too many programming hours, too many features" – too much of everything, really.

At times, he seems to be complaining that food culture is moving faster than his, not yet old but no longer young, legs can keep step with; he seems to yearn for a simpler, pre-internet, pre-Jamie Oliver age. He is right in some ways, but I fundamentally disagree that we are living in food-sodden times, and that it is to our detriment. To me, food culture is a benign weapon in a splenetic, rushed world – a moment of peace and repose, pleasingly fixed for the time it takes to cook your lasagne or eat your steak frites. A defence against the grind of life.

But there is one topic which I agree with him on: food, or rather the way we relate to it, is making us anxious. Never mind the television and the home kitchen, though; the real site of it – the forward trench, if you like – is restaurants. At times, they seem to have been created to dry the mouth, palpitate the heart and make you feel smaller than the grain of the organic-biodynamic sea salt on the table.

 

Not long ago, the worries were fewer. There was the dress code and the endless expenditure of thought over what "smart" meant – to wear a jacket? Jeans permissible? That was sort of a given. As were the ministrations over the wine list, the groping around in the dark until you had correctly identified the second cheapest, and then the hurried saying of its name so that the waiter didn't figure out that – shame! – you don't speak French.

But now, a whole new world of anxiety has opened up before us, a sort of Moses-like sea parting but with only sweaty palms ahead. Now, we have to consider restaurants not just on their quality but whether we can be arsed to stand outside them for 30 minutes waiting for a table – and you would think that the answer would be a straight "no", but then comes temptation, then the cognitive dissonance – Should I? Shouldn't I? – and then the overwhelming desire to go and down a strong drink.

Then there is the coat-fandango, that ever-present amuse-bouche. The other day, I twice had to rebuff an offer to take my coat before I sat down – I was there only for a quick lunch. And then the whole "Would you like to taste the wine, sir?" thing when you are drinking a bottle of £16 screw-top red. I am yet to be convinced that either formality is absolutely necessary.

More pernicious, though, is the assiduous one-upmanship of people when it comes to dining out: "I went there; have you gone there? OH, you shouldn't have had that." If it is self-expression, it is self-expression of the dreariest sort. "I eat, therefore I am," they seem to be saying. Well, as the headline on Lanchester's piece says: "Shut up and eat".

Comments