I am in smoked meat paradise this week. Kansas City is perhaps the focal point of this marvelous cuisine – whether you’re a fan of Carolina or Texas styles, KC is a defining setting in the near-religious sects that defined American BBQ. There are places where it is served by waiters in white jackets and places where the meat is smoked under corrugated metal roofs out back. Road crews and guys in three-pieces suits rub shoulders and revel in the scent of smoke, sauce, and dry rub.
If the rituals of eating out have become less grand for the mass of people over time, it still retains its aura as an “event.” The grand aspects are retained in expeditions to restaurants both simple and offensively overpriced. We spend not so much for the food as for the entertainment value and the naughty thrill of being (we hope) treated like more than average Joes in the routine of daily life. The family outing to the local BBQ joint still has an air of preparation and difference; it can still be used to coax youngsters to eat, and provide an air of difference so as to be “restorative.” Even the necessary lunch for workers who cannot eat at home has been made into a ritual event by the relatively affluent among them.
“Doing lunch” in the business world is regarded as a kind of sacred operation where, the mythology has it, the most important deals are made. A puritanical campaign against the “three-martini lunch” by the then President Carter had Americans as roused and angry as they had been over the tax on tea that sent their ancestors to their muskets. The business-meal tax deduction was fought for with passion, and the best the government could do was to reduce its value by 20%. There may not be a free lunch, but it sure as hell is deductible. Very little of this has to do with business, of course, and everything to do with status. Just to be having business lunches at all marks one down as a success in the world of business, for only “executives” (the new order of aristocracy) can have them.
At the other end of the scale, reverse snobbery asserts itself in the positive embrace of “junk food,” otherwise condemned as non-nutritious, vulgar, or even dangerous to our health. Junk food can be socially acceptable if indulged in as part of a nostalgia for childhood: the time when we were allowed such indulgences as “treats.” So giant ice cream sundaes with five different scoops of ice cream, maraschino cherries, pecans, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream; sloppy joes with french fries and gravy; milk shakes and root beer floats; hot dogs with mustard, ketchup, and relish – all these are still OK if treated as a kind of eating performance. Hot dogs at football games, or ice cream at the shore are more or less de rigeur. The settings in which these are eaten vary from the simple outdoors to elaborate ice cream shops with bright plastic furniture and a battery of machines for producing the right combinations of fat, sugar, and starch. Ostensibly these are for children, but adults eat there with no self-consciousness and without the excuse of accompanying children. But for adults, as for children, these places are for “treats,” and so always remain outside the normal rules of nutrition and moderation.
We continue to make eating out special when we can. Romantic dinners, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, retirement dinners, and all such celebrations are taken out of the home or the workplace and into the arena of public ritual. Only the snootiest restaurants will not provide a cake and singing waiters for the birthday boy. The family outing is specially catered for by special establishments – “Mom’s Friendly Family Restaurant” can be found in every small American town (although the wise saying has it that we should never eat at a place called Mom’s). But even in the hustle and bustle of these family establishments the individuality of the family is still rigidly maintained. No family will share a table with another. This is very different to the eating out of the still communalistic East. Lionel Tiger, in his fascinating description of Chinese eating, describes how people are crowded together in restaurants – strangers at the same table all eating from communal dishes. And far from having a reservation system, restaurants encourage a free-for-all in which those waiting in line look over the diners to find those close to finishing, then crowd behind their tables and urge them on.
The democratization of eating out is reflected in the incredible burgeoning of fast food joints and their spread beyond the United States. McDonald’s is the fastest-growing franchise in Japan, and has extended its operations to China. When it opened its first franchise in Beijing, it sold so many burgers so fast that the cash registers burned out. Kentucky Fried Chicken has now opened in Beijing, and has become the chic place to eat in Berlin. These are humble foods – a ground meat patty that may or may not have originated in Hamburg; a sausage of dubious content only loosely connected to Frankfurt; deep fried chicken that was a food of the rural American South; a cheese and tomato pie that probably came from Naples. But they have taken the world by storm in one of the greatest eating revolutions since the discovery of the potato. In a curious twist, two indigenous foods of the East are rapidly turning into the fast food specials of the yuppies who would not be seen dead eating the proletarian hamburger: the Japanese raw-fish sushi, and the Chinese dim sum lunch.
The proletariat has evolved its own forms of eating out. The transport café in Britain with its huge portions of bacon and eggs; the French bistro, which was a working-class phenomenon before reverse snobbery turned it into bourgeois chic, with its wonderful casseroles and bifstekpommefrit; the Italian trattoria with its cheap seafood, again gentrified in foreign settings; the incomparable diner in America; the grand fish-and-chip warehouse in the north of England; the beer-and-sausage halls of Germany; the open-air food markets in all the warm countries. If we could do a speeded-up film of social change in the last fifty years we would see a grand ballet in which eating moved out of the home and into the public arena on a scale which makes rural depopulation look like a trickle. Sociologists, as usual, have still even to figure out that it is happening, much less come up with an explanation.
To be literate in the world of eating out, to be even ahead of the trends (knowing that fantastic little Portuguese bistro that no one has discovered), is to demonstrate that one is on top of the complex cosmopolitan civilization of which eating out has come to be a metaphor. And so, it’s time to start thinking about which BBQ join to hit for lunch.