Thursday, May 24, 2007


Americans eat out more than any other people. Talk of “family values” notwithstanding, the pleasure of cooking and eating in one’s own home progressively gives way to, on the one hand, the myth of convenience, with which people buy prepared foods to be eaten at home, or novelty, and eat out. This does not deal with the pitiful remnants of New York’s home cooking culture, now confined mainly for people too poor to eat out, immigrants for whom cooking still connotes a profound pleasure, and upper-middle class aficionados who clip recipes from cooking magazines. Home cooking in this country is like letter writing: a dying art. To follow the analogy, eating out has exploded like e-mail. Once the experience and feelings of cooking and eating one’s own food have died – like the pleasure of crafting a letter – eating out has taken off, especially for people “with means.”

The picture that emerges from the pages of Zagat’s Guides is, like e-mail, a picture of a world of social beings both partitioned and linked by a technology. In the case of dining, this technology is money. The restaurants that make it into the guide qualify as places where one “dines.” In a crowded, hectic city, the greatest marker of privilege is to separate oneself from social and spatial friction: sinking back into a comfortable chair in a restaurant’s fantasy-ride into relaxation and daydreaming, a daydream of power enhanced by the service of a temporary servant, a waitperson. This is to dine: to use money to rent a bit of ambience, whether the theme be old Havana or new Tokyo, to withdraw from the hassle – the emotional inconvenience – of human relations. The privilege is the privilege of withdrawal. To isolate oneself among servants subcontracted from their primary employer, the restaurant owner. And then to surround oneself with rented dreams of other lands or other times. Even if one dines with others, the interaction is still mediated by and dependent on the “quality” (read: subservience) of service, the “atmosphere” (read: anything but here and now), and finally, the food. The food is a product of invisible rented labor, the chef.

As the venerable saying goes, “Them what gots, gets.” No doubt if I had more money, I would be in those places too, instead of back in the 55 degree studio I share with my brother Rob, doing my best to tease new tastes out of lentils. But not having money, my brother and I have learned different kinds of pleasures in eating out, pleasures in some cases fundamentally opposite the Zagatsian values of withdrawal, paid subservience, and rented atmosphere. These subterranean pleasures are the pleasures of an egalitarian contact – friction, or camaraderie, but never withdrawal on your part, never the political numbness and social oversensitivity that results from frequent “dining out.”

My brother and I write this guide to assert the positive virtue of necessity, to declare the pleasure of an eating experience that is more social than fantasy, and to question the middle class values the underlie Zagats and guides like them. Eating out can be an experience of opening the eyes to the world, not shutting the world out. Eating out can be a social and culinary adventure in the battered landscape of free market New York, rather than a “cloistered dining,” which views all restaurants, cuisines, and waitstaff, as products to be standardized and ranked for purchase. No wonder people who “dine out” a lot cannot suppress a sigh of ennui: no matter how many swanky places they eat at, they all come down to a certain mysterious sameness of experience. That sameness is a sameness of form, a sameness of market orientation and positioning in the social structure, a sameness in a world viewed as a product to be rented and used – no matter how bright the colors or how deep the bows.

Eating cheap focuses more on the concrete joys of eating more than on the canned fantasies of the restaurant. Meals in diners are food removed from their packaging, seen in a natural social light. People met in cheap eateries are people met in the struggle to make it, and they are gathered more or less as equals, rather than as diners gathered in the cause and project of an exclusive, anti-social, escapism. This escapism includes maintaining a distance from other diners, one’s social equals. It is funny to think of escapism as a “cause,” since its goal is avoidance of non-money mediated human proximity and contact, but the tenacious dedication with which many people “with means” seek to evacuate themselves from egalitarian dealings with members of other classes – (ie, where poor are not paid to serve them) – can only be categorized as a permanent movement.

To refer to the experience of eating cheap as a “simple pleasure” is not quite right either. The phrase “simple pleasure” implies a pleasure related to the simplicity of an activity, and it can carry a patronizing, or perhaps a romanticizing tone of an activity long-gone. I would prefer to call eating cheap an “open pleasure,” pleasurable because eating is not closed off to people of lower class, the world and its ruling structures are not tastefully disguised as (often colonial) scenery, and the social realities of class and ethnic domination are not hidden. Eating cheap is the opposite of cloistered eating, and envigorates eating with the cold air of reality, where cloistered dining stifles one within the soft music of a rented fantasy.

The moral content of this approach to eating experience is obvious. But eating cheap is chiefly about a pleasure, not about a morality per se. This open pleasure is one not at odds with the moral inkling that the class structure, in which privileges are apportioned, is abuse of power systematized into legal and moral structures. As long as such a class-based system of privileges draws on its own versions of “morality” to back up its activities, then any challenge to such a system cannot be ignorant of the moral underpinnings of dining out. The major assumption here is not that a moral approach can be tacked onto an activity we must do anyhow, but that a moral-political consciousness leads in the end to a more pleasurable experience. The reasons for this increased pleasure lie not in being smug and self-satisfied at one’s knowledge; rather, they lie with the principle that opening oneself more to the world with the help of moral-political principles cannot help but make one happier. The world perhaps loses its rose tint. But it gains the fierce sunshine of truth, a sunshine which marks one’s experience of the world in greater relief. The shadows may be harsher under this autumn morning sun, but one knows without any doubt that one is awake and alive on planet earth one feels one’s limbs move and one’s thoughts and feelings delve and soar -- rather than dozing in some fuzzy glorification of Old (colonial) Shanghai.

My brother works at a movie theatre; I am a Columbia grad student. We came upon the idea of this book one morning as we compared favorite eating spots. Why not create a guide which affirms the positive values of eating cheap? Why not write a guide which describes eateries below the standardized dining radar? Eating cheap is not simply the negative leftover or inverse of Zagat’s-type dining; it contains its own experience, the kernels of which, if expressed right, can crystallize an alternative philosophy of eating out. But rarely do they find explicit articulation in media. This expression is what we seek.

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