Imagining a Social History of the Restaurant

By Ismail Lagardien

7 March 2012. A couple of years ago I created a food blog. After a few weeks of writing about food – from my own cooking, to kitchen appliances and chemicals in our food chain – I began to feel self-conscious about the project. As a radical political economist with quite a deep commitment to social justice and with specific interests in inequality, poverty, hunger, need, marginalisation and structural violence, I felt that my blog would be yet another meaningless voice among the foodie nattering class; like a Gordon Ramsay, but without any of the skills, the looks, the money or the bollocks.

I closed the food blog and reconsidered an idea I had been toying with for several years; a literary work on the social history of the restaurant. However, since there was no book advance forthcoming and, well, I had a full teaching load and a doctoral dissertation to complete, I continued to toy (and toil).  The main question(s) I wanted to address in the book was how we reached the point where communal eating has become an apparent farce, a spectacle of consumerism and pretence. How did restaurants become the most ubiquitous public places for communal eating?  How was the kitchen, that most common, intimate and familiar among places of human life for as long as we care to remember, replaced with packaged food stocked on shelves, with salty longevity? How did hastily assembled “meals-on-the-go” and entrées presented then served in restaurants, replace food that is meant to nourish, replenish and help sustain human life?

There are, of course, very many books that explore the histories of food and the things we grow or farm in order to feed ourselves. However, in my imaginary social history of the restaurant, I keep coming back to Eco’s observation in “Travels in Hyperreality,” about restaurants in advanced capitalist societies as places that offer diners evidence of their own “situation of ‘affluence’… [where] …. the customer will have ‘more and more,’ and can wish nothing further”. My imaginary history – I say imaginary because a have not done any research on the matter and really don’t want to use the word “hypothesis” – starts with the Enclosures movement in Britain and the industrial revolution.

At the time of the Enclosures, communal rights and access to land was converted into “severalty” where the owner of the land had sole access and control thereto. The Enclosures changed the social structure of rural England and Wales. The wealthy, it seems to me, woke up one day and said to the poor: “You know what; we own this land so get the fuck off it and come back only when we ask you to come and work for us.” The Enclosure movement was described by the historian EP Thompson as “a plain enough case of class robbery”. That act of enclosure, I imagine, set in motion a retreat, I would think, into personalised spaces, away from communal activities, such as eating together as part of communal activity. The British example is, of course, rather pertinent because it is this model of private property and capitalist ownership that was extended across the world on the back of empire-building and the expansion of the industrial revolution’s reorganisation of society. Whereas private property (let us call it greed, selfishness and accumulation, just for a laugh), might well be part of the privatisation of communal eating, the Bolshvik response, fantastically idealistic as it was, turned out to be a gastronomic failure, according to Mary Ellen Snodgrass’ “Encyclopedia of Kitchen History”.

The Russian Bolsheviks placed an emphasis on the communal kitchen and dining room as an essential of universal equality. At the time, Marxist, more appropriately, Soviet idealism infused true believers “with a delight in communal cooking and state-run cafeterias at the same time that it shamed the private diner”. Restaurants were denounced as “a waste of resources catering to the elite at the expense of the poor” and “the best way to manage equipment, food, fuel, and labour was to cook large amounts at once to serve many people,” Snodgrass explained.

The collectivised kitchen (and household chores, in general) was meant to liberate women, and replace individual homes with communal laundries, kitchens, and dining rooms. At the First All-Russian Congress of Women in Moscow in November 1918 Alexandra Kollontai, of the women’s section of the Russian Community Party, greeted delegates with the proclamation that communism would doom to extinction all individualised housework that reduced women to slaving over stoves. In the pamphlet Obshchestvennyi Stol (The Public Table, 1919), Kollontai glorified communal dining as “a cross between a temple uniting a community of worshippers and a cosy family hearth.” It’s too bad, according to Snodgrass, that the Proletkult clubs of the time produced inedible slop in quite dingy and desperate eating halls. This is, to be sure, not the entire story….

Nonetheless, today, in the late capitalist period, restaurants seem have become fabrications to replace the real, and are expected to be more exciting more beautiful, more inspiring and more interesting than the real. Most recently I travelled in South America where, in the outer reaches of Amazonia, I had beans and rice with fried fish, all of which was cooked outdoors, on wood fires, by the side of a river that ran black with tannins. The sensibilities of people in suburban Sandton, or on the Upper East Side of Manhattan may preclude eating fried fish using water from a stream which (upstream, I should point out) served, also, as the main source of water for remote villagers to bathe themselves – and wash their clothes! Recreating such (real) conditions would probably not “sell” in Sandton. Food tends to “sell” when it is prepared and presented under more pristine, sanitary and hyper-real conditions, in restaurants presented as “better than” reality to the extent that they become what Umberto Eco might describe as “absolute fakes”.

I no longer have the food blog, and as an out of work writer and academic, I have other priorities that preclude writing a book on a social history of the restaurant. Looking for a job really is a full-time job. What I do know, from the historical record, is that the first restaurant in the world, was opened in Paris in 1765, by a certain “Monsieur Boulanger,” and the first (and only) dish he served was sheep’s feet simmered in white sauce. This first restaurant had a single purpose; to serve food – nothing else – a novelty at the time. Traditionally, people ate their meals at home or, when travelling, they would eat at an inn. Boulanger built his fame on the claim that his sheep’s feet dish was a restorative (the French word for which is restaurant), a claim that a local food guild, which held a monopoly on the sale of cooked food, challenged unsuccessfully. Alas, Boulanger’s court victory led to a proliferation of restaurants across France and… to most parts of the world. Not much of that came from my imagination. I still think that capitalist accumulation has something to tell us about restaurants, but that’s just an hypothesis.

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