The new friend

See original imageMy temerity in telling someone the other night about being a “new friend” occasioned further pondering.

The urgent problem is the explosion of virtual friends produced by the start-up business model: become biggest first. Accordingly, Skype urges: “Tell your friends what you’re up to,” and: “Why not post your own status update?” Rotten Tomatoes, I think it is, “can’t believe” I have no friends, so click here. I can imagine the desperation, loneliness, and paranoia of exclusion with a low friendship count, and the never-ending shower of everyone else’s good-times snaps.

This increasingly heavy parade of prompts, pop-ups, pop-unders and peep-outs cruelly parodies social life. Twitter boasts: “Tweets are the basic atomic building block of all things.” Talk about propaganda, as arrogant as “The real thing” and “To inspire and nurture the human spirit“. The so-called “social” media are essentially marketing vehicles, giving the little people a fantasy of competing in an advertising free-for-all. Perhaps some people keep usefully in touch, if they have the time. But the marketing barrage packs us into silos, where some of my “friends” punctuate with “f—ing” in a desperate quest for attention. Need I remind you that Trump tweets?

I compose these thoughts on pen and paper at breakfast at the Deux Magots at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They no longer seem to serve fresh orange juice here, but, oh, the tartine and butter.

See original imageA couple of older women work on laptops, and one is now on a mobile – she has a friend, or maybe it’s work. A young tourist couple come in for double consumption – photographing their breakfast, before touching it. Are these zillion photos as expendable as Zuckerberg’s 75 million followers?

At least momentarily untied from virtuality, a pair of business types are greeted familiarly by a waiter, and enjoy a quick croissant, espresso and each other’s company. An aged gentlemen with a big scarf never takes his eyes off his newspapers throughout the hour or so we’re there. He remains glued to a declining medium that seems both wonderfully curated, and multi-vocal.

Altogether, to the gentle clatter of glass, silver and porcelain, a scattering of café-goers read newspapers, maps, screens, a notebook, and occasionally each other’s faces. Even the digitally-linked seem reasonably contented, presumably because a table across the room feels closer than up to a satellite via mass-monitoring and back.

See original imageHow odd, a tour group files in a side entrance and out through the heavy revolving door (which waiters manage with a packed tray on the arm), photographing the carvings of the two oriental-looking magi, their backs permanently turned on each other. My impression is that tour groups often lead to lasting friendships, people having taken meals together.

I don’t think we’re properly introduced until we’ve dined together. That “new friend” comment was based on two good dinners.

The sound of dining

Place Dauphine on 1739 Turgot map of Paris - KyotoU.jpgHave I told you about my introduction to Paris? This was probably in late-summer 1973. Whatever the exact date, it was a warm night. I’d been anxious on the Channel ferry, on the trains and in the Metro, where my jitters were worsened by my first submersion in a foreign language. I came up at the Cité stop, walked around the corner, found my former journalist colleague, who showed me my couch under the apartment window, which I opened to the summer evening in the Place Dauphine.

The sound of that (triangular) square will never leave me. Even in the middle of a cooler day, forty-something years later, it remains enchanting. Away from the traffic, the buildings somehow gently echo care and delight. On that night, people dined outside three or four restaurants in the square, so that I heard through the trees cutlery, wineglasses and conversations.

Ever since that epiphany, I have paid attention to the sounds of dining – and taken restaurants even more seriously. I have generally opposed piped music. When I put on a recording at home, it’s as if to fill in for missing tables. Admittedly, I can almost accept a restaurateur intruding music until two or three tables have made it a restaurant.

The other day, I was almost the only diner in Zorba restaurant, which was all done out in blue and white, and I must admit to enjoying the only slightly Eurovisionised version of Theodorakis (his exiled group’s Sydney concert is another treasured memory). Greek songs have a longing for home, almost reflected in yesterday’s plates.

Back forty-or-so years, no Paris restaurant piped any music, and the best ones still don’t. Marking the Alpine crossing to Italy, restaurants would either have the television full-blast, or nothing.

Probably even before I got to Europe, at an Italian place on Parramatta Road, the level increased steadily as everyone shouted louder to be heard. The waiter would whistle shrilly, silencing everyone, until the level rose again. These days, some Sydney places seem popular not despite, but because of, rowdiness. Restaurant reviewers already warn about deafening places, but there is more to be said.

Not that getting the noise-level right is easy. Our restaurant in the Adelaide Hills could get too noisy, so that after adding to couple of quilts to the walls, architect friend Stefan suggested lining underneath a central serving table with egg-cartons. It helped, except that the cat clawed them down (that’s another story). At its best, the dining room enjoyed a gentle hum.

Increasingly, one pays for the ability to talk. Or one sits outside. As well as the Place Dauphine, and then Ma Bourgogne in the then much emptier Place des Vosges, I have dined in the open-air in Rome, Siena and Todi, and under Bolognese porticos (they have nearly 40 kms of them). One year, I estimated we dined more than 200 times out on the terrace of our present home.

As fast as Paris restaurants have banished cigarettes (putting too many chefs on display in the street, smoking), some have introduced mood music.

At least the modest ones we’ve been mainly getting to tend to be quite crammed. That means crammed not just with people but also exposed rafters, stairs, and accumulated decor. No need for extra soundproofing. The tables tend to be small, so no need to shout, and I haven’t noticed any big, rowdy tables. The tightness makes for efficient waiting, a few steps and they’ve delivered, picked up, and taken an order. And doesn’t require added audio.

I just loved the sound at lunch recently, more a murmur. I was alone, facing towards the door, at a small table at which I had already become a regular (well, twice by then), and so I listened. Discreet conversations, almost entirely in French. Lunch on the street at Comptoir du Relais got a bit cold, and the banging from building work diagonally opposite took from the meal.

Being a regular

See original imageAs a restaurateur, I cannot deny having loved our regulars. We had a couple who came fortnightly, for years. They drove quite a distance from a beach suburb, and plainly  enjoyed each other’s company. We kept Table 8 for them.

Another Sunday pair were a Melbourne manager returning most weekends to Adelaide for his delightfully stay-put partner. Oh, the conversations we had about the strangeness of both the Anglican Church and the devotion of its shunned member (he was gay).

How can I forget the well-to-do couple, who came so regularly over so many years we witnessed the gradual deterioration of one of their healths, and how… no, I’ll miss that

So many regulars, and those are just the first to come to mind. Regulars might have come weekly for a burst, or fortnightly for years, or even just annually, re-living the night they proposed marriage at the restaurant, or married there, eventually bringing children.

I became a regular at a modest restaurant here in Paris’s Latin Quarter after two lunches. By the time I took Marion there for dinner, my third meal, we were greeted with Kirs. The wine recommendation was as delicious as its price was moderate. When a dish was not available, it was instantly replaced with foie gras.

How did this happen? Who knows? I hope I just seemed to enjoy the first visit.

Of course, there’s a element of sales in hailing regulars, but I like to think it’s more human than that. People generally like other people (and waiters really have to like other people). It might be a passing relationship, not necessarily even on first-name or any name terms – perhaps just the “McGuinnesses on Table 8” – and yet meals are at the heart of society, and that goes for hosts and guests.

This good, modestly-priced restaurant in the Latin Quarter seems to fill with locals. At least one or two regulars seem to return for lunch perhaps even daily. Nights are quieter, with a sprinkling of tourists.

Let’s see how the relationship develops. A third visit might have involved something lesser than the previous lentil soup with egg, but I somehow enjoyed the tougher steak (following Brillat-Savarin’s carving instruction: cut across the grain). Next, “my” table by the door was taken, so I tried somewhere else, which was not quite up to it.

Upon our departure, I might give the restaurant a strong online recommendation. It’s already within the top 1000 of the 13,632 tripadvisor listings f0r Paris. That’s despite seven “terrible” ratings for cold ravioli and lamb to spit out, etc. Poor irregulars, I’m sure you enjoyed your crepes down the road. “Do not eat there” – I’m sorry, you missed out. No, I’m not sorry.

Humans need each other, value each other, and the rest is regulars.

Cultural density clash

See original imageParis has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.

Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.

Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”,  when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.

Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).

Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.

That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.

“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.

Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.

While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.

As Croggon explodes:

The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.

She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”

See original imageShe couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”

I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.

More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).

Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.

Borrowed kitchens

Toaster tongs

Restaurant dining teaches new dishes, and how much better ingredients can be than we thought. And civil behaviour. Working in someone else’s kitchen – perhaps house-sitting, leasing an apartment or just contributing a course – teaches about equipment.

A borrowed kitchen can show that other people don’t cook or, if they do, put up with thin saucepans and ineffective knives. But we often learn useful tips.

No doubt you have lifted out toast without burning your fingers using toaster tongs all your life. I only discovered them in a sunny apartment in Le Marais a few years ago.

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Couvercle

Our present Latin Quarter studio provides more basic kitchen equipment. No toaster tongs, but why no ordinary kitchen tongs? I don’t really miss a microwave oven; the small, bench-top oven is handier.

We do have  “1 Couvercle (petit)” and “1 Couvercle (moyen)“, which translate on the inventory as “Cover (small)” and “Cover (big)”. These are interchangeable lids for the three sizes of “Casserole” (saucepan).

The name, “ouvreboîte camping“, puts the familiar can-opener in its place, as does the translation, “Military can-opener”.

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Clef universelle

The item, “1 Clef universelle” (shown left), translates as “Sardine tin key”. I recognised its purpose immediately, having grown up with smaller versions welded to such tins. Searching the supermarkets, we are yet to find a tin without its own ring-pull. We’ll hunt the specialty shops.

Nearly everybody’s favourite city

paris-tourist-shop2PARIS IS ONE WORD worth more than a thousand pictures.

My long-time friend Paul, an acute observer of the human condition, emailed we were leaving for “nearly everybody’s favourite city”.

That line, too, is probably not original, but explains why a thousand photographs are being snapped right now in front of Notre Dame and other monuments. And every picture is stimulated by, and reinforces, the intensely evocative, single word, Paris.

This might be the Paris of Francofonia, the new movie about protecting the Louvre’s own plunders during the Nazi occupation. Or the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, or of Sartre. Mine is the Paris of mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies, starring either Leslie Caron (An American in Paris, 1955; Gigi, 1956) or Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, 1954;  Funny Face, 1956).

That’s the Paris of civilised modernity – of pushbikes, the Métro (now more than 4 million passengers daily), baguettes, Michelin guides, Coco Chanel, cafes, and restaurants.

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We have arrived in a studio in the Latin Quarter, with sun in the middle of the day, and the sound of young schoolchildren in a courtyard throughout.

On my first visits, even the most ordinary meals seemed shockingly superior to most in Australia.

Despite improvements back home, and Nordic, Spanish and other restaurants also proclaimed top rank, and with the boulevards suffering American chains, Paris still holds its own.

The milk might taste strangely cooked (the microfiltré option has helped), but how good is the cheese. The coffee might remain disappointing, but the croissants more than make up.

Lunch at Comptoir du Relais has been at a recognised destination (might write about that later). More tellingly, we merely followed our nose and chose Tunisian tajines at Chez Hammadi on our first night. The waiter talked about our lamb and fig order with a man in the kitchen, who took a plastic box from a fridge and looked into it, seemingly puzzled. Another man arrived and showed something on his phone. Perhaps they were googling the recipe.

Seemingly by magic, the lids were soon flourished off bubbling tagines. Excellent, and as to the cous-cous … we’ll be back. A succession of presumably other Tunisians joined in, supporting our host, as the place filled up. It was only overnight that I decided the actual kitchen must have been downstairs. And how could I have doubted the pervasive culinary dedication in this country.

We’re around the corner from another string of alleged tourist traps, competing on price, often two courses for 12 euros or lower. I stumbled upon and then out of Vins et Terroirs, whose formule provided a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and then steak, béarnaise and chips, with a quarter pichet of wine, and another friendly and efficient waiter. My unsteadiness came from leaving via the uneven cobbles of the arcade opposite.

I developed a theory that you scarcely need a restaurant guidebook in Paris, owing to the intensity of gastronomic purpose. Almost everywhere seems to carry the weight of cultural responsibility.

The city is physically big enough to cope with the tourists. The five-storey buildings might constrain the children to courtyards,  but sufficiently tightly that people climb stairs, and walk lots, so it’s not just the diet that keeps them slim.

It’s not just demographic density that bears down on everyone, but also the exceptional cultural weight. Again, I do not speak principally of the Louvre or the Académie française. A relatively tight culture pervades every centimetre of the Métro, the narrow streets, the echoing voices, the formal gardens and parks … A visitor has immediately to submit, furiously deny or, like me, risk romanticising the city.

Things have got to be done correctly, which some French people might so stifling as to leave. Some seem concerned by dilution by immigration. Others might worry about the inroads by American fast-food. But a coherent culture infuses dining spots, from the most modest, up.

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Just food?

Image result for carrot
Magic carrot?

Farmers markets, community gardens and other trendy food alternatives tend to “benefit mostly white, economically secure, and already healthy consumers”, complaims American “scholar-activist” Garrett Broad.

Well-meaning foodies might have recognised that low-income communities, especially those of colour, suffer “food deserts” of food insecurity and obesity, but they do little more than dream about boys and girls being transformed by tomatoes from the school garden…

According to Broad in More Than Just Food: Food justice and community change, such foodie advocates downplay or ignore “systemic injustice in the labor force and other barriers to community health”, leaving them to “reify a neoliberal philosophy of market-driven self-improvement, a strategy that unintentionally absolves the government of its responsibility”.

Elsewhere, he calls this the “magic carrot” approach.

Broad’s discussion is no doubt applicable to Australia, although I was remarking only the other day how the local, self-proclaimed “Organic Foodies” market entirely lacked yuppies and hipsters.

Garrett Broad

His own polemic also introduces apparently the U.S.’s largest grassroots food access initiative, run by the Black Panthers.

In the late 1960s, Panthers chapters across the U.S. turned from armed militancy to “survival programs” — survival pending revolution. The Party fed at least 20,000 children through a Free Breakfast program in the 1968-1969 school year.

His own interest was piqued by coming across Community Services Unlimited, Inc., founded by a chapter in the mid-1970s in South Los Angeles.

The trouble for me is that Broad, as a self-described privileged, vegan scholar, misunderstands the politics.

This blog is called Meals Matter because humans are the cooking animal, coming together to distribute food, and so labour, that is, to make meals.

Happier, healthier, more sustainable meals are certainly “more than just food”.

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Broad argues for more community gardens, food co-ops, and so forth, because he wants More Than Just Food. However, in his case, he wants justice.

For him, food is expressly a mere “tool” or “means”. He had “set out to investigate the social justice potential of alternative food activism”.

The Black Panthers never wanted improved nutrition alone, he says. They used food as a conversation starter in favour of social and environmental justice. They built gardens, provided nutrition education, and improved access to healthy food “in the purpose of a much larger cause. They situated food as a vehicle for a more expansive, people-of-color-led social justice project”.

For him, food serves the struggle for social justice. However, what are the oppressive “political and economic systems”, if they are not the way we eat?

He fails to appreciate that justice is a higher cause, which means less basic, as argued by the sages. Fascinated how “ideologists turn everything upside-down”, Marx and Engels observed: “The judge, for example, applies the code, he therefore regards legislation as the real active driving force”. Like the legal eagles, Broad makes justice supreme.

But justice is merely a means, a vehicle for a much larger cause, meals.

His book’s opening epigraph quotes David Hilliard, former Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party:

We’ve always been involved in food, because food is a very basic necessity, and it’s the stuff that revolutions are made of

Broad has to ask himself: what are revolutions for? Better meals. And better meals can be near at hand.

In their stirringly-titled essay, “Waiting for the Revolution, or how to smash capitalism while working at home in your spare time”, Gibson-Graham argued that, in terms of the numbers involved, and output, “the household sector can hardly be called marginal. In fact, it can arguably be seen as equivalent to or more important than the capitalist sector.”

They gave the piece another subtitle: “Why can feminists have revolution now, while Marxists have to wait?”

Alice Waters and other foodies have proposed school gardens and hands-on cooking, because better meals lead to better meals. Her “delicious revolution” is upon us.