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The Politics of Lunch

By |  March 2 2011

By our lunch reservations so shall we be known. The meal itself may-or may not-be a trivial affair, but the question of where to eat reveals far more about an individual’s instinctive view of the world than any debate of economics. I do not mean the overtly politicized issues of ethical and sustainable eating: I do not doubt that within the next 20 years, sustainability will come to be regarded as an uncontroversial commonplace. No, the choice of restaurant is political in a way that transcends the politics of party or faction. It addresses our attitude toward the wider world and the nature of human endeavor, and it raises important questions about how we regard wine as the product of human artifice.

Gastronomic restaurants can, broadly, be divided into two categories. On the one hand are restaurants in which technical skill in the kitchen is at the heart of their cuisine. Such cooking was always the preserve of the grand dining rooms of classical haute cuisine, but now it also finds an incarnation in the conventions of culinary modernism.

Gelling agents might now be more sophisticated, but this is still the cooking of the transformation of texture and the celebration of human ingenuity. It is quite likely heavily garlanded by the Michelin Guide. Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago is a good example of a modernist interpretation of this approach.

In direct contrast are those restaurants where the act of cooking sits humbly behind the business of sourcing ingredients. The food here will put less self-conscious emphasis upon novelty and more upon claims of authenticity to peasant traditions. Portions will be larger, but courses fewer. Chez Panisse in Berkeley is perhaps the definitive example of this urban rustic style, but the nose-to-tail cooking at St John in London is a masculine manifestation of the same basic philosophy.

Of course, these distinctions are overly-schematic and should not be taken to imply any value judgments. A real-world restaurant will operate as an inevitable compromise between the two approaches. The greatest of ingredients can easily be ruined through careless technique in the kitchen, and any chef who does not obsessively seek out the best raw materials is a fool. That notwithstanding, the distinction between haute cuisine and urban rustic style is a useful tool for understanding the ideology of a restaurant.

It has always been so. In The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; 2000) Rebecca L Spang provides a wonderful account of the Ancien Régime origins of much of the way in which we now eat.

The restaurant as a culinary institution owes its name to new establishments that grew up in Paris during the mid-18th century. These businesses served warm consommés or restaurants (literally "restorants"), elaborately prepared meat essences. Through the application of science and technology, the new cuisine offered the promise that nature could be perfected by extracting only the purest concentrates; it is the same sensibility that drives any contemporary exercise in haute cuisine.

There was an inevitable negative reaction. The new cuisine of the 18th century was not the first to be labeled "nouvelle," but it was the first to inspire debate that reached beyond chefs squabbling about recipes in the prefaces of cookbooks. It once again set ancients against moderns. Critics, including most of the Encyclopédistes, damned the new cooking as unnatural and a symbol of decadence and decline.

Notoriously, Voltaire commented in the fall of 1765, in a letter to his friend the Comte d’Autrey, "As for cooks, I cannot stand the ham essences, mushrooms, pepper, and nutmeg with which they disguise dishes that are, left by themselves, perfectly fine and healthful." He would have been happier with a locavore feast than genuflecting before the latest culinary wunderkind.

But the debate in the 18th century was not just about food. And the same is true about any decision you might make about where you want to eat lunch or what you want to drink-it is just that the perspective given by history allows us to see it more clearly. The paramount debate of the era attempted to define what constituted an enlightened lifestyle.

As such, it encompassed everything from landscape gardening to political reform. These days, we might call it a culture war. Were the supposed advances in the sciences and the arts of benefit to humanity? What was the relevance of traditional forms and practices?

We celebrate non-interventionist winemaking to the extent that the most talented enologist will insist they are merely the midwife to nature. Within that broad consensus, we toss around claims to naturalness and authenticity. But it is a question well worth asking: To what extent is the wine we choose to drink a political posture-our own tacit comment on the perfectibility of mankind?

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