We have nearly forgotten what it’s like to take our time. Coffee comes pierced by a talon, is pulled down by a waterfall, is ready in less than a minute. It tastes like a hot gulp of brown. Daily, we are faced with the prospects of drinking big gulps, of chugging, of downing, or of slamming. We spend our lunch breaks wolfing down and bolting, sometimes unwrapping first. On the subway, we eat things wrapped, the packaging, more than anything else, being what recommends these to us in the first place. The taste of food is ancillary. By dinnertime, we think nothing of ordering takeout, for it is as disposable as we are.
Eating is our way of making up for lost time. The rich have their food delivered to their stoops. The poor use microwaves. Regardless, everyone, exhausted from the first, holds nonchalantly onto a large cup of coffee which is best consumed while walking toward wherever they have to go.
Whatever we eat is already preserved; what we eats means to preserve us; who we are always eludes us. Who we are: beings behind and gropers ahead. The truth is that we are in a great hurry to be done with our lives which we then pay dearly to prolong.
On most days, being incapable of taking our time could doubtless be palatable were it not for the few times when we try to do otherwise. It is on these rare occasions that we are reminded, painfully and without delay, that we cannot. “Are you done with that?” is a question that puts the lie to the very notion of cuisine, the very essence of taking our time. The server who asks us this has ruined everything.
It is, nonetheless, not his fault, for he doesn’t know any better and nor, for that matter, do we. Table manners, however conventional they seem, however stodgy they may appear to us today, used to be taught to the young with the idea that they would signal something without having to say what that something was. Everyone knew. In its book on table manners, which first appears at midcentury, Tiffany’s advises that “when the course is finished… The prongs of the fork should be down. The blade of the knife should face the fork. This is the ‘I am finished’ position.” When the knife and fork are arranged in any other fashion, it means “let us be as we are.” Or, simply, “Do not disturb.”
In place of table manners, we now have BlackBerries and officiousness. The BlackBerry is the instrument by which we imply that the now is not, the next thing du jour. The BlackBerry brushes off, sweeps clean, negates. The server, a busybody by training, is always around the corner to pour our wine before we’re through, there to ask after our food before we’ve taken the first bite, there to see to our dishes which are always anyway on the verge of being taken from us. The server is the face of our conversations: clumsy, trivial, efficient. These days, the best restaurants would those that exude the highest order of efficiency: seating us, feeding us, and being rid of us in a fantasy in which ingesting and digesting were one.
The greatest gustatory pleasure, therefore, would consist of being through with the senses for good. For most, after all, nothing much is lost in any of this: such is the way of the world. For most, the empty plate can do nothing but disgust, reminding them of the shame they feel always for their bodies. A plate of food is vomit on the inside. For the few, however, nearly everything is lost but our revulsion with the question. “Are you done with that?” smacks of everything that is wrong with the efficient world, of a world that lords measure over all. Lost is the meeting, the dwelling, the holding, the exhalations. Lost the essence of cuisine.
Food, like speech, is the glory of the tongue. Food and speech, which are revealed at their highest in the eternity of the present, are eros for the mouth, love of the body, honor of communion. The plates lying before us sing a bacchanalia song; the wine glasses, stained now by uneven lips, a paean of blood and love; the words, half-drowsy, asphasic, a coda. Food and speech and wine are the very skin of the night.
Amid anamnesis, we need no reminding to let things be.
End Note: A Word on Genre
I would be inclined to say that the genre of the post is that of the harangue. The persona is, in some but not all respects, unreliable, and the dominant tropes are the hyperbole and the maxim. The mood throughout is Adornian, reminiscent in spirit of the dark fragments Adorno pens during WWII on the decline of culture. If you’d like, we could discuss the aim and function of the genre in the Comments.