Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Pomodoro Caper

Don’t get your knickers in a twist, but the media is now offering us learned expositions about David Brooks and one of his lunchtime companions. If you wish to read up on the issue, I recommend Rod Dreher’s extensive commentary.

Anyway, here is what happened, in Brooks's words:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

I am not sure why you need a college degree to know the difference between capicollo and pomodoro, but, strictly speaking Brooks was correct to cover for his guest’s discomfort.

On the other hand, if you have ever found yourself in an alien culture—I certainly have—the best recourse is to ASK. When I lived in France no one imagined that I knew all the cultural signifiers. Anyone I asked was happy to explain them to me.

Nowadays, my knowledge of French is fairly advanced, but when I am in a French restaurant with someone who does not understand the difference between boudin blanc and courgette I have never had a problem explaining it.

Even though Brooks was correct to protect his companion's face, the truth is, in a world containing different cultures, no one expects everyone to know everything. Why would she not ask? Simply and directly. Would Brooks have thought less of her? I suspect that he would not. Freezing in horror at the sight of a few words on an Italian restaurant menu is not the best approach.

Brooks’ companion seems to have been exceedingly thin skinned. One can only wonder how people became so insecure, how they became assailed by feelings of being out of place. Evidently, this is the fallout from all the bluster about multicultural diversity.

Anyway, Brooks argues that sophisticated restaurant menus signify social status. They might also signify snobbishness, a false sense of status and prestige. There is something pretentious about ordering the canard au sang in New York City. Assuming that you can find it, that is. In Manhattan, stick to the Peking Duck. I hope that you will not freeze the next time you open a menu and do not understand what Moo Goo Gai Pan is. And no, it is not a euphemism for Peking Duck. 

Brooks argues, not without reason, that certain restaurants use certain terms in order to create social strata that seem to be every bit as rigid as a caste system.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

I take his point. I suspect that it is true that some people are made not to feel very welcome in certain establishments. And yet, if they want to frequent such establishments they can choose between taking a course in the varieties of Italian sausage or simply asking politely.

Otherwise you could picket or boycott the sandwich shop for not being sufficiently diverse.


Sam L. said...

A high school "degree"? I believe those are called diplomas. They were when I graduated, and when my children graduated (both in this century).

David Foster said...

Good discussion of this at Grim's Hall:

trigger warning said...

The canard au sang comment reminds me of a delightful moment - only marginally related to translation matters - that happened to my girlfriend and me in Spain. Julie speaks fluent French and had picked up a little Spanish before we left. We were in a small restaurant/bar in Northern Spain, and the menu was entirely in Spanish. She decided to order something called very nearly (as I recall), sopa de carne. We both knew what it said, but I advised her, "Julie, never order something called 'meat soup' in a place like this". Being a modern woman, she barged ahead. When the "meat soup" arrived, with patches of intestine (you could watch the tiny villi sway like seagrass if you looked closely) floating in a sea of grease, she decided to pass.

Being a centered and well-traveled person, she did not feel the slightest embarrassment. Even while I was laughing my rear off.

Mistakes, they will be made.

Ares Olympus said...

I saw the article yesterday as well, and the story was apparently designed to remind us that social class is real, and how easily we can forget our world can be different from others, and awareness of this can help bridge divides.

But I admit his example didn't work for me.

That is, I accept this is a sort of "status" issue, status is in part about "what the cool kids" think, so if in school you were in the cool crowd, you could help define what's cool, and if you wanted to be cool, your job was to learn what's cool, and follow their lead. And then the cool and wanna-be-cool people can live in their bubble of coolness, and stand apart from those uncool people who are not in the know.

But the other side, is there is always an antistatus crowd where it is obvious what the status people are doing is pretense, and it can look laughable from the outside, like paying $5 for a Latte Macchiato or seeing someone bring a $50 bottle of wine to a party trying to impress the guests, while you know your $10 bottle tastes just a good.

So when Brooks talks of discomfort in the woman, probably he's correct in his assessment, and sometimes a person might be open to trying something new, asking for advice, but as well, it is easy for an anti-status to prejudge and dismiss things that seem intentionally hyped up as something intended to be more than it is, merely for the right to charge more for yuppie suckers with too much money. And a person on a modest income might prefer not to be introduced at all to a world of expenses that you never would aspire to, even if you did have the money. So it's a values issue then - and trying to purchase status is for people who don't know what things are really worth.

There's a reverse contempt going on there on top of resentment. The resentment may not be "I wish I could waste money on fancy named foods." rather "I wish I didn't need to worry about how to budget the things my kids deserve."

So whatever is true in this situation, there can be a lot going on. It just looks to me that money is central. And when money is hard won, you don't waste it on vanity.

And in this regard, I don't see any problems. The real problem is only that status matters to many people, and they make poor decisions (like carrying life long credit card debt) for the appearance of success.

sestamibi said...

I'm still trying to remember the difference between pailliards and medallions.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Just imagine what evil was imagined when mayonnaise arrived on the culinary scene.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

On a serious note, when lugubrious worldly sophistication and emphatic, bellowing tolerance are purported as the highest societal values, there will certainly be consequences.

Indeed it is reasonable to assume that restaurateurs will want to appeal to the phony worldliness of tjis poseur chic. Said gastropurveyors will create some polyglot menu, using rare terms people will have to navigate using Google translation. This is a competitive differentiator. This is how the St. Louis Bread Company becomes some made-up name like "Panera Bread."

Show off your Jeopardy! aware seas... and depth of understanding. This way, anyone can claim they've been to Paris, Firenze, Carthage (read: Tunis), sub-sub-sub-something Ghana, southwestern central longitudinal Tibet, etc. combine that with a Alex Trebek's condesciending diction and you have a winner. Try to match that!

Gosh golly, you'd have to be as smart as David Brooks to keep up!

Now Brooks is sensitive about the heaping social danger of all this poseury, which elevates him to a more tolerant, understanding and empathetic species, which is yet another trump card he throws upon those who consider their globalist understandings to be quite fashionable. So now he gets to shame their inflated sense of themselves, which is quite, er, self-inflating for Mr. Brooks. So this self-congratulation and moral magnificence is actually quite circularly status-oriented. How quaint. What else would one expect from the "conservative" New York Times columnist?

Paul McLellan said...

I think you are wrong. I lived in France for 5 years too. If you were foreign, nobody thought anything of explaining what "andouille" was. But if you were French it would be a marker of what sort of person you were. So I don't think your (or my) experience in France were significant.

When I was growing up, snooty restaurants would apparently (I maybe went to one once, we didn't go to restaurants at all, even pizza was exotic) they printed the menu in French, with no english translation. If you were the right kind of person you knew that "rognons de veau en creme" was a dish and whether you wanted it or not. The modern equivalent is a little less agressive. I agree, you could ask, just like in the snooty restaurant. And the snooty waiter would tell you that "rognons" were kidneys and you'd feel smaller.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Your point is well taken. The French can certainly be snobby... though they are as likely to judge you by accent than by ability to read the menu. For my part I think that one would be happier on this earth if one did not know what rognons de veau en creme were and if one did not have to suffer the indignity of having to eat them. I still don't see why the woman could not have asked. True enough, social class is endemic to human society and classes have certain signals that are recognized-- they signal belonging or not. BTW, what are the odds that people brought up in a certain social class would not know the difference between a burrito and a taco. And would feel proud of it.