Making the Urban Scene: Restaurants

An old friend stopped by yesterday with a bag of Chinese food. She wanted to recreate the kinds of take-out food we enjoyed as kids on Saturday night, when our parents were too busy to cook. She had sought out a “Cantonese” restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown. The appetizers and entrees were her family’s favourites and she wanted to share them with us. This led to us sharing our childhood take-out stories. We had a history of common urban food experiences we could share, solidifying our common roots in a particular childhood experience. It started me thinking about food as something more than ‘good to eat,’ but also ‘good to think,’ and especially, ‘good to talk about.’

Why is a contemporary Foodie scene possible? It used to be that one went to a restaurant to only eat food, and then only with family and friends. (Restaurant dating was also a possibility and I promise a post in the near future about that. ) That’s still the case at franchise restaurants, local pubs and diners. The restaurant scene, however, is comprised of locales that actively seek to acquire a reputation as the ‘hot’ place, an “occasion” dining experience, a celebrity chef, or as offering a unique ambience. Local media review such places. They become the topics of conversation among friends looking to have a common experience. They can also be quite expensive. While I can get a wonderful meal at my local family-run Thai/sushi place for, say, $12, dinner at Greg Achatz’s NEXT restaurant in Chicago will costs me $140 and I must pay ahead, like buying a concert ticket, online when I make the reservation several weeks in advance. In return, I get a highly theatrical dining experience, one that purports to awaken and invigorate associations between food and life that can then serve as the basis of conversation for several years to come, as long as I’m talking to other members of this scene, that is. Otherwise, the NEXT experience is not any more meaningful than my neighbourhood Thai. It must be understood in the context of other restaurants in the scene to have its value fully realized.

Expectations of value and quality rise in direct proportion to the social fungibility of the experience. That is, the more social credit I get by telling my friends I ate there, the higher it’s value to me. I once ate at the restaurant of a celebrity chef in New Orleans. It was a quality roast duck entree, but it wasn’t that good. I had eaten better prepared duck in neighbourhood pubs in Vienna. Still, I was able to parley that experience into several good conversations with foodie friends, who contributed their experiences at similar restaurants, and together we created another brick in the wall that separates us from our neighbours who never invest in participating in the restaurant scene. We are using these shared eating experiences to forge a common metropolitan and middle class history for ourselves, and to solidify our relationships with other members of our class.

Urban Sports

The city is the site of sports production today in ways that rival ancient Athens and Rome. Even as countryside-oriented a sport as Le Tour de France begins and ends in urban centers. The production of the recent World Cup in Brazil began with infrastructures to accommodate a larger, denser, more diverse population. The late British historian Eric Hobsbawm identified the period between the two world wars as the time when sport stopped being the middle-class pastime of students, both actual and nostalgic (a very British view of pre-war sports; continental and American experiences organized local sports in factories and social clubs), or an attempt to integrate multi-national empires (think of the mascot names of sport franchises in America), and became instead ‘the unending succession of gladiatorial contests between persons and teams symbolizing state-nations’ (Hobsbawm, E.J. 1990. Nations and nationalism since 1780: programme, myth, reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 142). Later, Hobsbawm writes that sport becomes central to our lives (like our clubs or our home spaces) because the middle class is always in search of itself. The way out of being the leftovers between the Lower and the Upper is to distinguish one’s group life with a unique, shared history. This is a paltry substitute for Ancestry or Oppression, but it will do. Sport supplies this history through the unrolling of the seasons of accomplishment of one’s favorite teams. Sport produces milestones in memory, and thereby a shared class history for the ones who need such markers the most, the rootless urban middle strivers. The deeper the involvement in sport production, the denser the history and the more satisfying one’s embeddedness in a larger social experience. This is where my understanding of sport languished for several decades.
Lately however, I had cause to reconsider the popularity of sports in our lives and the money we are willing to spend to be entertained by sports performers. I was waiting for an elevator with two strangers, a man and a woman, who were also apparently strangers to each other. This was one of those elevators that made you miss your children’s growth years before it arrived. The fellow decided he was tired of just standing there pretending we did not exist and said directly looking at me, “Did you see the game last night.” This was a very creative statement in which he declared his own interest in the game, a familiarity and brotherly solidarity in male game watching with me that should tie us together, while asking both of us to presuppose that he is non-threatening. He didn’t need to say which game because if I didn’t know that fact of our mutual urban lives, the conversation was going to be over anyway. I hesitated as I analyzed all of this, and the woman spoke up, “Wasn’t (insert name of star player here) on fire.” Also a very creative move. She deftly inserted her belongingness in this conversation, transgressing gender expectations, and declaring a solidarity with a fellow fan. They turned to each other and continued their discussion of the game, the team’s chances for victory this season, and their knowledge of past behaviors while the elevator came, opened its doors and swallowed us up. She gave as good as she got, besting him on a trivial point of memory and challenging the precision of his assessments. When we reached the ground floor, they continued talking over coffee at a cafe in the building, while I went on my way. They were still there an hour later when I walked by the building again and spied them through the cafe window. So much important social work was accomplished in those moments and all because of a prior investment in sports experiences. I may have to rethink that subscription to ESPN. . . Naw.

Three Japanese Guys Go Into A Pizzeria

No, this is not an ethnic joke. I had the occasion to observe three 30-somethings and their American host at my favorite place the other day and several things occurred to me. First, we take a lot of things for granted when we eat in public restaurants. If you don’t know the script, it can be painfully confusing. This was evident as the men gazed uncomprehendingly at the two menues–one for the food and one for the wine and beer. The host came to their rescue and walked each one through a drink selection: one Italian red, one Italian beer, and one Sprite™! After minutes of intense scrutiny, they looked again to their host for guidance on the pizza. He ordered four different pies to let them sample some well-made, traditional Neapolitan combinations: margharita, capriccosa, diavola, and funghi e salsiccia. I remember eating in restaurants in different parts of the world where I felt the same confusion as these men. I could decode the ingredients, but I couldn’t figure out what the plate would look like, how the items would be arranged, or what the taste implications were for each choice. What must it be like to taste pizza margharita for the first time? Four simple ingredients–flat bread, marinara sauce, fior di latte and basil leaf–that add up to something far greater than the sum of the parts.
It’s worrisome to cross cultural boundaries when it comes to food. The satisfaction of one’s peckishness hangs in the balance, not to mention the display of savoir faire. I marvelled at the ease at which these fellows placed their trust in the host. Would I be able to do that if the tables were reversed? Or, would I forge ahead, confident in my cosmopolitan food sense to ferret out the good stuff. It is a contest, you know. Pick the wrong dish, like the wrong parking spot, the wrong suit of clothes, the wrong mate, and you lose points. I’ve never been quite sure who was supposed to keep score. Is there a cosmic scorekeeper, or is it like golf? These men had obviously left that game behind. For them this pizzeria was an undiscovered territory, full of wonder.

Sidewalk Derby

It was back in 1979, I think, that someone published an article in Science about how fast people walk in downtown districts in different cities. I remember being jealous of the author for two reasons. First he had successfully talked some foundation out of several thousand dollars to fly around the world with a stopwatch. He would time pedestrians progress from corner to corner all the while sitting in a cafe. Second, he had managed to pass 100% Grade A bullshit off as solid research to a highly respected journal. So much for peer review! In case you are curious, Prague beat out New York, Florence and Singapore for the fastest walkers. The slowest were in Paris, of course. Prague in 1978, when he visited with his stopwatch, was a very sad place. No wonder people didn’t want to linger on the streets very long.
I remembered this contribution to the treasury of human knowledge today while walking the two blocks from Michigan Avenue to State Street along Jackson Boulevard at the noon hour. The trigger was a couple who were walking in front of me. I guess I stride energetically, even when not in hurry. This couple, however, walked as if they were heading toward their doom. Without pausing, they covered the distance of 20 yards in about a minute. That’s the equivalent of a single stride every three seconds, or three times slower than everyone else. The sidewalks of Chicago are crowded at noon as people go about the lunch business. There was no space to move around them. Quite a crowd was forming behind me, all jockeying for a passing lane. The couple trudged along unmoved by the plight of the citizens in their wake. Eventually we all reached the corner of Wabash, where the hordes swept around the laconic pair, who seemed quite happy to be strolling along on a beautiful summer day.
In Roller Derby, there are four Blockers trying to prevent the passing of a single Jammer from the opposing team. On the sidewalks of our cities, the ratio is reversed.

Doughnuts vs. Croissants

The debate rages every morning as denizens of the city pry open their eyes with coffee and . . . what? Yogurt and granola? Too hard to carry around. Besides, have you seen the price of granola at WF lately? You’d think OPEC had cornered the market on rolled oats. Bacon and eggs? Too brunchee. Waffle sticks dipped in faux maple syrup? Too 90s. Time to move on, people. Here in Chicago two food revolutions are taking place, each of which has the strength to transform the question of what to eat with morning coffee. Dunkin Donuts has now opened several kiosks in our renovated elevated train stations, supplying its fare to thousands of commuters every day. Their doughnuts are among the best commercially produced cakes available in the U.S today. (Tim Hortons, stay on your side of the border, please.) A dozen French-style backeries have opened in several Northside neighborhoods, raising the quality of breads and rolls to new heights. Not since Chicago was home to highest level of German baking craft (100 years ago) has the city enjoyed such magnificent croissants. The battle between the fried and the baked has commenced.
I know doughnuts. I started frying them when I was fourteen years old. I have eaten every form of fried dough imaginable. My colleague, Paul R. Mullins, has found a doughnut recipe in an 1803 English cookbook clearly identified as an American food, although fried dough has been know in several European traditions since the Renaissance. In 1809, Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame) described “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks” in his History of New York. Some might argue that the cake doughnut is a substantial calorie bomb perfectly suited to the body’s first meal of the day. Others will point out that the raised doughnut with its web of air pockets is a fried version of the croissant, and a tasty one at that. From the doughnut makers point of view, no one ever kept the shop open selling plain crullers and unfilled puffs. Sugar must be added. That’s what people order: honey-dipped, frosted, jelly filled, and candy-covered. Sugar makes a nice breakfast. It’s kept the cereal industry profitable for years. There is nothing more to it: sugar supported by a cakey or puffy dough. Not for me, though. I’m just not impressed with plain old ‘sweet’ anymore.
With a croissant baked by a skilled craftsman, all of the senses are engaged. The shape and name refers to a crescent. The crescent roll from PIllsbury’s can is a (very) distant cousin. The Viennese, who claim to have originated the roll (Good luck with that claim!), say that the first ones were baked in 1688 to celebrate the breaking of the Siege of Vienna by the Turks. “I eat the emblem of your state religion to show my disdain for your military impotence.” Interesting strategy that. I doubt the Turks have ever recovered from the insult. The surface of the roll reflects a spectrum from sunflower to burnt amber. The layers of pastry peek out from under a blanket of egg-glazed armor. The smell of the butter has been transformed from milk to caramel. Grip the roll, firm, but light. Crack it open at the shoulder. Hear the shower of crumbs hit the plate, like rain on a warm summer evening. The moist release brings scents of baked bread, hay and earth to the nose. The interior is vacant. All of the substance has been glued to the exoskeleton. Still, strands of soft webbing stretch across the gaps, offering a net to catch a knife tip of (totally optional) raspberry jam. You bite in. The browned butter merges with the flakes of crust and gossamer strands of dough on the tough. No chewing is necessary as the treasure melts away. Through the back of your mouth, the smell of sweetness suggests itself. You hesitate to swallow hoping the moment will last.
Seriously now, which would you rather wake up to, a doughnut or a criossant.

Sidewalk Dining

Have you noticed the profusion of cafe tables that have sprung up on our city’s sidewalks? Does anyone besides me see a problem here?  Sidewalk cafes were all the rage in Paris in the 1860s when Charles Baudelaire sat and watched the passing spectacle writing down his melancholic impressions for what would become his collection of prose poems Paris Spleen [i.e., “One should never offer [the public] a delicate perfume. It exasperates them. Give them only carefully selected garbage.”]. He didn’t have to contend with the cacophony of noises, smells, and distractions available today. Don’t get me wrong. Paris was not without its street senses in those days. There were horse smells, rich and dense. There were construction noises, loud and sharp. There was the passing aristocratic carriage, theatrical enough to pull one away from one’s thoughts. Yet, these were nothing compared to the onslaught that is the modern urban street. Ordinarily, I love  these street senses: diesel exhaust, broken mufflers, horns, bass woofers, dog excrement, garbage dumpsters, and asphalt heated to a vapor in the summer sun, as well as the cloud of scent that follows a stylish Fräulein,  burger grease from a nearby restaurant, or flowers in a street planter. This cacophony of sense and sound conspires to distract the sidewalk cafe patron from his food, his conversation and his appreciation of the passing parade. It’s all too much. And still the cafe tables multiply! Do people actually find this pleasurable? Or do they find the idea of sidewalk dining enthralling, even if the experience is less so? Is one [insert one of the following: intrepid enough; romantic enough; brazen enough; callous enough; insensitive enough; or stupid enough] to sit at an outside table on a busy city street?

As for me, I’ll be frequenting the restaurants that offer a quaint table on the side of the building away from the street. A table in a garden where the Mediterranean dining experience can be matched with Mediterranean temperatures and humidity. I relish letting crumbs from a crusty bagette flit to the stone floor beneath my table for passing sparrows to enjoy. Wine always seems brighter when sipped with outside air. My fellow diners will be lost in the intimacy of quiet conversation, uninterrupted by the screaming of brakes or the boisterousness of passing crowds, their murmurings providing the ambience for my own thoughts. It is the atmosphere that Baudelaire would have sought out, I’m sure, though I doubt we would have much to say to each other.

The Patient Wore Prada

For reasons beyond my control, I’ve been spending time in one of Chicago’s great hospitals. It’s an out-patient clinic where people must change into gowns, receive therapy, and then go on their way.  The topics of conversation among these draped humans is quite narrow. The usual conversation starters, like “What do you do?” or “Heard any good doctor jokes lately?” seem out of place. Instead the ice-breaker among these strangers is the relative fashion merit of the gowns. These are basically green, blue or yellow-green cotton sheets with arm holes and twill tape laces for tying them closed. They can be worn with plunging necklines or plunging backs. Alternatively, they be tied closed for an A-line drape. There are only four design requirements for the gown: it must look attractive whether it is worn in the front or the back of the body, it must conceal at least 60% of the body, it must permit access to the entire body,  and it must withstand repeated washing in very hot water. The gown requires very few undergarments. Most people wear nothing but knickers. They accessorize with various footwear from street shoes and socks to sandals. The option to wear those hospital-issued booties with the little white traction bubbles on the bottom is attractive to many of us, especially because they come in a wider range of colors.  Other accessories include ‘do-rags’ for those with super short “fuzz-cuts,” the locker key with large numbered badge, and sometimes an visitor’s ID tag.

There are only two sizes of gowns: large and larger. The gowns are unisex allowing the shape of both male and female bodies to be attractively concealed. The large size gowns are knee-length, while the larger gown fall to the mid-calf. As one walks the untied gown gently sways with the body, while the tied version stays still, grounding the torso against the landscape of beige walls and painted doors. Because of the need to access the body while the gown is worn, a common practice is to leave the gown untied.  Since this results is an open back or an open front, a second gown, worn on top of the first and in the obverse direction, is often employed. The result is  even more coverage of the body than usual. As patients parade back and forth from changing room to therapy room, a sort of fashion runway is created with the appreciative audience noting how this particular model solved the problem of wearablity for this ungainly garment.

If ever there was a more pleasing minimalist design for outer wear, this is it. The gown derives from the wrap dress. [Wikimedia Commons] Wrap-dresses had been designed by Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, and Claire McCardell in the 1940s. Her original ‘popover’ design became the basis for a variety of wrap-around dresses, including the hospital gown. Wrap dresses achieved their peak of popularity in the mid to late 1970s, and the design has been credited with becoming a symbol of women’s liberation in clothing. Wrap dresses experienced renewed popularity beginning in the late 1990s, Today they remain the design of choice for patients. At one point a clinic in Cleveland commissioned Diane von Furstenburg to modify her wrap dress design for use as a hospital gown. (Jio, Sarah“. Retrieved 30 May, 2014.)

The design challenge is not closed. There is still room for innovative gowns that offer orthodox women the opportunity for even more concealment, while providing libertines with even more exposure. The fashion world eagerly awaits the next collection.