Mushrooms in Prague

I have always been fascinated with the persistence of old practices of eating in cities. We are so accustomed to thinking about urban provisions as something that happens in marketplaces and supermarkets that we rarely notice the households that continue to bake, pickle, can, and smoke their own food products. Even older than these practices are those city dwellers who gather their foods, seasonally, from urban spaces most of us would never think of as sources of edibles.

Back in those romantic days of Counter Culture communes (1965-75), there was an anthropologist (Hawaii 1948) and author of handbooks for gathering wild foods in North America named Ewell Gibbons.

Wild Food Adventures

Euell Gibbons

In a series of books, Stalking the Wild Asparagus; Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop; Beachcombers Handbook; and Staling the Good Life, he advocated eating nutritious but neglected wild plants, like lambs quarters, rose hips, young dandelion leaves, stinging nettles, cattails, purslane and amaranth. Some of these have become popular enough to be sold at food stores (rose hips, dandelion leaves, and amaranth seeds) or farmer’s markets (purslane and amaranth leaves), but others still must be gathered in the wild. I would love to find a box of fresh lambs quarters in the lettuce section of the food stores I frequent. They are here in Vienna. What a delicate, sweet green they are! They are served here as a topping for vinegary potato salad or combined with other lettuces in a “leaf salad.’ A foodie friend of mine in Chicago in the 1990s told me he picked lambs quarters in his yard!. But his yard had never been chemically fertilized and was mostly weeds anyway. So what treasures he found there rarely surprised me. Still I doubt he got enough for a salad.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, while visiting relatives in Prague. Tom, my second cousin-in-law  (Is that a thing?) is an avid mushroom hunter. One Saturday morning, after playing his usual round of tennis down the street, he walked to his secret places in the forested, river ravine preserve in front of his house (He swears he’ll go to his grave without revealing where it is. Except his son knows exactly where tit is, of course. Ah, kinship!), returning home about an hour later with a basket full of fresh-picked, wild mushrooms. I couldn’t identify most of them, but I accepted that they were perfectly edible. After all, Tom had been picking and eating wild mushrooms since he was a boy and he’s my age (i.e. OLD). His wife, Maryla, never flinched. She had been eating whatever he brought home for all the forty-odd years of their marriage. For supper, she made a simple scramble of chopped, sautéed mushrooms and eggs. No herbs, no fancy oils, just salt and black pepper. It wasn’t a pretty dish. Maryla did not scrape off any black gills, as I might, before she chopped the mushrooms. The resulting scramble had a grayish tint. But it was delicious.

Most Europeans today are still deeply enmeshed in the seasonal round of uncultivated foods,even though many of the wild foods have begun to be cultivated to meet the demand. These include fiddle ferns and ramps in the spring, wild strawberries through the early summer, wild mushrooms in the late summer, chestnuts and venison in the late fall. The positive feelings toward seasonality, namely, that “We can eat them now, so let’s do that, because soon the best tasting ones will be gone and we’ll not taste them until next year,” are reflected in agricultural produce as well. Asparagus, cultivated strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and chili peppers, gooseberries and currents in high summer, hazelnuts in late summer, wine, lambs and suckling pigs in Spring, ducks and geese in late autumn,  All have the reputation for at least having their finest, most refined taste only at certain times of the year. At other times, it is a compromise to eat them. Many choose to forgo such off-season produce in favor of other options. This is really different from the attitude of most city-dwelling North American foodies. I can’t speak for rural dwelling folks there, although hunting in general is a well-know part of how small-town folk in North America represent themselves. But in the cities, the recipe rules. And if the recipe says fresh strawberries, then regardless of whether they have any taste or not, fresh strawberries, flown in from somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, are purchased and ‘enjoyed.’

Mushroom Venor at a Farmer's Market in the Technical University, PragueIf your European household is not blessed with someone who has a secret forest full of wild mushrooms, all is not lost. All the markets have mushrooms in season. Here is a stand at a farmer’s market that is held every Saturday on the campus of the Technical University, down the street from Tom and Maryla’s house. As you can see, there are lots of healthy looking chanterelles (lower right) and porcini (center), as well as cultivated shiitake (upper right) and oyster (lower left). You can tell the porcini are wild because their edges have been nibbled by little furry forest animals. That’s the sign of authenticity!

Let’s face it, most of us city-dwelling foodies are not about to down a plate of pre-nibbled mushrooms. And that is precisely what eating Tom’s mushrooms brought to mind for me. The relationship between people in cities and those aspects of reality that they categorize as nature is an instrumental one. By that I mean that only those aspects of nature that can be controlled (infections and other pests), sanitized (foods and fibers), channeled (water and sewage), regulated (air temperature, velocity, and moisture), or camouflaged (marshlands, deserts, and scrub) are acceptable neighbors. All other ‘inhabitants’ of nature are unwelcome, and certainly to be avoided at all costs. I’ve written about this before with examples of what city engineers do with wild animals who invade neighborhoods (it’s not pretty), and extreme weather events, like hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. In such cases, our fears of a world out of balance can only be placated by feats of engineering and logistical marvels that return the status quo ante in a ridiculously short time. WE DECLARE THAT WE WILL NOT SUFFER AT THE HANDS OF NATURE! and if we are forced to do so, we will hold humans accountable for our pain.

I’m still working out the implications of this particular view of nature held by many urbanites, even if it is only spoken of when the going gets tough. I suspect it is only one of several views that are available depending on the context. Like I said, it’s still a work in progress. Watch this space.

A Meditation on Tipping

Tipping is one of the everyday experiences of living in a new place that makes you immediately aware of being away from home. When at home, I understand food service workers, taxi drivers, package delivery people, hotel bellhops, and valet parking drivers to be among the more poorly paid workers. I tip to the maximal extent of the socially acceptable range. I don’t usually think too much about how that range comes about.

We need to start several thousand years ago to understand the moral basis of this outwardly simple exchange. The word ‘gratuity’ is the same as the word ‘grace’, ‘congratulations’,  and ‘charisma’, but also merci, grazie, and gracias! [1] They all derive from a word-root found in the southeast range of Indo-European languages, exemplified by the Sanskrit gir, a song or hymn of praise, but also of grace, or to give thanks. [2] These come into the northwestern languages through the Greek Χάρις (Charis), charity. Benveniste notes that this semantic heritage requires us to understand ‘gratuity’ not as a isolated grant or benefit, but as the locally-correct behavior governing relationship between kin, between strangers, between socially superior and inferior persons, and between dependent and independent persons.

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Gratuities are given not in order to obtain an economic return but to give pleasure within the parameters of these relations. “Rounding up’ as the servers make change sees their task with almost no effort on the diners’ part. As such tips exist alongside ordinary exchanges, but operate from a different social logic: they calculate social position instead of value. We can exchange in many ways with other people: “pleasures, woes, secrets, marriageable children, insults, vengeance, hospitality, conversation, stories or songs, and above all gifts, but the economic justification for exchanges based on a calculation of value is subsidiary or lacking altogether.” [3]

Gratuities are double-edged. They can be used to honor or to shame, express sympathy or to make one feel needy. If the tip is too large or too small for the context, it can humiliate or incite anger. This is why we feel anxiety around tipping. If you get the amount wrong, even a small gift can have the unintended effects.

A gratuity in a restaurant or taxi is a paradox. It is a gesture that purports to be complete in itself. It only requires acceptance to active its goal, which is to establish a tie of mutual respect between the giver and receiver. Here is the paradox: that tie almost always ends as soon as the tip is received. It cannot be given with the intention of receiving anything in return since the service was already completed. The expectation of a future relationship between the parties is contingent on factors beyond the control of either. If a tip is given in expectation of future service, it abuses the notion of generosity. And if it is not given in the hope of some return favor, then the receiver could interpret it as a gesture of pity, an arrogant demonstration of the superiority of the giver.  This ambiguity could be resolved by the size of the tip. When does the receiver of a tip feel honored rather than humbled? When the size of the award exceeds expectations. Where do these expectations come from? The tips of other patrons. In this way, an auction of sorts ensues the end result of which is a growth in honorable tips from 5% to 10% to 15% to 20%, and in the future, farther still.

The tipping practices are not confined to their place of origin. People travel. The effect of Americans in Vienna is bizarre. Servers come to expect that those patrons identified as Americans, Canadians or Mexicans (primarily through their accent in English and/or their inability to communicate in German) will leave a 15-20% tip, “as is the custom in their country”. If they don’t, the servers feel ‘stiffed!’ Place of origin determines the rules of morality, a very Roman concept (natio) but one that is alive and well in Viennese tourist districts.

Notes

1. The English word ‘thank’ shares the same semantic space as these words, but derives from think and seemingly has nothing to do with gratuity, except in practice.

2. Benveniste, Emile. 1969. Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Vol. 1, Economie, parenté, société. Paris: Editions de Minuit. P. 199.

3. Pitt-Rivers, J. , 2011, The place of grace in anthropology. HAU 1(1). DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau1.1.017.

The Viennese Brunch Bunch

While walking down a main street in Vienna at 11:15 AM this fine Saturday morning, I was struck by the crowd in the Josef Brot bakery. This is one of four artisan bakers left in city that once had an artisan bakery on every block! I wasn’t buying the $8, 1lb. loaf of handmade, organic bread, but I went inside anyway to see what they were offering. That’s when I notice a large, full dining room to the side of the bakery counter and a line of people waiting for tables.

BRUNCH! I wrote an article about Viennese mealtimes back in 1981 and brunch was not one of those mealtimes then. I wasn’t so much surprised to see people eating a meal at 11:00 AM on a Saturday as I was drawn to the sheer size of the crowd, and the number of people at the tables. It was Brooklyn-esque in it’s magnitude.

 

 

Just the previous day, I had the pleasure to read Adam Yuet Chau’s article on menues, Culinary Subjectification: The translated world of menus and orders. The premise of the article is intriguing: “How would one translate the word “menu” (i.e., restaurant menu) into the native languages of people without any experience of restaurants and menus? And how would you explain to them how ordering from the menu works? It quickly became clear that translating the word “menu” entails not only translating the world of restaurant-going and ordering from the menu but also our (i.e., ideal-typically Western) very conceptual and social world, which is another way to say that what seems to be a humble piece of paper listing a certain number of dishes is itself made by the world in which it is found and in turn contributes in a significant way to making that world.”

His conclusion is that a menu is a world defining artifact, a cosmo-menu that is “[m]ore than merely a piece of paper (or cardboard), the menu is at once a parole
(though the broader menu universe carries langue qualities), a cultural logic (or
menu-logic?), a sociocognitive tool, a generative and structuring principle, a narrative,
an organizational device (conceptual, taxonomic, as well as social), a civilizing machine, a conduit of (culinary) governmentality, an ideological vehicle (e.g.,
about choice, freedom, taste, culturedness, civility, cosmopolitanism, social class,
etc.), an ideological state apparatus in the Althusserian sense, a textographic fetish
or text act, and so on.” He explains all of these terms in the article for readers who are not cultural anthropologists. Suffice to say, you can read a lot of how people construct their realities from a restaurant menu!

A glance at the menu reveals both Viennese and international items. The first two items on the left are traditional Viennese coffeehouse breakfasts: Several pieces of bread and rolls with marmalade and butter and a soft-boiled egg.  The second adds some fresh white cheese and slices of ham to the plate with the bread and egg. The rest of the menu items are in English and should be familiar to anyone reading this blog. That is its parole, the way it speaks to us in a language we can understand. There is a logic to the arrangements of items, with breakfast items on the left and above the bold line, and more lunch-y items below. The bold line (a textographic fetish?) signals the menu’s iconographic power to ground memories and enact narratives (of breakfasts and lunches). The menu is ideological in that it permits us the freedom to choose from among the items the kitchen can produce. It then demands that we do so (or leave).  The items include both locally indexed dishes and cosmopolitan ones. The menu enacts class distinction by taking a coffeehouse standard and adding locavore adjectives, appealing to educated, aspirational customers.   All the civility of eating out is present: children locked into high chairs, multigenerational parties, public eating decorum (no throwing food, putting feet on table, public drunkenness, etc.).

What struck me as particularly important here was the menu as sociocognitive tool: The people who ordered from this menu, after having stood in line for the privilege of doing so, knew themselves to be people who would order from such a menu. Their identity as Viennese (there were no tourists here) was bound up with this act in ways that were not apparent to me before, having studied Viennese eating patterns since the mid-1970s. This was a new, desirable way of eating in public made possible by the menu. This is a new and a desirable way of being Viennese (the “Brunch Bunch’). Thank you for these tools, Adam Chau!

 

Pots of Beans

My Midwest friends probably think I’m joking when I talk about the importance of baked beans in the Northeast. The breakfast buffet at the Atlantica Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia this morning was primarily baked beans. People were putting it on eggs and on waffles. There was bacon and sausage in it! The beans were sweeter than I make them, but full of maple flavor and perfectly cooked from scratch. You can’t get away with canned beans in this part of the world. Look at how dark they are in the photo. That’s the sign of a good bean! 

I’ve made tons of baked beans. They are a food I grew up on, one that defined the preferences of New Englanders and Maritimes Canadians of a certain age, along with clam cakes, lobster meat, cranberries, rhubarb, top-cut hot dog rolls, sweet red pepper relish, and maple syrup (often candied on snow). These were now restaurant foods, but in my youth these were eaten in the home, often because they were the only kind available (the rolls), were inexpensive (the lobster), were easily scaled to feed a crowd (the clam cakes), were seasonal delicacies that should not be missed (rhubarb, cranberries, syrup on snow), or were stocked in every refrigerator (the relish). Each one has its own history (clam cakes were a Portuguese fritter originally made with rehydrated salt cod) and is own path into the Northeast diet (for the role of the Howard Johnson’s restaurant chain in the origins of the top cut bun, see this Boston Globe article). Baked beans are no exception. However, they should not be confused with British “baked” beans that are eaten as part of a full breakfast. Those have a different genealogy involved the canning industry and the globalization of food branding. 

Baked beans are the epitome of Northeastern frugality, a quality etched into the region’s cultural DNA by the demands of settler farming and hardscrabble fisheries. Dried beans are known throughout the world at least since the Neolithic. Dried beans are often cooked with savory flavors to produce a “relish” to accompany some form of starch. The dish uses a small white bean, variously called a Navy Bean, or a Pea Bean. The bean is rehydrated and cooked until tender. The texture will not change in the next step. The beans are then combined with a basic sauce made of molasses or dark amber maple syrup, chopped onions, chopped cured fatty pork, mustard powder, salt and black pepper. Subsequent immigrants to the region have adopted this base to include other flavors: brown sugar, garlic, tomatoes, smoked meats, smoked fish, or herbs, but none of these add-ins were used for the dish by the settlers and fisherfolk. The beans are then put in a thick-walled ceramic pot and placed in a bread oven to bake under residual heat overnight. The oven is hot at the beginning of the time and cool at the end. The beans are closely associated with weekly bread baking. Like bread, the beans are baked in sufficient quality to last most of the week. The acids in the molasses and the sugars reduce bacterial growth. In this way, the fuel necessary to heat the ovens produces two high nutrient foods. Beans on toast, anyone? 

The experience of eating a well baked bean is among the great pleasures of my life. Each bean becomes a flavor delivery vehicle, having absorbed the bitter, sweet, salt and umani of the sauce. There is no sour component. This in itself makes the dish peculiar as a relish. The fats from the cured pork go into suspension with the starches dissolving from the beans to generate a thickened gravy. Every once in a while you get a bit of onion or pork to break the texture of the beans. The aroma is an unctious mix of molasses (or maple) and onion. It is not a dish to eat hot. The heat masks the flavors. It is best enjoyed ‘off-warm’ (~120°), at room temp (~70°), or even cold (~45°). At these temperatures, the flavors peak, although saltiness is more pronounced in the cold dish than it is at warmer presentations. 

Unlike Proust’s madeleines, eating baked beans does not stir my memories of times past. It is more like the experience of terroir when drinking wine. It cannot be faked. You either know the earth in which the grapes were grown, or you do not; whatever you think you are tasting in bottles from places where you haven’t eaten the foods, smelled the rot of the leaves in the fall or the earth after a rain, inhaled the the pollen of  early summer, and baked in the heat of  high season, is a fantasy. When you know a place that well, there is something in the wine that immediately brings you to that place. That happens for me when I drink wines from the Wachau and the Kamptal in Austria, two regions where I “know” the earth, and it happens for me with baked beans. Terroir is often characterised as ineffable by wine enthusiasts. I disagree. It’s as clear as the nose on your face. But it does require you to have been there. 

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.

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.

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.