The British journalist Anthony Bailey, in a new book describing life along the Iron Curtain, tells of visiting an attache' at the American embassy in East Berlin. Over martinis in his suburban residence, the attache' talked about "the strains of an artificial and unbalanced life" as diplomatic representative to a repressive regime in an impoverished country. His college-age son "felt absolutely choked" by the atmosphere of East Berlin, the man said, but then added:
"And yet he was also affected by the contrast between life in West Berlin and here. He came back from West Berlin one afternoon and said that he'd been up on the sixth floor of Ka-de-We, the big department store, where they have their huge food section. He said he'd never seen anything so gross, so obscene."
Gross and obscene it almost certainly was, but it was scarcely an unusual sight in these days of Western upper-middle-class decadence. The conspicuous consumption of food--for once the phrase "conspicuous consumption" can be used absolutely literally--is the new vulgarity of affluence. The showy display of "gourmet foods," accompanied of course by "fine wines," is to the privileged classes in the 1980s what foreign automobiles were to those same classes in the 1950s, audio systems in the 1960s and gentrified housing in the 1970s--visible evidence not merely that one has made it, but that one is impossibly with it and impeccably tasteful.
The ostentatious display of one's good taste is, need it be said, in the very worst of taste, but try to tell that to the host whose table groans under the weight of exotic comestibles purchased at great expense from Ka-de-We or its countless American counterparts. The object no longer is to feed one's guests well and to converse enjoyably with them; it is to demonstrate to them, by what one serves and the manner in which one serves it, that one is sophisticated, resourceful, imaginative and superior. In the quest for status, the dining table has become a major battlefield.
In that battle, the middle ground seems to have disappeared. On one side is food as represented by Woman's Day and Family Circle, the grocery-store magazines in which canned mushroom soup and "cheese food" appear with monotonous regularity in recipes and advertisements; on the other is food as represented by Gourmet, the magazine of choice for the "upscale" shoppers who patronize--or who commission their servants to patronize--the gourmet boutiques of fast-lane department stores and specialty shops. But plain, honest food, cooked and served without pretension or affection, seems to have disappeared--a sweeping and indefensible generalization, no doubt, but one which will seem pure truth to anyone who browses through the tony food stores or reads the "upscale" food magazines.
Several years ago my wife and I were given a subscription to a publication called Sphere, of which we had never heard but to which we became quite strongly attached. It was brought out by one of the major food companies, apparently as a public-relations gesture; the subscription price was irresistibly low, and from time to time there were low-keyed suggestions of pleasurable uses to which the company's products could be put. The recipes called for real as opposed to processed food, the majority of them were quite suited for informal family dining, and a modest amount of cooking skill was required in order to cook them; there were also articles about crafts and what used to be called "home economics." The magazine was nicely illustrated, fun to read and utterly unpretentious.
But time marches on and scales go up. Sphere was taken over by new owners, and with a single wave of their magic wand it became Cuisine, a.k.a. "The Magazine of Fine Food and Gracious Living." We've kept up our subscription because good recipes can still be found in the magazine, but in order to locate them you have to fight your way through mannered prose and staged photographs of the sort on which Gourmet once had a monopoly. A magazine that was once edited for the self-respecting middle-class cook is now aimed right at the climber of culinary ladders.
The cover of the July issue says it all. On a fine table cloth and under subdued lighting rest a dainty spray of flowers, a glass containing a martini, and a silver tray bearing an invitation: "Cuisine requests the pleasure of your company for cocktails." The article to which it refers celebrates "the dynamic and glamorous institution of the cocktail party" and advises, in prose that only a Gourmet editor could love: "All that need be provided is a genial ambience, a knowingly constructed guest list, cooling libations, and a come-hither hors d'oeuvre table whose palate provokers, once the drinks have been poured, keep drawing people back with their magnetic charms." The recipes that follow contain just enough "interesting" ingredients--chick peas, tahini, coriander, feta cheese--to keep the specialty shops in business and to demonstrate the party-giver's indisputable flair.
There is also, in the manner of the "upscale" food magazines, a column in the front of the magazine wherein readers may request recipes from restaurants around the world; the primary purpose of this column seems to be not the dissemination of recipes but the display, for public admiration and envy, of the subscribers' itineraries. At the back of the magazine is a list of "Shopping Sources" that drops just about every "upscale" name in the book, from Baccarat to Vielle Russie.
Midway between these two points is an article about a husband and wife--"Epicurean Collaborators," the headline calls them--in whose residence "the accoutrements for gracious entertaining are everywhere." Planning parties "entails an earnest consultation of food and wine coordination between husband and wife as they leaf through the pages and scraps-tucked-between-pages of their party books," which "are crammed with snapshots of past events, close-ups of individual dishes, handwritten menus, guest lists, and wine notes." Of his "prodigious" wine cellar the husband remarks: "If we enjoyed a bottle every night for the next ten years, we wouldn't run dry."
Anyone for East Berlin?