March 4th, 2017
Hate You, Baby
The other day I had the opportunity to play with no less than thirty typewriters from the first half of the last century and since this is a column about food and culture and not industrial design, I’ll limit my report to saying that it was a journey to a culture of refreshing tactility. The experience was still with me when I found myself trying to repair a brand-new electric pencil sharpener at my son’s school. It was a doomed errand, because it was a carelessly and cheaply made object, doing what it was designed to do — fail.
I commented on the contrast to a friend who replied, “there is so much hate in late industrial production.” He went in on to remove some of the abstraction from that statement: “Contempt and sheer ‘Eat shit and DIE! MF!”
And, you know, he’s got a point, there.
Planned obsolescence got its start with the automobile — it wasn’t until after WWII that “new models” arrived every year — but it has definitely reached perfection with the information age. The defining notion of all our computers and devices isn’t just that what you already have is disparaged for being out of fashion, it’s that your possession is (not so) slowly rendered non-functional by updates which, in an amazing sleight of hand, are often presented as a veritable gift, even as they ruin the previous gifts you’ve acquired. In the end, even the slowest of “adopters” are forced to stumble forward to the next offering, credit card outstretched.
What I discovered in my tango with the typewriters was their integrity of purpose. They had been designed to do one thing, convert thought into a tangible and transmissible form using language, and they did it blindingly well. All worked differently and all had developed individual character with age. What’s more they had all been different to begin with. Each brand had a distinct character, a different sound and feel, so well developed that it wouldn’t be difficult to identify each maker with your eyes closed. But as different as they were, they all performed their task superbly, long, long after their designers had died and the companies that had manufactured them had vanished and, for the most part, after their first owners had passed into the great beyond.
It was a bracing demonstration of what is now little more than a trite phrase, “built to last.” I’m not sure what’s built to last now. True, there are high-end furniture makers who craft things destined to become heirlooms and there are some very spiffy wrist-watches which are deliberately parachronistic in their use of “old-fashioned” technology, but if you’re talking about enduring manufactures within the budget of the ordinary Jane, forget it.
This where the hate comes in, because the transaction and the ethos that underlies it is so completely naked. “Give me your money and I’ll give you a piece of shit, where the greatest amount of our effort has been to construct it cheaply as humanly (or robotically) possible and engineered to fail, soon. Oh, and while you are using it, our product will yield mediocre results.”
Now you wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that I’m painting with a pretty broad brush. But take the time to ask yourself how many times you’ve been relieved when a new product doesn’t disappoint. That, as they say, is a sign.
Now, how does all this relate to food?
Applying this line of thinking to the things we eat initially reveals a seamless continuum. Processed foods – all that stuff in the middle of the grocery store, away from the edges where the produce and meat and bakery reside — all that stuff is quite easy to interpret as hate on a plate. Imagine that you went to a party and saw the host assemble the appetizer out of industrial lubricants and water-soluble plastics before dusting the whole thing with a variety of chemical compounds. Would you wince and dig in, anyway? Or would you pause to wonder about just how your host feels about you as a person?
For all our cultural embrace of the virtual, as individuals we seem highly susceptible to what what happens on an interpersonal level. Remove that human in the kitchen from sight and we’re no longer considering motives implicit in the choice of ingredients, but instead largely content to suck down all that stuff without much fuss. It’s frightening, and a little bit disappointing, that we have so much difficulty seeing intention when it comes disguised in nice packaging and divorced from the visage of the maker.
But if we can sidestep that and accept that there really is human choice involved in making these things, then the hate ends up just sitting there, hands on all the levers and a bit confused as to why it’s suddenly the center of attention.
Move the scene to restaurant kitchens and there’s more continuum. Fast food joints get all their components (I don’t think they quite rate “ingredients”) shipped to them pre-measured and pre-formed so that they can be assembled at maximum speed with near-total uniformity. Then there are chain restaurants which mostly do the same thing, but only with certain elements of their menu. And finally there’s the kind of place with a kitchen that aligns with our imagination of what goes on in a restaurant kitchen — lots of people working very hard to turn ingredients into something special.
That last is where, for me, the makers of roasted bone marrow shake hands with the long-gone makers of the Underwood 6. There’s no question that, in larger restaurants, the back of the house is engaged in mass production. But in the good ones, they work much like the typewriter factories of yore, within the ethos of craft, understanding that human intent, fused with sufficient art and skill, can transform mere making into something closer to creation. Restaurants remain one of the last bastions of craft, and maybe that’s because there is simply no other way to do the job.
In the United States, our culture was once defined by production. We thought of ourselves as a great industrial society (and recent political history suggests that memory casts a long shadow.) That culture reached its apotheosis in the Second World War, when thoughtful, durable, “built to last” machinery guaranteed victory. But that victory ironically lead directly to the need to keep all those factories humming, cranking out stuff that was less needful and lasting with each passing decade. So what we’re largely left with, when it comes to crafting something of enduring value, is a thing that is most evanescent of all, a meal.
Still, if you had to choose a single surviving craft, this would be the one I’d choose. As fleeting as the pleasures of the plate may be, I don’t doubt that the anthropologists are right, that cooking and being human are inseparable. But there’s something less grand and still essential that we can rediscover even in something as simple as a well-made loaf of bread or coffee. This is where the cultural memory resides, the experience which lets our bodies remind us of that feeling, the specific and certain knowledge that comes and tells us, “this was made right.”