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Posts tagged ‘Bethnal Green’

Modernism, Postmodernism, Authenticism?

I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, but the first article I read in the Observer is always Jay Rayner’s restaurant review. (In fact, I started reading the Observer in high school because of Jay Rayner’s reviews – it came as a pleasant surprise that there was a really good newspaper organised around them.) Last week’s was on Viajante in Bethnal Green, which seems to specialise in a kind of sub-Adrià-esque complicated, miniaturised cuisine. Rayner was not impressed:

In its eagerness to be so very now and forward thinking, the food at Viajante manages at times to feel curiously dated; it recalls the first flush of Hestomania, when even he has moved on and is now cooking up big platefuls of heartiness at Dinner.

Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.

Rayner’s point is that the modernist cooking presented by Viajante is beginning to feel old hat. Even if – as he’s admitted – restaurant critics are ‘rampant neophiliacs,’ it does seem that enthusiasm for the molecular gastronomy espoused most famously by Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià has peaked. Or that, rather, it’s become so integrated into the repertoires of high-end chefs that it no longer seems to be so very experimental.

I was surprised when I first heard molecular gastronomy described as ‘modernist cuisine’ – a term now probably forever associated with Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young’s five volume tome Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. This was published last year – long after what most people would agree to be the end of literary and cultural modernism in the 1950s and 1960s. (I wonder how we should define the cuisine of the modernist movement during the early twentieth century? I tend to think of Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of feasts in To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own.)

If anything, this should be postmodern cuisine. The purpose of molecular gastronomy is to reconsider the processes which underpin cooking: to understand them, and then reconfigure them. It’s all fairly similar to Derrida’s deconstruction – and Adrià has described his technique in precisely the same terms.

When I was in London at the end of last year, I went with a friend to the V&A’s exhibition, ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990’. It was a strange exhibition: in an attempt to include all that could be considered postmodern in design and architecture, it had a scattergun approach as to what it included. It felt curiously empty – but I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the curator, or of the movement itself.

One of the oddest features of the exhibition was a strange preponderance of teapots. It was a pity that this was as far as the V&A got to thinking about postmodernism and food – because nouvelle cuisine, the food of the postmodern moment, was so design heavy. Even if the point of nouvelle cuisine was to liberate high-end cuisine from the heavy, meaty, and flour-based-sauce cooking of the 1960s and 1970s, it was also characterised by incredibly careful plating and presentation. In many ways, garnishes were as important as the food itself.

There are strong links, I think, between nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy. Both disregard the orthodoxy established by classic French cooking and experiment with ideas and ingredients from other culinary traditions – best exemplified by the late 90s enthusiasm for ‘fusion food’, done well by Peter Gordon, done badly by legions of others – and the techniques of cooking itself. Other than the fact that molecular gastronomy is underpinned by the work of scientists Hervé This and Nicholas Kurti, it also differs from nouvelle cuisine in its playfulness – its refusal to take itself seriously, something which places it firmly within the postmodern moment. But, as Rayner suggests, it would seem that molecular gastronomy has had its day: Adrià has transformed El Bulli into a foundation, and Blumenthal is serving hearty, historical meals at Dinner.

Two years ago I taught an introduction to historiography at Goldsmiths in London, and was struck by how dated postmodern theory felt. When I studied it a decade ago – crucially, pre-9/11 – it seemed, even then, to be an exciting and useful way of understanding the world, particularly because of its emphasis on the relationship between language and power. I didn’t – and still don’t – agree with the critiques of history offered up by Hayden White and Keith Jenkins, but they were thought-provoking.

After the events of 11 September 2011, the War on Terror, the 2008 economic crash, and the Arab Spring, postmodernism appears even more the product of its time: of the prosperous, confident 1980s and 1990s, when the end of communism seemed to signal Francis Fukuyama’s end of history. I find it easier to take seriously the postmodernism and poststructuralism of the 1970s and earlier – when philosophers, linguists, and theorists were attempting to find a new way of thinking reality – partly by emphasising the extent to which narratives and discourses are contingent and rooted in their particular contexts. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition (1979) is still an arrestingly original document.

This act of de-privileging dominant discourses – or indeed any discourse – has also been its undoing, as Edward Docx argues in a recent article for Prospect:

by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended. … If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.

So what follows postmodernism? Docx suggests that it is something he dubs ‘authenticism’. He explains:

we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word ‘proper; on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word ‘legend’ as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. … We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. … Values are important once more…

…we can see a growing reverence and appreciation for the man or woman who can make objects well. We note a new celebration of meticulousness…. We uncover a new emphasis on design through making…. Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write.

It’s telling that the various manifestation of the new, global food movement – from Occupy Food to the hundreds of local campaigns for small-scale agriculture and unadulterated food – tend to refer to themselves as ‘real food’ (as opposed to Big Food – or the plastic, ‘Frankenstein’ food it produces).

This is a good way of understanding the recent trend in food – which Docx identifies – for the artisanal (whatever we may mean by that), the handmade, the local, the ‘old-fashioned’ (again, this is open to debate and redefinition), and the ethical. It says a great deal that the chef of the moment is René Redzepi, the Danish chef and owner of Noma, who sees himself as much as a cook as a food activist. This demand for ‘authentic’ food is, strange as it may seem, political: it’s a refusal to buy into the advertising and branding of the food industry, even if it’s an act that only a very small proportion of people can afford to do. But it’s a beginning, and a welcome one.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

London Meals

Like many people, I spent this week glued to the news, following the riots in Britain. I have friends who live in the parts of London which witnessed some of the worst violence, and I was stunned how areas of London I know and love – areas which I think of as home – were transformed by the rioting and looting. Even Bloomsbury was not left unscathed: Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street, one of the most beloved bookstores in London, had its windows smashed, rather undermining claims that the looters tended to leave book shops alone. (And such a pity they missed Alain de Botton’s daft School of Life next door.)

So when I read on Twitter that Broadway Market was a potential target for the rioters, my heart sank. When I moved to London to begin my PhD, I remapped the city according to the destinations I most loved: book shops, art galleries (so that was central London, South Kensington, Pimlico, the south bank, Whitechapel, and Dulwich sorted), and places to eat. I did this because I have a comically bad sense of direction. During a holiday in Ireland a few years ago, my friend Carina realised quickly that the best way of discovering the correct direction to walk in, was to go in the opposite way I suggested. If I turned left, it was almost certainly the case that we should have gone right.

Guided partly by the London Farmers’ Markets website, I came to know London through its markets, delis, and kitchen and food shops. I walked all the way to Notting Hill from Bloomsbury once (map-reading has never been a strength) and, disappointed by that farmers’ market, spent the morning at Books for Cooks and discovered possibly the best culinary invention in the history of humanity at a local deli: glass jars containing crème de marrons and vanilla-flavoured yogurt. When Charles Saatchi (re-)opened his gallery in the Duke of York’s Building, it gave me another reason to visit that part of Sloaney London: Partridges also sells those crème de marrons-and-yogurt concoctions (admittedly for £1.50 each, but with all that yogurt they’re practically health food).

At Broadway Market

If I was feeling uninspired on Saturday mornings, I would walk to the inevitable Borough Market through the eerily silent City, and buy coffee from Monmouth and a bacon roll – easy on the mustard, heavy on the brown sauce – and watch the stall holders set up before the tourist hordes arrived.

But my favourite parts of the city were further east. Broadway Market, near London Fields, trades on a stretch of road which has been used by merchants and travellers for around a thousand years. It’s ancient and at the same time, emblematic of the regeneration of Hackney, London’s poorest borough, but also, arguably, its most socially diverse. On Sundays it was a long walk through Clerkenwell, Old Street, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green for breakfast at Columbia Road Flower Market – with coffee bought from what must be the city’s smallest coffee shop – a splurge at the second hand bookshop, and an attempt not to knock over any plants (I once caused, accidentally, an avalanche of Christmas trees).

My other guide was sent to me by my mother: the fantastic London Review of Breakfasts. It’s a website which takes breakfast Very Seriously Indeed. Listing cafes, greasy spoons, and restaurants from all over London, it considers not only what these establishments serve and how they go about doing this, but why. What I like about it most – other than its understanding of the psychologically restorative nature of breakfast – is its anti-snobbery.  Bermondsey’s Cat and Cucumber is given higher – and deserving – praise for its breakfast, than the branch of Whole Foods in Kensington:

It just doesn’t feel organic in the way I understand it. And frankly neither do any of the 26 varieties of killer tomatoes on sale, particularly the insipid orb that is part of my tepid, refectory-style ‘English Breakfast; on the first floor. The rest of this dry, fatty, Americanised assembly – grey-green scrambled eggs, semi-raw sausage, bacon jerky, white toast (‘no brown available’! In the temple of choice!) – requires five separate squirts of ketchup to render it edible. It is pathetic.

More of Broadway Market

No other collection of reviews is this relentlessly entertaining. My favourite remains of the Euphorium Bakery in Islington:

you started to tremble and had to content yourself with an egg mayonnaise sandwich on thick brown bread. It would have been an eggy, creamy delight, I think, if there had been any filling to delight in. But alas, a mere smear across the bread, a hint of a yolk and a whiff of white was all that was present. We wept. I craved a sympathetic glance from the staff. They were oblivious to our pain and announced that “that was how they made their sandwiches”. How they let themselves down. How they let us down. The pastries so perfect. The sandwiches so disappointing. My fan dropped to the floor, you rose from your chair, nearly careering into one of the many mothers with babies as you hastened to exit.

‘Pierre!’ I shouted, ‘Don’t leave me! I will make you an egg sandwich wearing nothing but a silk negligee whilst I recite passages from Voltaire!’

In short, the London Review of Breakfasts sets a standard not only for eating breakfast, but for living.

It’s particularly fitting that this website devoted to breakfast should be based in London. We know that mass urbanisation at the beginning of the nineteenth century caused changes in people’s behaviour. Quite simply, people lived and behaved differently in cities – where most of them were crammed into tenements and slums – than they did in the countryside. This change was caused overwhelmingly by the fact that the nature of work altered during the 1800s. Cities grew as a result of industrialisation. Factory employees, as well as the office workers who staffed the businesses that serviced these new industrial economies, worked longer and more regular hours than ever before.

In a predominantly agrarian society, work is determined by the weather and is seasonal – hours tend to be longer in summer than in winter, for example. In the factories and offices of Victorian Britain, the clock – and then laws governing how long people were allowed to work – ruled the working day, something Dickens satirised in Hard Times. Work began promptly at around seven or eight o’clock, and continued without stopping until the evening. Gas lamps and, later, electricity, meant that work could go on regardless of when the sun rose or set. Work was decoupled from nature.

The tiny coffee shop at the Columbia Road Flower Market

One of the first aspects of people’s lives to change as a result of these new working patterns was how they ate. In Britain, up until the early nineteenth century, most people ate a substantial breakfast at around ten or eleven o’clock (what we’d now refer to as brunch), and then dinner, the main meal of the day, in the mid-afternoon. In the evening, before they went to bed, they’d have tea with biscuits or a light snack. Supper was a late, savoury meal eaten by the wealthy, and usually after an evening’s entertainment.

With the coming of industrialisation, mealtimes changed and particularly according to the kind of work people performed. For the urban middle classes, dinner moved later into the day, partly as an indicator of the fact that they were wealthy enough to afford candles, gas, or electricity to light the meal. Luncheon and afternoon tea, served with cake and sandwiches, emerged to fill the long gap between breakfast and dinner. Further down the social scale, tea, served at the end of the working day, frequently replaced dinner. This tea – referred to as ‘high tea’ or ‘meat tea’ – included protein, usually potted meat or smoked fish, to assuage the hunger pangs of tired labourers.

The strange British snobbery around the names of mealtimes emerges from this period: it’s upper- and middle-class to refer to breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or supper), and lower-middle- and working-class to say breakfast, dinner, and tea. Breakfast, though, changed in the same way for workers of all kinds: it was eaten earlier in the

day, but remained fairly substantial.

Flowers at the Columbia Road Flower Market

Our eating habits are still evolving – and they’ll continue doing so, particularly as urbanisation continues. It’s estimated that seventy per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, and we know that this will have massive implications for how we live: from the way in which we plan our cities, to how we eat. It’s not simply a case that our food systems will have to accommodate the fact that food will have to travel further – or will need to be grown in cities – to feed us all, but our working patterns will change too. What and how we eat cannot be disentangled from where we live.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.