‘It is hard to look around and not write satire,’ said Juvenal, the Roman satirist, writing around the time of the emperor Domitian (who, fat and bald, wrote according to Suetonius a treatise called Care of the Hair).
I’ve been thinking a lot about Juvenal lately in relation to my novel, The Cook. It feels wrong to write about the new decadent food culture without pointing out its ludicrousness. At Attica restaurant in my home town of Melbourne (ranked fifty-three in the world by San Pellegrino, whatever that means), an eight-course Tasting Menu costing $175 per head features ‘a simple dish of Potato cooked in the earth it was grown’. One of the books I used for my research details a recipe in which a piece of pig has been lovingly turned into ‘Iberian Pork Jowl with Sleeping Flower’.
It’s hard to trace back to exactly when all this food madness started, but the J-curve of its increasing weirdness does seem to correspond uncannily with the J-curve of first-world debt. The more people borrow so they can have that super-modern house next to the Joneses (actually they’re the Smiths, pretending they’re the Joneses, but anyway) the more they feel the need to live the lifestyle to match. Ask and ye shall receive. Whether it’s through your local bank manager or the easy online form—there’s money out there to burn. Credit is as easily available now as at any other of those convulsive moments in history, for example during the rein of Augustus when ‘the interest rate on loans dropped sharply while real estate values soared’ (Suetonius again) or the period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic when the sound of sloshing money was everywhere. If you’re in debt up to your eyeballs you can afford anything, even a Potato.
It is the tragi-comedy of all this aspiration that drives the satire of The Cook, particularly as played out among a new generation of aspirants. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that people get the aspiration bug pretty early these days: to be a pop star, a movie star, a model, a chef. With The Cook I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a young person believe that food would not only save them but even bring them fame and fortune. A natural enough starting point, given the contemporary codswallop we’re getting fed. What would it be like, I asked, if someone unquestioningly accepted ‘the Potato’ as an article of faith? Terry Eagleton in his Preface to Dickens’ Bleak House noted how Dickens often used the child as the focus of his social criticisms because, ‘though the child’s suffering is particularly poignant and shameful, the child itself is a passive figure.’ My main character is seventeen when the book starts but his childish ability to sponge up whatever the adults in power tell him, his naïve view of the so-called ‘dream’ and the way to get it, feels to me both sadly Dickensian and at the same time hysterically modern.
Of course, to be truly aspirational you need somewhere to start from—and the best place to start is the bottom. Food and the theatre of its preparation and presentation are great markers of the distance between ‘the server’ and ‘the served’ (beautifully illustrated, of course, in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London). The high-end restaurant kitchen is one of the last remaining places in the First World (the Third World is another story) where an old-fashioned, upfront, master-servant relationship persists. Lowly paid, usually young, mostly male aspirants work long hours in appalling conditions for little pay to ensure credit-card-wealthy patrons can indulge their taste for the fine life. The restaurant kitchen is also, strangely, one of the last remaining work places (the military aside) where a strict, barking, military hierarchy exists. Every work place has its hierarchy, of course, but few are so strictly enforced as in the fire-and-knives atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen. There is a lot that is old-fashioned, if not outdated, about employment in the so-called ‘service industry’; and yet, astonishingly, in this insane, celebrity-hungry world, slaving over a hot stove to make a meal for a wealthy bonds trader or TV star has become a ‘higher calling’. Professional sycophancy is the new Hollywood.
To me this all speaks (to return to Juvenal) of a society in the advanced stages of terminal decline. Where food is seen not as a necessity but a luxury and a whole ‘industry’ (industry?!) spends huge amounts of time, sweat, blood, gas, electricity and so on turning a cod into ‘cod liver snow’.
The world won’t end, I’m sure, just because Heston Blumenthal makes porridge out of snails. It will keep turning, as it always does. And one day soon, no doubt, we’ll all be sitting around eating the nice wholesome meal we’ve cooked from the things we’ve grown in the garden wondering what that crazy foodie fad thing was all about. But until then, and possibly after, I want to keep my sceptic’s hat on. One of the few ways to grow a more sensitive, intelligent society is to point out stupidity when you see it (‘Look, the Emperor’s got no clothes!’). But given the all-pervading, overwhelming, sick-inducing dumbness with which the world is currently in thrall, every satirist, even your average one, has a mountain of work ahead.
The Cook was published in the UK by Quercus in October 2012.