The communal table

I listened to Ezra Klein’s latest interview, with David Chang, the other day, and there were many notable moments therein. Chang’s use of sports metaphors, for example, I thought was interesting, because I think sports – in particular the popular team sports that dominate television, like football, baseball, basketball, and hockey – are crucial for understanding how people think in the United States today. People think of themselves as players on teams, they think of themselves as playing games – even thought they might actually be closer to objectified agents within a mechanistic managed firm, maximizing shareholder value. Also totally intriguing was Chang and Klein’s discussion of patents and cooking – like, Chang would kind of like to be able to patent recipes, because then he could profit from his ideas the way writers and producers profit from songs and films and so on. They chuckled over the mention that the money in music used to be in copyrights. If you have the hour and half to devote to listening to the interview, I highly recommend it. Klein is one of my favorite journalists – I’ve been following him since he wrote the Wonkblog for the Washington Post, and his foray into podcasting, both with the Weeds and now his own interview show, has been pretty great so far.

So, at one point in the interview, Chang and Klein are talking about the problems of home cooking. The audience for this show, I think, is an upper middle class technocratic elite that probably regards home cooking as a hobby – Chang talks about home cooking as something that most people do not, realistically, have time for, since they’re too busy attending to their jobs or whatever else. And that is, roughly, true today, although I think a great many people would push back against the idea. It is part of the intrusion of modern capitalist society into the private life of the home that we do not have the time to cook for ourselves and share meals the way we did in the pre-modern world. If you want to devote yourself to work, it is very difficult to do so while simultaneously running a household, and in many ways Americans have attempted to have it both ways, and in doing so, often find ourselves having it neither. Instead we are not all that productive at work, and our food is sub-par, whether we eat overly rich meals, or absurdly expensive balanced meals, or frozen/canned/microwaved meals, or whatever. In my own personal life, my partner and I eat remarkably well, but we are only able to do so because of years of accumulated knowledge, numerous personal connections to high-quality food providers, and considerable effort on both our parts.

The discussion between Chang and Klein reminded me of a piece of an exhibit from the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, where I interned for a summer a few years ago. (An experience which really deserves it’s own blog post.) One of the women who helped run the cafeteria that was a part of the Hull-House Settlement (which was, itself, a complex of social services, including living quarters for both the staff as well as residents working in the neighborhood) wrote that she believed that, in the future (which would be now from the perspective of then) nobody would have a home kitchen, because it was so much easier to simply eat at a local cafeteria. And I think that, if there were non-profit food services dedicated to serving regular nutritious meals to local populations in densely populated urban areas, they would indeed be quite popular. But of course, that’s not how it worked out. For one thing, in the 1950s, we built out the suburbs, and the development of densely populated urban communities was abandoned. And now that we have returned to developing densely populated urban communities, the people living in them are mostly suburb raised, with expectations of large in-home kitchens, restaurants, delivery services, and grocery stores. The idea of going to the same place every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, of outsourcing your culinary choices to someone else, seems abhorent. And besides which, it would totally cut into the profits of restaurants, food processors, distributers, etc, etc.

hullhouse_coffeeshopThe Hull-House Coffeeshop.

The really odd thing is that, as a teenager, I used to fantasize about the sort of coffee shop that existed at the Hull-House, where you could get a good meal for cheap, and drink plenty of coffee, and then hang out and talk radical politics (well, maybe it was a cross between Hull-House and Greenwich Village). A place like that would be impossible to run now – there’s no money in providing common space and nutrition. Those are luxuries.

Later in the interview with Chang, there’s a discussion of the quality of food in Buddhist monasteries in east Asia. Monks and nuns have little to do besides chant and cook, and so they often eat very well (at least, according to Chang). It was also super interesting to me here that Chang mentioned a specific monastery in Korea with superlative potato chips, and Klein began saying that he wanted to visit this place, and they briefly discussed how Chang could make arrangements and provide the proper connections – here they exemplify the modern capitalist lifestyle that seeks exclusive, exotic experiences. But simultaneousy they praise the simple monastic life. When I think about the future, I sometimes think that this sort of living will become extremely important, just as it was in the era that followed the decline and fall of Rome. Life in comunity becomes a way of withstanding the eroding force of history.

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