The Satyricon and modern dining

Some worsts for the year in anticipation of our Best of Atlanta issue

I recently reread Satyricon, often regarded as the Western world’s first novel, written by Petronius, a member of the court of Nero, toward the end of the first century. The longest chapter of the satirical book is a description of a banquet hosted by Trimalchio, a freed slave who has become immensely wealthy.

Although Petronius’ motives are controversial, it’s impossible to read the banquet description without thinking of life in our own culture during the last few years. Generally, the banquet satirizes the excesses of the nouveau riche. Eerily, like dining trends in our own time, Trimalchio is interested in changing the form of food, dressing up offal and turning dining into theater. He’s even into local food – it’s all from his own estates – and he psychologizes dining by pairing his guests with dishes appropriate to their astrological sign.

It is a measure of our time that we observe most of these same phenomena and, with rare exception, regard them only as completely positive, undeserving of even mild critical scrutiny. But I’m taking my cue from Petronius for citing some of the most dubious dining trends of late.

It would be no exaggeration to say that part of the precipitating events of the current recession was our collective nouveau-riche behavior – acquiring huge debt to finance lifestyles we could not afford. Restaurants catered to this, becoming operatic in their aesthetic scale – whether we’re talking the gigantic Buddha inside Aja or the post-industrial drama worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis inside Concentrics restaurants One Midtown Kitchen and Two Urban Licks.

I’m not faulting the restaurants for their theatrical scale per se, and many such spaces employ good staff, but their bottom line is to keep the trendy amused. And the trendy require an ever-changing menu of choices. Thus the never-ending opening of restaurants by Concentrics and other chains in town. Thus too a high turnover in kitchens.

As the nouveau riche are reclassified as the nouveau pauvre, their role as consumers is assumed by members of the business traveling class. Thus, if you’re looking for a pricey restaurant with plenty of trend points, hotels have the market. Indeed, pricey restaurants that are actually part of chains, such as Craft, Il Mulino, Spice Market and BLT Steak, continue to open as quickly as new hotels are built in our city. These have some of the characteristics of the theatrical spaces mentioned above, but their theatricality depends more on another dubious trend of recent years: the rise of the celebrity chef.

Chefs such as Tom Colicchio and Jean-Georges Vongerichten are part of the movement that has turned cooking into a spectator sport, as Michael Pollan puts it. You can eat very well at most of these hotel restaurants – they often employ good chefs such as Ian Winslade at Spice Market – but you can’t avoid the sense that you’re eating simulacra of the founding chef’s menu. It’s all very creative, until you go back a second or third time. Compare such restaurants to local chef-driven spots such as Cakes & Ale, La Pietra Cucina or Restaurant Eugene.

Speaking of the latter reminds me of Eugene’s sister restaurant, Holeman & Finch. Yes, I know it makes me a philistine to say so, but the “whole animal” movement that is featured there and at Abattoir is truly worthy of Petronius’ pen. I understand: It’s all about sustainability. If you’re going to kill an animal, you should eat as much of it as you can.

But to me this is one of those arguments where political correctness protects vulgarity. Trimalchio serves up kidneys and testicles to the Geminis present (because the organs are pairs, like the twins), along with dormice drizzled with honey and poppy seeds for all. How “sustainable” can you get – serving mice – but do we really want to go there? Why shouldn’t H&F serve dormice, along with the occasional testicles they offer?

During my first meal at Abattoir, a dining room literally built in a slaughterhouse, I noted that when not in use, all of the computer monitors in the dining room glowed with an image of the head of a dead pig. I found the image altogether repulsive and I asked every server who came to our table what they thought about it and all of them expressed discomfort (probably in part because I even asked).

We enjoyed our meal of tripe and lamb kidneys but I could not shake the unpleasant feeling of dining amid the ghosts of slaughtered animals. I have thought a lot about why I find this so disquieting. It’s not as if I didn’t grow up in the South, where soul food cooks have long used offal in their cooking. And it’s not as if I haven’t seen whole animal carcasses bound for the butcher. Hell, when I was a kid, my favorite food in all the world was pickled lamb tongue.

It’s tempting to blame my sentimentality about animals for my discomfort in such venues. But I think it relates more to something like exhibitionism of nose-to-tail dining. It’s another expression of the theatrical, where “true foodies” convene to eat pig ears and congratulate themselves on their esoteric tastes, when the reality is that such cuts have been a mainstay of the diets of poor people for centuries.

Similarly, while the farm-to-table movement is laudable on many levels, it takes on a pretentious ambiance at times. Trimalchio brags that most of the food he serves is basically local, taken from his own estates. This may be another vulgar way of noting his wealth, but it’s impossible to read this 2,000 years later without thinking about the clubby banquets served in farm fields and the fetishism of organic produce, which may or may not taste as good as conventionally grown produce. And that says nothing about the way the organic label has become a marketing tool.

It is especially amusing to see Trimalchio’s obsession with playing with the forms of food in the era of molecular gastronomy. Trimalchio’s chef does not go as far as Richard Blais in tampering with the chemistry of food, but rolling out a roasted mama pig that is nursing baby pigs (hyper-realistic cakes) and sewing living birds into the guts of another animal is an attempt to dramatize the elements of cooking and eating. Indeed, Trimalchio is obsessed with death, and the meal he serves continually contrasts the living and the dead. The offal almost alludes to the augury of reading entrails.

One of the perils of molecular gastronomy is becoming so enamored of the “deconstruction” that appetite may be ignored. A spectacular example of that a few years back was a dish served at Shaun’s. It was topped with a foam that looked exactly as though someone had drooled copious amounts of spit onto it.  When we remarked to a server that it looked like spit, she replied, “But is it spit that tastes good?”

A particularly unsatisfying trend (with no analogue in Satyricon) is the rise in McDonald’s sales while full-service restaurants experience a precipitous drop. This occurs despite continual articles about the perils of eating fast food, along with frequently screened films such as Super Size Me. The consumption of literally billions of burgers at McDonald’s has contributed mightily to the soaring obesity rate among children.

It’s a distressing irony that the culture’s obsession with food does not, outside the foodie elite, encourage healthier eating. We’ve always been schizoid in this respect. We revile fat people but eat like pigs. And don’t think fast food restaurants don’t exploit this fact. New York chain restaurants have been doing all they can to stave off enforcement of a law that requires posting of nutritional content. Meanwhile, nearly all fast food restaurants, after perfunctorily adding salads to their menus, exploit the recession economy by offering extremely low-cost, high-calorie meals.

Another relative parallel with Satyricon is the pomposity exhibited by Whole Foods founder John Mackey this year. Mackey wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journalhttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204251404574342170072865070.html that opposed any kind of nationalized health care. Although he is of course entitled to express any opinion he wants, it was a shock to his progressive-heavy customer base that he took this position. In fact, a boycott followed.

What was most surprising about the incident is that Mackey, obviously out of touch with commoners, didn’t anticipate the furor. As marketing goes, the op-ed seemed virtually calculated to offend his customers. Did Mackey assume that progressives with enough money to shop in his expensive stores shared his libertarianism? I can’t help but see the boycott as something of a reaction to that – progressives needing to clean up their credentials. (And it needs to be said that retail boycotts are rarely successful.)

Finally, I wanted to mention the worst restaurant that I’ve been to in the last year. Harry Bissett’s, a popular Athens restaurant, opened a venue in Buckhead that closed fairly quickly. Besides serving New Orleans-inspired food that seemed to belong to the ‘70s, the restaurant had the most clueless service I think I’ve ever encountered. Our server brought half-filled water glasses to the table, argued with us about the ingredients in a dish that were plainly described in the menu, complained when we changed our order because he didn’t know how to make that happen, and so on and so forth.

Had that server been on Trimalchio’s banquet staff, he would have been flogged on the spot.

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