for a history of the menu

When I wrote my master’s thesis on seriousness, I spoke, in the Pauline phrase, as a child – or rather as a child of French philosophy. Thus, I did not look hard enough at English sources to find references to seriousness. I did find that seriousness has never been seriously thematized in philosophy, even though it has been inherent since Socrates made his first wisecrack. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across this while reading Hazlitt – who I read to strengthen my prose style. (My master’s thesis, by the way, is that seriousness never really forms an opposite – it is always a wildcard in the play of the dialectic, and thus functions both to maintain and to deconstruct the system of oppositions within metaphysics. About which I could go on at length, but… being in all things merciful to my readers … I won’t):

“To understand or define the ludicrous, we must first know what the serious is. Now the serious is the habitual stress which the mind lays upon the expectation of a given order of events, following one another with a certain regularity and weight of interest attached to them. When this stress is increased beyond its usual pitch of intensity, so as to overstrain the feelings by the violent opposition of good to bad, or of object to our desires, it becomes the pathetic or tragical. The ludicrous, or comic, is the unexpected loosening or relaxing this stress below its usual pitch of intensity, by such an abrupt transposition of the order of our ideas, as taking the mind unawares, throws it off its guard, startles it into a lively sense of pleasure, and leaves no time nor inclination for painful reflections.”

There is much that is wrong with this – and especially the naïve distinction between pain and pleasure – but the nice thing about it is that Hazlitt recognizes that the serious is distinct not just from the ludicrous, but from the tragic.

Now, myself, as a loser, I have found that every oracle in my life eventually pokes a big stick up my ass except for the ludicrous – and so I have followed it like my own personal destiny, and here I now sit, a crow in all but feathers, cawing over the corpse of the American culture in its Bushian phase, where painful reflection mixes inextricably with the clownish. That culture, as I grew up with it, I realize dimly, is an aspect of war culture, which has its zones and manners.

But on to the subject of this post, which is existential freedom, liberalism, and the menu.

A few days ago, LI was visiting our local video store when the clerks put on a movie that stands out, in our mind, for loathsomeness. Not the loathsomeness of catsup flecked fx, nor that of porno raunch, but a more dreadful, soul destroying loathsomeness, a glimpse into the dark abysm of the middle class soul. I am speaking, of course, of When Sally Met Harry. Or is it When Harry Met Sally? In any case, I was visiting just as Meg Ryan was seated with -- oh, what’s his name, the guy who plays Harry, that sadsack comic – and she was ordering something at a restaurant. And it flashed on my senses that this scene was obviously referencing the scene in Five Easy Pieces when Jack Nicholson tried to order breakfast at a diner. Now, while FEP isn’t my favorite piece of cinema, the anger in Nicholson has a didactic quality that LI likes – for here, in a nutshell, is the problem with social contract liberalism, with its notion that freedom is about preferences. The solution to that anger, in FEP, for this form of liberalism, is expanding the preferences – hence, the same scene in WHMS, in which we get glimpses of what the hippie revolution wrought in lifestyle America – a place where a decent latte is never too far away. Or something like that.

Now LI has long contended that freedom isn’t defined by preferences – that, in fact, the idea of identifying freedom in that technical, economic sense with political freedom per se is exactly where the libertarian goes wrong. There is a rather beautiful phrase is G. Baum’s book on Karl Polanyi: “This, then, is Polanyi’s orginal argument: the longing of the bourgeois conscience transcends the possibilities of bourgeois society. What this conscience calls for is the creation of a transparent society that allows its members to estimate the effects of what they are doing and thus assume ethical responsibility for their actions.”

I am not sure about the transparency, but I am sure about the longing and the anger when that longing is marginalized, or translated into mere preference mongering.

Now, one thing about both movies is that the scenes are centered around the interaction between a text and social action – the text being the menu. I have looked around, but in vain, for a history of menus. Menus are considered to be so obvious that the fact that menus weren’t present in places where people came to eat – inns, basically – until the start of restauranting in the late 18th century doesn’t really register as a historically interesting event. To see how people would enter an inn and order food or drink, look, for instance, at Don Quixote. Or the 18th century picaresque. No character brandishes a menu in these texts. In fact, the same thing is true in Dickens -- characters are continually being brought chops and beer, but you don't see the characters asking, well, what type of beer do you have? Although by this time, actually, that sentence was starting to make sense.

This is why my next post will be about Grimod de la Reyniere, the man who wrote the first popular restaurant guide, the Almanach des gourmands. Overshadowed by Brillat-Savarin, Grimod de la Reyniere is now experiencing a little renaissance of interest by pop culture scholars.

Or at least that is what I think the next post will be about.


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