While having its horror elements, certainly, the satire and "comedy of manners" aspects were clear and catching, too. It is the latter that got me thinking just now. I couldn't help but think of the write-ups I have given to recent dinners like that with Kevin Fleming in Chicago, and others here with Milwaukee friends. It was strange to think, I realized, that people could look at the "restaurant culture" as a status game. Are there really people like this, I wonder? Or is such an, admittedly, over-the-top sketch as the one in the film reflective of just our willingness to see the worst in others: the "adult" version of sneering at anyone who doesn't eat at our group's lunch table in the school cafeteria?
I don't know. I suspect at times that I do find myself surrounded by the best quality of friends possible. I find myself loving dining out with friends not because going to this-and-such restaurant becomes a marker of social achievement, but because it is a potential delight: an ornament of shared experience with which to decorate the love of friends. When I try to jot down a menu from a night out, it's to try to use that particular decoration of the senses as a flag for simply preserving the memory of a time with a friend, and the conversation we enjoyed (and, perhaps, as something of a log in order to aid in the development of a typically under-educated American palate).
Thus, for example, I might remember laughing through the evening Friday night at The Knick, eating two roast duck breasts, served in a chutney of carmelized onions, walnuts, and white raisins, with a wild rice pilaf and an artfully-arranged array of pea pods crossed with spears of carrot and red pepper. And this after a bowl of fabulous clam chowder (New England, of course: I'm no heretic) with maybe some secret wine ingredient added to it, and their Idaho Golden Tater Tots, which I had written about some weeks back. Now, let me say, I worked to remember that litany, particularly the chutney, which was a great mix of biting, neutral, and sweet flavours, respectively. Do I think I'm Way Cool for putting that in my journal? If so, asking the question killed that hope! No, the dinner notes are about the experience themselves, which is, as I noted, really about the company: dining as an instance, an expression, or an opportunity of friendship.
Status? Absurd. I'm just as delighted – if perhaps in different ways – to eat my beloved Trailblazer breakfast (with my options: 2 scrambled eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, four pieces of wheat toast, and two pancakes, for $4.95) at The Junction Eating Place in my undergraduate town of DeKalb: a greasy spoon of the most noble American tradition, or to run off and get the two-piece breast and wing meal at KFC (which I think at my sister's lets me bond in some way with my brother-in-law, who I get the feeling uses me as an excuse to eat things my sister would rather he not). Instead of "status," the word to describe what dining culture is for me is "sacramental."
Sacramental?! As in "a visible sign of an invisible reality?" Yup. Again, the "invisible reality" being visibly expressed or celebrated is the love of friends. In Christian spirituality, particularly in Catholic Christian spirituality, it is the sacramental vision that is at the center of the Catholic spiritual experience. As you develop this sacramental vision, you learn to "see God in all things," as my Jesuit hosts at Marquette would put it. We see God made visible in the material of and rituals including: water, olive oil, married sexual love, and even in the meal of bread and wine. Meals with friends or family take part in some way of this sacrament or Eucharistic vision – this mysticism which becomes an "everyday mysticism," and not the reserve of some spiritual elite. It would be a shame to see the culture of dining distorted, even in the form of expensive restaurants, to being a status symbol of elitism for the sake of being elite: could there be anything more inherently meaningless? But as the occasion of sharing – along with the possible delights of food itself – the surprises of laughter, the high art and low play of conversation, the glimpses of one another's spirits behind smiles and eyes: in my life, there's nothing finer, or more common to our humanity.