VILE BLOWS AND BUFFETS OF THE WORLD
I HAVE, FOR SOME WEEKS, been living a buffet to mouth existence. It has reconvinced me of what, certainly, I already knew – which is that the food of so-called international hotels is little short of an offence to human culture in all its rich diversity.
Consider first the nature of a meal.
Meals are arrangements of tastes, textures and colours. They can be almost casual; or carefully, almost painfully, contrived. They can be a Whistler Nocturne (‘a pot of paint in the public’s face’ said Ruskin; the distilled experience of a lifetime, said Whistler); or they can have all the attention to detail, the gastronomic pointillisme, of a Seurat. But the point is that a good meal will always reflect a culture and be grounded in it. Every meal is the end product of a history.
Some of the most memorable meals I have eaten have been eye-opening introductions to new and different ways of food and of life: the banquet on the shores of the West Lake in Hangzhou, prepared by the sole survivors of imperial cookery (whom Chou En Lai had protected from the Red Guards with a detachment of the People’s Liberation Army); the seemingly endless succession of tit-bits and hors d’oeuvres which preceded lamb, gloriously impregnated with yoghurt and mint, at a circumcision party in the Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul (which should certainly be more famous for its food than its associations with Agatha Christie); the meze in the Eucalyptus (one of the hidden treasures of Jerusalem) lovingly prepared, and served, in a nearly empty restaurant where the only other diners were North American Jews who had settled for vast quantities of chips with mayonnaise; the heady first encounter, in a noisy family restaurant in Malacca (where the canes come from), with the gastronomy of that fascinating and resilient people, the Peranakan, who have blended Malay, Thai, Chinese and Indian influences into something rich, strange and satisfying.
Then consider the International Hotel Buffet.
The Never-never-land of the buffet – the place where tired buffets go to die – is Las Vegas. Until I first encountered its Sunday Brunch, the Desert Inn was to me a legendary world in which Noel sang ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, and Ol’ Blue-Eyes made his comes-back. But, after an idiosyncratic Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Guardian Angels (where the com-mere of the Eucharist – a fiercesomely directive lady – told us that the collection accepted ‘all usual credit cards and casino chips’) we passed to a world previously unimagined, where large persons from Idaho filled their plates (simultaneously) with rare roast beef and chocolate mousse.
‘Brunch’, of course, says it all.
It is simply impossible to conflate breakfast – the most culturally determined and determining of all meals – with any other. George Steiner once remarked that the differences which had resulted in the two most destructive wars in history could be read from the grave stones of those who died in them: ‘Ein Deutsche Soldat’ on one set; ‘Mort pour la Patrie’ on another; regimental badge, name, rank and number on the third.
But armies march on their stomachs. He might just as well have reflected on the differences expressed in the breakfasts of which those condemned men might have dreamed: porridge, smoked haddock and a poached egg, toast and Frank Cooper’s marmalade for one; a bowl of milky coffee and a pain chocolat, for another; rye bread, bierwurst and cheese for the third.
To combine bacon, roast beef. smoked salmon, crayfish, camembert and crepes suzette on one plate and call it ‘brunch’ is an offence against reason and against nature. But the buffets of hotels across the globe are groaning with such incompatibilities; and their customers come back for more…and more.
Those who defend the International Buffet make it sound high-minded and educational. It allows, they will tell you, people who have never eaten cuisines other than their own to try things they cannot pronounce; it emboldens them to combinations of tastes which would go otherwise unexplored.
This is scarcely more than poppycock. What the buffet does is to deprive the meal of one of its most essential elements – the sequential.
In every cuisine two things are crucial – what goes with what; and what follows what. ‘Five dishes and a soup’, say the Chinese; and they mean a group of dishes carefully orchestrated by the host, having within and about them, pattern and development. The same five dishes strung out along one side of a cavernous dining room and interspersed with coq au vin, Bismarck herrings and cottage cheese do not constitute anything like the same thing. Nor is wandering, plate in hand, from one hot plate to the next a substitute for the settled enjoyment of fine flavours and lively conversation.
On the contrary the buffet, by allowing the diner to impose her own presuppositions on someone else’s cuisine, actually reinforces those prejudices – much in the way in which Western liberal intellectuals arrange other people’s belief systems in an ethnological museum whose purpose is to demonstrate the superiority of their own.
Parson Woodforde, it is true, enjoyed many dishes at one time – on June 5, 1784, for example, ‘a very genteel Dinner, Soals and Lobster Sauce, Spring Chicken boiled and a Tongue, a Piece of rost Beef, Soup, a Fillet of Veal rosted with Morells and Trufles, and Pigeon Pye for the first course – Sweetbreads, a green Goose and Peas, Apricot Pye, Cheesecakes, Stewed Mushrooms and Trifle’.
But the introduction of service a la Russe altered all that; altered it even more, I am inclined to think, than did the divine Mrs David, when she managed to take time off from her eventful sexuality to persuade us all of the sublimity of an omelette, a salad and a glass of red wine.
We now have different notions of gentility. We are a more abstemious Church and Nation. It would be perverse to undo the progress already made. And it is, after all, but a short step from the peripatetic habits of brunch at the Desert Inn to the shameless barbarism of those curious confections of the reconstituted which people eat everywhere nowadays from trays of expanded polystyrene.
Let us be clear. There is little, if anything, to be said in favour of the buffet. If Christianity (as Bishop David Shepherd tirelessly reminded us) has a ‘bias to the poor’, the buffet has a bias to the obese. It is bad enough having to put up with a smorgasbord attitude to theology (which seems to be the prevailing characteristic of the bishops of the American Episcopal Church) without allowing it to infect a far more serious area, like gastronomy.
The truth is plain. Nothing which has spent an eventful period of its life in a chaffing dish can be altogether sanitary.
The Grand Inquisitor, you will remember, on first arrival in Venice from Spain (or was it Simpson’s-in-the-Strand) expresses, by the breakfast he commandeers, a Spaniard’s (or is it W. S. Gilbert’s) disdain for a cuisine of which he is ignorant: ‘a plate of macaroni and a rusk’.
But better even that than a buffet.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark