Why does George Orwell prefer never to eat in smart restaurants again at the end of ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’? (1933)
He argues that the luxury of such places are a sham. not only a sham but a swindle. for exorbitant prices, you are served a meal that has had every conceivable corner cut out of it. i must say i agree. from the Jackson Pollock-esque use of a few sauces on top of a sliver of entree to the high price of designer sodas, wines and beers, tipping a waiter who would just as soon serve you out of a garbage can.
Orwell, during the late 1920s worked the Paris service industry first as dishwasher in a luxury hotel, second at a small restaurant, as plongeur, or dishwasher/prep cook. I would say that despite detailed regulation which is regularly enforced at most establishments – whether Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles or Berlin – the problem of cleanliness in the kitchen is still an issue.
But the heart of the matter is the work involved. He presents the fact that the staff of a restaurant (hotel or any other establishment) is concerned with service, expediency and profit. to keep profits high, fewer employees must work long hours, waste as little as they can get away with, being able to hide sub-par materials in the process of transforming it to an elegant meal – if only on the surface.
more importantly, these employees are little more than slaves. There is no doubt many levels of prep-cooks and dishwashers and sub-chef kitchen staff, at many eves of income, who’d not think of themselves as underpaid wage slaves. But the point I’m trying to make is not to sound the alarm bell on behalf of all underpaid kitchen staff through the world. there are many other positions of like it that suffer the same dilemma.
Our underpaid kitchener can hardly support a life of comfort on this wage. a warm house for himself and perhaps his family, enough quality food to eat, clothes and education. the basics of a normal human life. he is working hard for this, harder than others often, in heat and filth and with no reward for a job well done, aside for perhaps the excess of the kitchens output in form of food and drink. being hard work, Orwell points out that it is taken for granted that it is valuable work. Or is it?
Luxury restaurants provide the convenience of being served an exotic meal, the pomp and performance, the atmosphere, and the feeling that one is making a grand gesture which translates into triple and quadruple digit bills at the end of the night. Orwell’s supposition is that a home cooked meal is infinitely cheaper, more quality, than a luxury restaurant. “Essentially a ‘smart’ hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things that they do not really want.”
No doubt, from Orwell’s position at the time, from the bottom looking up, its easy to dismiss the millions of people who dine at restaurants on point of habit and principle. but he accounts for this in his analogy of the rickshaw puller in asia – hard, unrewarding work for small pay to a poor class, but a luxury to the rider, only in so far as that those who ride a rickshaw “consider it vulgar to walk”.
Another thing he is getting at is the benefit of ‘work’ in society. He begins by presenting the addage “A slave should be working when he is not sleeping” (Marcus Cato, 2nd Century BCE). The effect being that slaves should have no leisure time in which to bemoan their condition, rally together, and upset the status quo. Not that everyone languishing in a poor job can be reduced to a slave, but there is a parallel in the amount of drudgery and any reasonable expectations at advancing one social status from point A to B. What it comes down to is, that lower classes are kept in a constant state of flux as of wether they are going to be able to ‘pull through’, even in normal everyday circumstances that provide the basics of civilized living.
This condition is perpetuated by the upper classes, who do not want to lose any of their own liberties by spreading them even thinner amongst someone lower than themselves. This could be anything from a house in the suburbs to a family vacation ‘to Italy’ (where siad family will stay in hotels and dine in luxury restaurants). This is fear of the mob.
“Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like negroes and white men. But in reality there is no such difference. The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.” So the cycle repeats, and even today we have billions of jobs created merely for the need of something to keep the underclass busy, and at that constantly occupied in at least what is supposed to be 8 hour a day jobs – down from the 15 hour work days Orewll describes having participated in during the late 1920s. Not that those extra hours are now leisure in which we empower ourseves with. De rigueur is the shopping, television, video games and fantasy novels we are convinced to spend time and ever more money on. Also, in thanks to that 8 hour work day, even more individuals can be employed, to take part in the cycle as populations grow in order to provide more consumers for the products that the rich are selling us. More breakfast cereal, more wide screen TVs, more hair products, more fashionable clothing, more luxury restaurants and hotels.
Henry Miller (whose Paris experience postdates Orwell’s by something like a decade) came to the conclusion as well, that this drudgery, this busy work, is needless, and particularly with the urgency that it sometimes demands. All this work, will get done. If man were left to his leisure, he will eat, he will have a home. He may not have the need to make sure that the LCD is secure on a new assembly line television in a factory that is made to be sold he knows not where to he knows not who, destined to be trashed in another year for the next model so that the owner of said company can have several houses that stand empty for a good part of the year.
Does this mean that I am against restaurants altogether? Not at all. There is a difference between a ‘smart’ or luxury restaurant, and a place to get a meal. Getting a meal does not require the deal of prestige and multiplied cost that comes with some establishments where the cost is derived from the Brand, the name of the proprietor, or the amount of stars it draws in equally frivolous catalogs, repositories for limitless other effete dining spots and hotel restaurants. There are a dozen or more eateries, taquerías, burger joints, food carts and bistros individually owned in my neighborhood alone. Not to say that any one of them is guaranteed to be especially clean, or their staff isn’t underpaid, but you’re also not paying three times (minimal!) as much for that risk. The last time I did something like that was for my 36th birthday – at a times square restaurant – hardly luxury, but in any case deliberately ornate, with the expectation of paying a premium for it. The food was blander, the drinks exorbitantly priced (this is New York, after all), the atmosphere, although exceptional, was also cheap, and not worth repeating the experience. Next time I feel the need to go out, I’ll go to an Argentinian grill or a burger restaurant where at the going rate $20 will get you a decent meal and a drink. But I agree with Orwell that a meal at home is far more satisfying with just a few simple ingredients from your preferred markets. And I also agree that the cost, for the amount of labor and for quality of product at a fancy restaurant, serves two purposes: To enrich the owner of said restaurant and a status symbol for the diner. Neither of which are appealing to my sensibility.
- George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris (1933, Chapter XXII)
- Henry Miller Reads and Reflects