My wife and I stand there by the table exhausted but satisfied as the products of our culinary labours were carefully presented to the dinner guests. This dinner party was no slapdash meal put together on the fly, but a proud display of accumulated cultural knowledge, emotional labour and conscious exertion. Why then did I feel the guests were uncomfortable by the abundance of food prepared for their benefit? Was it the crockery which someone had described as ‘fancy? Personally, I had always found the trend for plain white a little dull, a mixture of convenience and the bland good taste Northern European countries were celebrated for. If It signified good taste well I believe the opposite was true. It denied the complexity of the food it supported and the cultures that created it. Perhaps the preference for the white and rather severe crockery was an unconscious protestant reaction against the florid Catholicism of yesteryear’s tableware.
No, I realised the complexity had migrated from the plate to the people around us. Apart from a culture wide preference for white crockery we seemed to have no culture of food that united us. The cooking shows had deceived us. The tables full of people breaking bread were a sham. The plate had become an ideological battle ground each with its own militias. Lebanon had moved into the plate; the lifestyle gurus had become the new apostles of taste and each had their own take on God. There was no place for secular appetites. We were now at war with ourselves.
And so, arranged before me was a typical snapshot of the modern dinner party. To my right was the vegetarian who sat there patiently, armoured against the comments and barely repressed irritation of his hosts with the unshakeable self-confidence of the righteous. Let us not talk about their extremist relative the vegan or the guests whose variety of diets were designed to address weight loss, politics or the bewildering range of allergies that now covered for the anxieties of the modern age.
Each, I noted, had managed to throw a cloak of virtue over the reality that food in all its complexity was a step too far. Did they silently yearn for the simplicity of their childhood when the bread was white and there was no suggestion of the bewildering variety of grains and starters that would arrive to disrupt their comfortable certainties? Food for these people was reduced to a series of stark choices and not an endless compromise or exploration of the limits of taste.
It was the conceit of the cosmopolitan liberal who rightly or wrongly believed our minds were broad enough and our palates wide enough to celebrate the amazing variety on offer. It was then with a sense of shock that I faced my Trumpian comeuppance. It wasn’t quite the parade of ticky torches but a realisation that most food should remain in the cook books and confined to a series of gorgeous photos. Orientalism repurposed for the palate where the idea was infinitely more seductive than the untidy reality.
But as in Lebanon we could all call time out from the endless skirmishes for sweets. No disagreement there. When it came to sweets we could all agree that we believed in the same god.
And so, their colourful plates were gratefully cleared away. Their effusive thanks strangely sincere. After an evening spent surveying the tourist traps and confronting all manner of strange sights and smells they could now retreat to the comfortable blandness of their hotel room and a packet of chips.
As I collected those plates whose beautiful designs were imagined by a now forgotten artist I imagined the tablecloth enfolding them like a funeral shroud. Their time had passed. They had no place now except in a museum or in the sepia photos of a bygone era. I had effectively raised the white flag.
The white plates laden with sweets signalled that the period of culinary confrontation was over for the day. Back to barracks while we plot the next stage of our civil war.