Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Faux-scarcity and is this stew I'm cooking ready yet???

Stop the presses: I think Jessica Grose has a point. But with the caveat that yes, her latest, about how frustrating it is to have to wait to get seated at trendy New York restaurants with her husband and their many cool friends who are constantly inviting them out for dinner, dinners they can presumably well afford but ugh the wait is sooo long, is yet another addition to this genre. It may even define the genre. But it's at least not about spending a lot for a shirt, or having, at around age 30, married a dude.

And I think there's a nugget within this latest piece that's applicable even to those with less fabulous existences, whose lives do not include jaunty jogs through DUMBO, namely: if you're someone who gets crabby when hungry, this is something you will live with your whole life. It's a blood-sugar thing, not related to whether one does appreciate food (like yours truly) or not (like Grose). People who don't experience this don't get it, and assume it's overgrown-spoiled-child behavior. When in fact, while the behavior can be controlled, the sensation cannot. Some of us experience hunger as cranky, as in we don't even know we're hungry, until all of a sudden we get kind of annoyed about something petty. We can, as functional, self-aware adults, not express this annoyance (at least around those outside our immediate families), but it's there. In any survival-of-the-fittest situation, we would not fare well, which is why it surprises me that Grose and I, presumably both of an ethnicity often historically required to be "fittest" to escape pogroms and such, ended up stuck with this trait.

Along with that nugget, another potential nugget, something that was barely alluded to in the article but would have added to it tremendously: the whole thing with the lines is marketing. Inaccessibility is basically how places in NY (and, as I will get to in a moment, beyond) sell themselves. This can be done via unmarked entrances (announcing themselves only, in the case of one place I remember walking by, with that letter grade the health department now puts in the window of every restaurant), by spreading the word that only the very glamorous will get a table, or by making sure there's a line. Other variants of this: hiring waitstaff whose main purpose is making all customers feel old, square and suburban. Putting up a list of "rules" patrons must follow, once mainly a fixture of independent coffee shops, now popular in restaurants as well. (And yes, I consider Dos Toros a restaurant.) Making sure the prices vastly exceed what one would expect given the decor, because if a burger costs $20 in this dump, it must taste amazing! All of this points to the phenomenon we at WWPD know to call hipsters-make-your-food.

And we, the food-lovers, buy into it, even if Grose, food-indifferent, does not. We think we're above it, but we're intrigued when a sushi place has its own version of the Ten Commandments at the entrance and, once seated, you get a menu with a somewhat different edit of the same list. (And no, this was not in NY.) We think that the pizza at Artichoke must be worth the wait, and even after waiting the wait and learning that no, it's not so wonderful, we still notice that a new branch opened near campus, and think that maybe we will use one of our precious few opportunities to dine in NY now that we don't live there anymore on a slice, because wasn't Artichoke supposed to be something? We wanted desperately to try Locanda Verde when we lived within walking (well, hiking) distance of it, and our desperation only increased when we were revealed time and again not to be cool (or forward-thinking) enough to get a table. It's faux-scarcity, kind of like how Amy Chua tried to raise her kids as if they were poor immigrants, even when they were neither poor nor immigrants. Powerful stuff.

If this trickery works, it's in part because so many of us are profoundly affected by our appetites, and remember as the best meal we've eaten recently the one we ate when we'd missed the previous meal and gone running that morning. Some of us are so set on the idea of preferring food quality to atmosphere that a hopeless atmosphere actually fools us into thinking food tastes better.*

Grose must really not care about food, to be immune to this manipulation. To accept it as manipulation and reject it would be something else, but to find it only comprehensible in this really abstract sense why restaurants have long waits - "if you’re a hot spot, you can serve more customers when you’re not reserving tables, and it always looks good to have a line" - suggests a genuine absence of interest in one of the five senses. Grose merely accepts at face value that her friends appreciate good food. While a real cynic would say that her friends are hipster foodies - "sheep," as commenters put it - and get on line for the sake of being on a line with others dressed ironically, I think it's more about this trickery.

But is it trickery, or rather, does that matter? Given that we're talking about a multifaceted sensory experience, what's the difference if we think we think the food is superlative, and if the food actually is?

*There are, however, limits. Today at the Whole Foods café area, the room adjacent to the tables was holding a staff training meeting. It was easy enough, what with the big glass doors, to see in. The lecture including things like, "True or false: [Disgusting pest the likes of which the mere thought of can induce nausea] manifests itself in [disgusting way you wouldn't have imagined]." I might have accepted the soft pretzel's weird aftertaste, but not after that.


kei said...

Yeah, I think the faux-scarcity/line thing got lost in the need to eat ordeal. It's so weird how she's not interested in food. I think that explains the tossing aside the suggestion to carry around a bag of Cheerios; the more mature route (also a trick of fashion models, I've read) is to have a baggie of almonds, I would think. But if you don't care about food, Cheerios or almonds or dried fruit--who cares, as long as it just does the trick of setting chemicals in the right places and such.

I can't imagine lines in NYC for certain places. There are a few in Chicago--Hot Doug's for "gourmet encased meats" a.k.a. weird hot dogs; heavy metal themed burgers at Kuma's Corner; brunch at M. Henry and a number of other similar hot brunch spots. My method for avoiding lines has been to arrive early, which wouldn't work for Grose's dinners or going out to meet friends who have particular schedules or desires (or lack of them, like the lack of a desire to avoid standing in an uncalled for line). One might miss out on some things--respectively: duck fat fries, beer to go with your heavy metal burger, or sleep--but especially as it gets colder, the lines look more and more ridiculous.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, the ubiquitous baggie of almonds! Because god forbid snacks be something like, say, a brownie at 4pm. (Typing this is reminding me to whip up another batch of those.)

I can't imagine not caring about food, but it seems very... economically efficient? Maybe I could start on my current (and perhaps soon to be blogged) wanty list if I didn't go and do things like spend $8 on a wheel of Camembert.

I'd think in Chicago, the weather, combined with the assumption in many areas that one has arrived by car and not even dressed to spend time outside, would make the line-up-outside approach a tough one to pull off. When I was there just before moving to NJ, my sense was that there are areas where the crowd that would line up will hang out, but the line itself, no. But also, something I'm struck by every time I leave/go to NY, unless a place is very upscale, restaurants in NY are tiny, with little space between tables. I'm thinking especially of places like Westville East, which is basically a line with a few moments of cramped Americana restaurant at the end. Places that serve full, sit-down meals, wine, coffee, the works, will not necessarily have a bathroom, or otherwise have anything beyond a glorified park bench. (Yes, I'm thinking of you, Pepe Rosso on Sullivan.) It makes sense that NY restaurants try to find ways to spin the fact that they're uncomfortable environments into assets. My limited time in non-Hyde-Park-Chicago gave me the impression that this is just not a factor in the same way. I mean, hipsters made the food a friend and I got here, but it was all very chipper, upbeat, customer-comes-first. And there was, not unrelated, space between the tables.