The Food Lab’s Reading List, Day 9: Down and Out in Paris and London

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Author’s Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I’ll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren’t necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

First published in 1933, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London bears the distinction of being the oldest book on my monthlong list of recommended reading. It’s also George Orwell’s first book, written as a novel, though in reality it’s an autobiography. Before the cynical parable of corrupted revolutions, populated by anthropomorphic farm critters, in Animal Farm; before the nightmarish, dystopian, but all-too-realistic future of 1984, George Orwell’s primary research was on class struggles and the realities of blue-collar work and poverty.

Orwell, then going by his given name of Eric Blair, was neither born nor raised poor, but he always had a fascination with that sector of society. In a less gonzo (or skilled) writer’s hands, the type of research he did could have ended up smacking of a type of Orientalism, an outsider-looking-in perspective that treated the poor more as specimens for examination rather than complex lives. When Orwell found himself penniless after the theft of his savings from teaching, rather than turning to his family for aid, he embraced the life of poverty (as well as such a life can be embraced), falling in with criminals, smugglers, drug dealers, and cooks. If he could have escaped this life at any moment and moved back to a comfortable middle-class existence on the Thames, he doesn’t show it.

Kinda like Batman. But with less punching and capes.

“When you have a hundred francs in the world,” Orwell writes, “you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that. You are bored, but you are not afraid. You think vaguely, ‘I shall be starving in a day or two—shocking, isn’t it?’ And then the mind wanders to other topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own anodyne.”

His accounts of working as a plongeur—a dishwasher—under an abusive chef in a bug-infested basement in Paris are a remarkable look at what restaurants were like in the early 20th century. It’s Kitchen Confidential before Kitchen Confidential and, unlike that great work, contains very little in the way of BS. Orwell’s prose is clear but unromantic. His thoughts are confined to only his own experiences among the destitute, with very little in the way of philosophical musing or intellectual proselytizing. Who has time for such things when you’re literally scraping the bottoms of barrels to earn your next meal?

And yet, his words convey insight into class struggles and the nature of poverty. “To sum it up,” he writes, “a plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in him and consequently are afraid of him…. These are only my own ideas about the basic facts, made without reference to immediate economic questions, and no doubt largely platitudes. I present them as a sample of the thoughts that are put into one’s head by working in a hotel.”

There’s not much of a lesson or story arc in this book. There is no real metamorphosis of character or position in life. It starts with the protagonist struggling to scrape by in Paris; the middle is full of….again, stories of how he struggles to scrape by; and it ends with him borrowing two pounds to scrape by for the next eight days in London. The Paris half of the novel revolves mostly around themes of poverty and hunger, while the second half, set in Depression-era London, focuses on unemployment and the different sorts of problems it brings to society. Perhaps the closest the book comes to having a moral is in its exploration of the various characters that populate the underworld, and its assertion that even the lowliest tramp or beggar is a complicated character who may be worthy of charity, but not of pity.

“I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”

This book is short, easy to read, and packed with firsthand insight. Required reading for anyone who wants to know what being truly destitute means.

You can buy Down and Out in Paris and London here.

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October 12, 2017 at 06:48PM

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