Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Life at the Table

Why do we eat out? That was the question I was asking myself today at lunch. I was in a little Italian-styled restaurant where we had convinced the owners to do a progressive wine list. Unfortunately they hired a manager, still wet behind the ears, who thinks he knows better. “The people can’t find the wines they are looking for; we need to make it easy for them.” We were – by arranging the wines in the order of their styles so they wouldn’t have to depend on the constant turn of wait staff and managers who have no real life experience in these matters.

Young people with old minds – old people with young thoughts – the argument about people wanting something more traditional is just not correct. If that were the case, this same style of wine list, which we put into use in the most traditional Italian restaurant over 10 years ago and which worked magnificently, well it would have failed there and then. But it didn’t. So what we have here is a failure to communicate.

The picture above was shot in 1969 on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, in what is still known as Café Mediterraneum. It was a magic moment for me seeing the light coming though the windows and on to the table.

The table, that one ring circus where it all takes place; food, wine, romance, engagements, break ups, life and death.

All through the world we break our stride and stop. Today a friend and I just took the time to talk about our world, our families, our time on earth, and yes a little of the wine business. With this new crop of ill prepared restaurateur, it gives us much to ponder over; lots of mulch for the fields in which we still must toil.

The Italians have been wonderful for all of us. Who would have thought a simple plate of pasta would give so much pleasure day after day, throughout the generations? A little flour, an egg, some water. A little tomato or maybe some porcini. And cheese, my heroin.

Not just the Italians though. One day on a Good Friday in Frankfurt, we happened to walk by their Wall Street, the Börse. Outside, tents had been erected and impromptu wine bars were pouring Riesling and Muller-Thurgau to the businessmen and women. What a grand revelation – the leaders of business for one of the strongest industrial and economic powers, lollygagging outside, talking to each other on the eve of a holiday. Drinking wine, not making money. How civilized, I mused, how very wonderful.

The fabulous city of slow food, Eataly, in Torino. Table after table of the different stages of eating, with people, families, sitting together, enjoying prosciutto or gelato. The table, always the table.

A picnic in Perigord. A visit to the farmers market and a wine shop or two. A roasted chicken, some potatoes, and green beans. And red wine from Cahor. A light breeze through the trees that were shading and cooling us, and people we just met were strangers no more. Today one of the couples emailed me from New York. They were at Babbo and were wondering about a Traminer on the list. Not some traditional, tired wine list. They had their hands on a list with spunk, with balls. For lovers and fighters, with passion and purpose.

It doesn’t always have to be life changing. After all, it’s a meal, something we do thousands of times in our lives. But it needn’t be mundane. We have plenty of choice in the matter, how we nourish ourselves through the days of our lives. Sometime it might be a simple freshly baked loaf of bread and some cheese. And of course the wine. It could be burgers and Brunello or it could be Fontina and Fumin. Or it could be a bottle of cognac and a lifetime of stories.

But restaurateurs take notice – we are traveling more – we are expecting more from you and your concepts. It is too easy to make a simple, wholesome meal at home. We aren’t always looking for some epiphany over Peekytoe crab. We just want you to treat our future memories with the proper care and feeding.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the little tavola caldas in Sicily and my mother's table in Westerly, RI. She made the best meatballs ever. As you say, so much happens at the table.

The Passionate Palate said...

Fantastic post - full of truth and feeling. Yes, restaurateurs need to take note of those things. I, too, am in love with the process of coming together over food and wine, and I like the way you showed examples of it from different walks of life. And - I LOVE that shot of the chair in the Cafe'. I used to hang out in Cafe Mediterraneum during college in the early 80s, and was enchanted with the history you could feel in the place!

I just found your blog, and will be back!

Unknown said...

Ahhh... the sounds of ancient northern history! I was told *often* by my mother that I was an expert at lollygagging. "Quit lollygagging around and do..." she would say. How I miss that admonishment, for it kept me honest.

But, it didn't stop me.

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