Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Raw and the Cooked: restaurant as bridge

The Raw and the Cooked (Le Cru et le cuit) is one of the titles from Mythologiques I-IV written by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Here he notes that in changing raw foods into cooked delicacies we transform nature into culture.

By doing so we civilize our animal instincts, and this I think is the role of a restaurant. In a public eatery we do not diminish gustatory pleasure, but we savor and enjoy prepared food in the company and conversation of others, or alone in thought and reflection. The point is that your mind is also engaged, creating a symbiosis with your body.

Recent anthropological studies by Prof Richard Wrangham of Harvard University underscore the evolutionary association of brain to gut. He reasons that more blood is needed to keep the gut going, and when thinking man discovered fire, cooking evolved, creating more easily digestible fuel. A bigger brain, he says, eventually led to a smaller gut.

The etymology of the word restaurant is to restore oneself, physically and mentally. It's a place to socialize, where interaction becomes culture as restaurants mirror society. We see this in the theatrical aspects of a restaurant, particularly themed ones, with all the mystery and tension of performance that goes on behind a proscenium or behind swinging curtain doors. When dining in a restaurant, nature triumphs with culture as the restaurant bridges this gap.

The trend for quick meals and not socializing with the folks who sit beside you, but with mostly faceless, masked, or cryptic personae on your wireless, is exhilarating for some as techno-man leaps into the 21st century, and distressing to others as they sense a regression in social behavior because of fast food influences.

This is a question the restaurant industry and society in general faces. Are we in a free fall or will we find a new plateau? Fast food, raw food: been there done that.