I had planned to go to the football on Saturday night. It was a big match and potentially a good match, but it was also my nephew’s birthday. I to’d and fro’d, urged and beseeched until I did what any good uncle would do and gave in. Off to dinner we went.
My nephew had chosen a restaurant in the outer suburbs he liked the sound of. He’s just turned 13, and I guess at 13 you are drawn to the sensational, the big, the loud, the outrageous, and his choice of restaurant was all that.
I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to enjoy the venue, but I was willing to give it a crack. When I pulled into the car-park there was a queue of about 30 metres along leading from the front door and curling around the corner of the building. This was the second sitting of the night. There were no parking spots so I parked in the street beyond – when I left I found cars parked illegally on the nature-strip and in the centre island. The doors opened and the queue of people tumbled in, much like at Myers on Boxing Day. We were led to a table in a corner while people went in all directions and noise reverberated around the barn-like structure.
Soon there were people with plates in their hands lined up to dig into the trays of Chinese food kept lukewarm by the bain-marie. It seems appropriate in a place like this that food should be measured by the metre – at this restaurant there was about 40 metres of food lined up of all types, mainly Chinese, stir-fries and dumplings and Peking duck and spring rolls and curries and seafood and sushi, then there were desserts. People came and went with plates piled high with food they scoffed at the table with a beer or a glass of wine, before going back for more. Empty plates were left on the table or on the floor to be collected by the Asian waitresses buzzing around like so many flies clearing up the mess. Conversation was raucous, but constantly interrupted by return visits to the feast laid out for our consumption.
I’m sure if Hieronymus Bosch were around today he might paint something like this, dark and decadent and ugly, on the theme of gluttony. For me personally it was just about the last place I could imagine myself being by choice. This for me was another level that Dante might of written of in his Inferno. I feel awfully moralistic these days, but looking around there seemed something awfully wrong in the scene before me. People ate unthinkingly, filling their plates and consuming as if it was being produced by a machine for their pleasure. It seemed less about enjoying the food itself – which was average – than actively participating in an orgiastic ritual of conspicuous consumption. Nero would have been delighted.
I spoke to my younger nephew at one point. He had returned from his third round of the food trays with a plate full of prawns. He ate 2-3 then pushed his plate aside. “I’m full,” he said. I looked at the plate of uneaten and never to be eaten prawns and felt a kind of outrage at the wastage. “You know,” I said, “they were alive once those prawns. They were swimming about until some fisherman got them and they died. They died so you can eat them, but if you don’t eat them they died for nothing.”
It might seem a silly argument perhaps, but I felt it deeply. I often think people have become disconnected from where things come from, and how they got there. There’s a certain arrogance when we simply expect to eat our fill without once considering how the food made it to our plate. We forget and we lose the value of things, which is the very heart of my complaints. Food is a commodity we can waste without respecting where it came from, which seems symptomatic of our affluent times.
I left as soon as I could. I don’t understand why anyone would choose to spend their Saturday night at a place like that, but I guess I’m the one out of step. The restaurant was outrageously, ridiculously expensive, so much so that we could have had a nicer meal in much more ambient surrounding at somewhere like the Flower Drum. There you pay for quality, and the elegance of the experience. Doubtless these food barns they factor in those gluttonous Homer Simpson types who go back again and again to get their money’s worth, and more. I did my best to get some of money’s worth, but was happy to leave when I live. You wonder how God, presuming there is one, views scenes like this. I’m sure Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of true vice, but it’s hard not to think it is in restaurants like this you see true modern decadence.
Perhaps I am elitist. I don’t doubt there is some cultural snob in me. What it comes down to, as always for me, is reason. I’m not making value judgements. I can choose not to go to restaurants like this (and generally do), and that may be the end of the matter. Except that there is something unhealthy in excessive and unthinking consumption. I love the all-you-can-eat as much as anyone, but without restraint, respect, and some kind of understanding it is but a display of debauchery that goes beyond the gastronomic.