Translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli.
Subtitled 'Society in Four Courses', this is a hard book to classify. The body of it is in the first three chapters; 'Opening Times' which explores the early day of the modern restaurant, 'Postwar Hunger' which takes us up to the end of the Cold War, and 'Present Day' which ends with Magnus Nilsson leaving Fäviken at the end of a service. The final chapter 'Reading Restaurants' ties it all together with a little bit of explanation and interpretation of the material Ribbat has served up.
What has preceded 'Reading Restaurants' is a series of stories cut down into bite sized chunks that illustrate what restaurants and kitchens have come to mean to us, how we use them, the people who work in them, and some of the many things they represent. The clever bit is the way the stories are broken down and mixed up. They're all compelling, but even more so because you have to keep reading to find out what happens next. The unfolding story of a Japanese restaurant in cold war era East Germany is a classic example, humble beginnings, growing success, propaganda uses, and a surprising post script runs all through chapter 2. Told all at once it would have nowhere near the same impact. At the same time sit ins at Woolworths counters and other whites only restaurants across the American south are also unfolding. As is the reality of segregation in New York where prejudices have been imported wholesale from the south in certain areas.
There's discussion about the emotional work that waiting staff are expected to do, and an acknowledgement of the gist that has for the worker. It's something we really don't talk about nearly enough, and a strange irony that people with the crappiest jobs in the service industry are not in,y expected to look happy about it, but could lose their jobs if they don't.
We see the difference between back and front of house from Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' to Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential', follow the work of various sociologists who have gone undercover in restaurants, touch on the problem of a low wage economy that doesn't pay people enough to live in, and do much more.
Sometimes I caught the references in time (I knew Eric Blair became George Orwell) sometimes I didn't, and ended up with goosebumps when I realised I was reading an account of the dinner that MFK Fisher credits as her starting point. There's even a restaurant somewhere in Unst, Shetland, in the 1950's. This really intrigued me, I know Unst, and would love to know where is being talked about.
Altogether this is a brilliant, provocative, wonderful, satisfying book. A proper gallimaufry of anacdotes that has been a real pleasure to lose myself in. In short I loved it, and highly recommend it.