"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good Manners

Kazunori Nozawa, one of the world’s premier sushi chefs, retired from his restaurant in New York City after 47 years. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/dining/kazunori-nozawa-of-sushi-nozawa-in-los-angeles-is-set-to-retire.html?src=dayp Patrons can no longer witness his ballet with a sushi knife; his elegant pirouettes and the graceful movements of a dancer combined with a tunnel-vision intensity.  All fish were not only sliced to the perfect, unique thinness appropriate for their flesh and contours, but done with the precision and speed of a laser. His intermezzo creations were simple but elegant placed before you at just the right time, perhaps after you have let the last bit of soft, velvety uni melt in your mouth.  They were miniature architectural masterpieces, little towers of radish and tiny bell flowers, or one piece of marinated fish garnished with a cross of dark green seaweed.

There is nothing like sushi for its clean, brisk, sea taste; or the buttery silkiness of toro, salmon, or yellowtail; or the pop of fishy, savory, ikura. I always eat sushi alone, and I always close my eyes as soon as the full flavor of fish and vinegary rice fill my mouth.  The taste, the texture, the blend of ingredients cannot be disturbed.  Sushi is a singular pleasure, one of the greatest discoveries of culinary history.  Once at a sushi bar, I only stop when I think I should not when my appetite says I have had enough. Neither the clickety-clack of the internal calculator, ringing up hundreds of dollars, nor feeling satisfied can stop me.  Only some sense of obligation – I am eating up the mortgage payments, spending ten times the normal lunch price – slows me; or the image of my Program Assistants eating wraps at Quiznos. 

One time a sushi chef did stop me.  After I had ordered three rounds and showed no sign of slowing up, did he say, politely but firmly, “Don’t you think you have had enough?”.  I obviously had gone way beyond the limits of Japanese propriety when it came to dining.  This interdiction came at a time when Makoto had just opened, its clientele was all Japanese, and when a gaijin was a rarity.  I suspect that he would have berated me five years later when the restaurant got so popular that the sushi rarely was made with fish, and that the atmosphere – the howled greetings and good-byes, the geisha-looking waitresses, and the formal sushi chefs behind the polished wood bar – dismally compensated for the exotic delights of real, fresh, artistically-prepared nigiri

Mr. Nozawa was also known for his strict discipline.  He, like me, felt that sushi – any good food for that matter – should be eaten with no distractions.  Patrons should look at him, quietly, as they would listen to Heifetz or Rubenstein, with respect, admiration for his artistry, and awe at the beauty and elegance of his creations.  Murmurs of appreciation among diners was the only conversation that he tolerated.

“I feel I’m responsible for teaching Americans what the etiquette is when eating at these kinds of places,” Mr. Nozawa said. “It’s customary in Japan to give the chef their full respect while dining in their venue. I have never appreciated people who can’t respect the art or the food itself when they come to this place. Disrupting the experience. Talking too loud. Not having good manners. I hated it when my customers who displayed great etiquette were disrupted in their dining experience by people talking loud.”

All of which got me thinking about manners in general. I had been brought up well enough, I think, and I don’t remember any special hectoring from my mother other than “Keep your elbows off the table”; but I was sure that whatever manners I had must have eroded after almost ten years eating at prep school, college, and university dining halls, when my wife – very politely and carefully-  suggested that I was eating like an animal in a zoo.  According to her I was hunched over my food, shoveled it in, ate with my mouth open, waved my fork around like an orchestra leader’s baton, flicking food around the dining room, smeared my clean cloth napkin with swaths of chicken grease and salad dressing, picked food off the serving platters, and far worse.  

Although I had been raised properly and went to the best schools, my era was one where certain habits – such as manners – were considered bourgeois.  Manners were reserved for the court of Louis XVI and we know what happened to his head, removed by the uneducated and mannerless, but democratically spirited rabble.

My manners took a turn for the worse during my many years travelling in the Third World. In Africa I felt very much at home because picking bits of fish and scooping handfuls of couscous out of a common pot was what one did as well as sucking the delicious juice from the chicken ti bou dienne off my fingers.  I liked Indian-style eating – sit around chatting for a couple of hours, belly up to the serving table, pile your plate high, and scarf down the alu gobhi, chicken murgh masala, and dhal makkani in minutes.  Belching was also permitted, although not in the best homes. My daughter could get through half of a belch alphabet when she was ten, and my poor wife could only groan, “Why did you teach her that?”.

I can’t blame my bad manners wholly on foreign culture.  I often ate alone on my two- and three-week in-and-out Lone Ranger consulting trips, so dining was rarely a leisurely, candle-lit affair.  I would search out the hotel buffets where I could put my Indian years to good use.  Before even sitting down at the table, I would fill my plate with meat, fish, vegetables.  Before even pulling in my chair all the way I had wolfed half my plate. 

My children in their early and middle years of course imitated my manners, such as they were.  It was far easier to slouch, scarf, suck, and wipe than to sit up straight, hand in the lap, cut properly, etc.  My son, catching on very quickly once asked why he should sit up straight.  His mouth was so far from his food.  “Because it is good manners”, my wife replied.

“Actually you have a point”, I said to my son.  My wife looked on quizzically. “Tomorrow I will get that old kiddie chair from the basement for you to sit on.  Then your mouth will be exactly at the level of your plate and you can just shovel the food in”.  He looked at me for a moment, wondering if I could possibly, hopefully, be telling the truth.  It was so plausible, reasonable; but somehow not right.  He darted a look to my wife who was grimacing.  “I’m kidding”, I said. 

“You always lie to us”, he replied angrily. 

“No”, I said, I test you.  That’s the way you will learn fact from fiction”.

One day, both my children and I were again hunched over our food.  It was like a perverse orchestra with many parts.  The oboes picked at their food with their fingers.  The violins chewed with their mouths open.  The bassoons shoveled it in and alphabet-belched.

“This is disgusting”, said my wife. “I can’t stand to look at you!”

“We’re just eating”, replied my son, innocently.

“Yeah, we’re just eating, Mommy”, echoed my daughter.

“You’re not eating, you’re feeding”, my wife retorted.  “That’s not food, it’s fodder.  We might as well install a trough outside and have you pigs eat out there”. Actually, I had thought of this when my daughter was very little, eating in her high chair, flinging food at the walls, dropping it on the floor, messing her bib, pants, and shoes.  “Why don’t we feed her in the bathtub”, I suggested to my wife. “Let her eat however she wants, and then we’ll hose her and the tub down together”. 

One evening after a particularly offensive mannerless meal, my wife, in total exasperation pleaded, “Can’t you please sit up straight and eat properly?  Please?”

“Why should we?”, asked my son.  “Daddy said it was bourgeois”.  Oops.

“You should do it for me!  I don’t care how badly you embarrass yourselves when you are out of this house, but here eat properly out of respect for me.  I’m the one who has to sit across from you and see your gross, slovenly eating.  Not you.  You’re doing it and I’m seeing it, and it is disgusting”.

Silence.  The real reason for manners had hit.  Respect and consideration for others, for the food, for the social experience.  After that, all our manners improved – not immediately, mind you.  It took more than a few weeks to cure the years of indifference; but gradually, the hunched shoulders and torso stoop disappeared, serving forks were used, mouths were patted clean rather than smeared, and fingers were reserved for corn and bread, nothing more.

So I thought of the purgatory we had put my well-mannered  wife through.  She had been infinitely patient and never for a moment considered going over to the dark, easy side to the trough.  Women are supposed to be the repository for and guardian of traditional mores; and this case was no different.  Manners, in the scope of things - in the long, difficult, and often turbulent years of child-rearing are but one, minor piece; but in retrospect an important one – one that has as much to do with being socialized as looking good at the table of Louis XVI. 

I have to admit that when no one is looking, when I am cooking my own dinner with no one to join me, I will eat standing over the sink, shoveling it in and letting the bits and pieces scatter as I push the food in, falling directly into the Disposal; but the point is manners are for when people are looking.

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