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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Neither Fish Nor Fowl–Uniqueness Is A Fiction

Potter Belt had looked forward to dining at The Nun’s Habit since it opened. The reviews – all in small, alternative online sites -  were outstanding, and food critics praised the young chef for his unusual menu, one drawn in part from the foraged dishes of Rene Redzepi of Noma, part from the early Alice Waters, and the rest from his own Neapolitan grandmother.  The décor was said to be simple, inspired by the sea but in keeping with the classic Victorian brownstones of the still sketchy area east of the Park.  There were few tables, but because of its location and surprisingly foreign menu, reservations were recommended but not required.

Noma restaurant

          Noma www.tripadvisor.com

Potter was proud of himself for having discovered The Nun’s Habit and was looking forward to eating at a place which would surely be more diverse than the usual Washington restaurants he was used to.  The food at Le Diplomate, for example, was consistently good, but the atmosphere had changed from 14th Street hipster to Virginia chic.

Image result for images le diplomate

       Le Diplomate www.washingtoncitypaper.com

Catering to displaced San Franciscans and older expatriates who had come to know the grand brasseries of Paris, the restaurant combined professional French service with the simple-but-elegant menu of oysters, sole meunière, braised liver, choucroute Alsatienne, and steack au poivre. Once Virginia day-trippers had felt the buzz and crowded the reservation list, both service and cuisine went downhill.  The new residents of Falls Church, Arlington, and Fairfax, used to home-cooking and standard restaurant fare but enticed by the nouveau Washington and its array of foodie palaces, had no idea what they were eating – whether the Atlantic grey sole was frozen or fresh; whether the oysters were from the Rappahannock or Hood Canal; and whether or not it was safe to eat the calves liver au porto rare.

So Potter was particularly looking forward to dinner at The Nun’s Habit. Not only would the food be interesting and unique, but he would be a ‘new adopter’, one of the first to sample the avant-garde creations of Chef Peter Santangelo, and able to proudly refer his restaurant to his friends.

Potter’s wife was a little nervous about going so far east of the Park.  Washington was still a racially divided city, and some South Africans said it reminded them of Johannesburg under apartheid, so abrupt and clearly demarcated were the black and white areas of the city.  Once one crossed Rock Creek Park, it was no-man’s land.  Of course gentrification being what it is, some of the near-in, formerly all-black and marginal neighborhoods had been upgraded, and Forest Grove, the district where the restaurant was located was still sketchy but considered reasonably safe. It was better to drive an old car and leave all but one credit card at home; but all-in-all there had been few incidents to keep outsiders away.

Image result for images rock creek park dc


When the Belts arrived, the restaurant was filled, loud, and lively. “See”, said Potter, smiling to his wife, “I was right.” Yet on second glance, there was a disturbing sameness and familiarity about the place. Most unsettling of all, everyone looked exactly like him!

It was Potter’s first and most important existential epiphany. For all his supposed uniqueness, edgy cultural vision, and exciting life on the hippest margins of Washington society, he was no different from a hundred other 30-somethings who had ‘discovered’ The Nun’s Habit. In fact, the similarity in dress, attitude, laughter, and overall demeanor was so pronounced that for all intents and purposes he and his fellow diners were all clones.

He picked at his Foie gras, sea urchin, and foraged kelp and said little to his wife. Life and its supposed promise had kicked him in the ass, and until he and his wife ate the last of their Soufflé of Birch with Wild Gooseberry Confit and emerged to the now-threatening 10th Street, NE, he was dazed and discomfited.  Any fantasy of individual uniqueness, separateness, or special insight and creativity was shredded and tossed in a dumpster.  He was plain, predictable, and unassailably ordinary.

Image result for images sea urchin ready to eat

From that moment on all he could see was painful conformity. All his social choices – bars, classes, museum openings, gym, and getaway lodges in West Virginia – were all peopled by unwelcome doppelgangers.  How could he have been so naïve? he asked himself.  Was he, in addition to being a cookie cut from the same dough as thousands, so ignorant not to notice? And worst of all, how could he have been so stupid to even think there was such a thing as human uniqueness?

“There is no such thing as fish-nor-fowl”, he said to his wife. “It is an either-or situation, and we’re stuck with it.”

As he walked down K Street to his office, he saw only schools of fish, lemmings, flocks of starlings, snake pits, bee hives, and ant colonies and not the lawyers, lobbyists, and medical technicians on their way to work.  How depressing, he thought. “Why did I never notice?”

Image result for images crowded downtown DC sidewalk

Of course individuals within the herd differed.  Herbie Swanson was an obsessive neurotic with a thing for dwarves.  Nancy Filbert’s head somehow sat on top of her neck as though the two had been misaligned at the factory.  Billy Marin was as smart as Bill Gates and at 35 sat on a billion-dollar IT empire while Peggy Farrell was as dumb as a piece of granite.  Yet because they shared the same background, upbringing, religion, moral context, country clubs, and education, they were all crowded onto the same path headed west. 

Not only that, there were probably a million Herbie Swanson’s with the same perverted attraction to physical deformity; a hundred thousand Peggy Farrell’s just as stupid and with the same characteristic stupidity. Peggy had a great memory, was very interactive and social about her recollections but couldn’t for the life of her make sense of anything more complicated than a simple paragraph and so did her widespread but unknown clique of dummies.

Most people dismiss this issue of individuality vs. existential sameness quickly and without a second thought.  Potter’s angst seemed a waste of good intellectual energy and a hopeless waste of time.  Of course human sub-groups share similar traits and behavior.  Human society is based on congruity, homogeneity, and common self-interest.  Everybody knows that, so what’s the big deal?  Who cares of legions of Herbie Swanson’s are surfing the web for erotic Little People sites?  None could be exactly like him.

After years of lionizing Friedrich Nietzsche, Potter gave up on him. Yes, he agreed, life is meaningless; but no, the expression of individual will is not as cracked up as the old man said. A Superman may look and act above the herd, but he is identical to a million others like him who share his amorality, disregard for social cohesion and compassion. 


Only Sri Baba Ramakrishna Rao was right, although Potter had no inkling of his wisdom when he sat in a cold cave above Hardwar in a séance with a hundred other young Americans. “The world is nothing but maya”, Baba Rao said. “Illusion, phantasms, shadows with no substance.  Unless you understand that you will never leave your assumptions behind.”

Image result for images haridwar ghats

        Hardwar www.commons.wikimedia.com

Now it all made sense. If the world does not exist, then neither do individuals. Shadows can be configured in any way that suits the observer.  “Whew”, Potter said. “Why didn’t I catch on earlier?”

No one with a long life ahead of them can possibly stay in an existential funk for long; and Potter and his wife became regulars at The Nun’s Habit and friends with the chef.  He could see that the restaurant’s client profile was changing; but so be it. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose was his new adage.  His crowd would be replaced by someone else’s; and he would move on to a different venue more consistent with his advancing age and older tastes.  The newcomers at The Nun’s Habit would be fish, and he would be fowl; but so be it. So what if they both were acting in the same afternoon soap opera?

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