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

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Civilized Lunches– Sophisticated Interludes In An Otherwise Ordinary Life

Most Europeans have given up 3-hour lunches and siestas and have become more purposeful, efficient, and American.  The idea of a long, leisurely lunch with friends, by the seashore, in four-star restaurants in the 7th, or with meal tickets and couscous in the 19th has faded; and along with it a way of life.

Business has slowly but surely taken over sybaritic pleasures, trysts, cinq-a-septs, and café-cognacs; and thirty-somethings in Europe like their American counterparts eat at their desks or not at all, do take-out, and hew to the traditionalism of kinder, kirche, kuchen once reserved for women but now open to all.

There is nothing that symbolizes a culture of pleasure, sensuousness, and leisure than the civilized lunch.  Whether in Mali, Sri Lanka, the Northern Neck, Paris, or Napa Valley, the three-hour, four-course, two wine bottles, aperitif and digestif lunch more than any other event embodies a respect for personal time, social interaction, appreciation for good food and surroundings.

The Merroir Restaurant in Topping, Virginia, is the  home of the Rappahannock Oyster Company which farms oysters from four locations in the Chesapeake Bay – Olde Salts from Chincoteague, briny and tasting of the Atlantic; Sting Rays, close to the Bay, less briny but tangy with the unique mix of ocean and river typical of the region; Rappahannocks, harvested from the River, plump, sweet, and clean; and Tangier Island, unique in taste, texture, and salinity.  There are a few tables outside by the working docks of the Company overlooking the creek, and on a day with a northwest breeze there is salt in the air from the Bay and the Atlantic beyond.   On sunny days umbrellas are set, and four courses are common – oysters, clams, stews and seafood soups, salads, fresh bread, grouper and tuna, shrimp and Northern Neck vegetables.

The point is not the dining, nor the cadre, nor the Rappahannock or the Chesapeake, but the civilized lunches.  Visitors, local residents, friends and neighbors from Richmond, the Tidewater, Alexandria, and Washington go there for the allure of lunchtime.  Dinner is always special and traditional but more formal.  The Bay by day is not the Bay by night, nor are the beaches of Copacabana, the Burundian shores of Lake Tanganyika, the Corniche of Dakar, the South Coast of Haiti.

A restaurant on the outskirts of Bujumbura on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and with a view to the hills and mountains rising towards Kigali was manated by Belgian expatriates.   It was run from their house, an old colonial white frame Victorian, low-slung building on 100 acres of land most of which had been cleared and was now pasture.  The cuisine was simple but elegant and well-prepared. Nile perch fresh from the lake sautéed lightly in butter with a poivre vert cream sauce.  Pastis or Pernod to start, a white Bordeaux for the Poireaux a la Grecque and a crisp Burgundy for the fish.


The meal, the solitude of the restaurant, the Rwandan hills to the north and the waters of the lake to the east, the perfectly-trimmed lawns and flower gardens, and the attentive service of the staff made the lunch even more civilized than most. 

Most Americans do not share the appreciation of the civilized lunch.  There is something louche about a liquid lunch, too Fifties; and something decadent about three courses, wine, dessert, coffee and liqueur; and the downtowns of cities like Washington are in tune with this ethic.  Even if one were to find a restaurant catering to European tastes, one would have to do business for cover.  One could not be seen simply enjoying a long lunch.  Even the finest midtown restaurants in New York have this paradoxical sophistication-business cadre and atmosphere.

The civilized lunch stands on its own.  There is nothing more satisfying that such a meal alone or with others.  If chosen properly it combines the excellence of cuisine, ambience, sunlight and bright air, physical environment, service, and cadre.  Yet, if it is a prelude to adventure, it is even more civilized and perfect.

Night has more drama, more potential for intrigue, more mystery.  Love is thought of as a night thing and rarely in the bright sunlight of noon.  Nothing is mysterious or intriguing at noon; but sensuality then is bright and uncompromised.

A civilized lunch is more than a a temporal interlude.  It has meaning far beyond its four courses and three hours.  It is more than the pleasure of taste, the appreciation of leisure, the anticipation of intimacy.  It is the centrality of a way of life – a temporary dismissal of the routine, and the ordinary.

Any civilized lunch on the seaside shaded by umbrellas,served with linen and silver and in the reflected light of the sea is more than just a noonday interlude; more than just a prelude to an afternoon of intimacy.  It is an order above; ideal with no imperfections permitted.

Civilized lunches are to many nothing more than unnecessary and unwanted vestiges of  privilege, elite encounters, and social inequality.  They are dismissed as irrelevant at best, and reminders of inequality at worst.

There are many icons of sophistication which have had their day in the rapidly acceleration dismantling of all that was Victorian.  Dress, behavior, comportment, events, and standards of right, attractive appeal have all become less sophisticated and more common.  Civilized lunches remain as but one forgotten ritual in the litany of taste and sophistication.

Civilized lunches suspend temporality.  In the overall scheme of things, they mean little.  Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novella certainly did not think of such things on his deathbed; but for those still leagues  from the grave, they are important.  They do not represent what is best about our lives or humanity, but they give intimations of it.

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