Class can be such an ugly word. Still, I hope our conversation from a couple days ago can show how class can be useful for helping to understand the current culinary landscape of the Capital Region.
Not everyone was convinced by the first shots I fired off the bow. So today I have two other examples, also from Paul Fussell’s book Class. Mrs. Fussy continues to remind me that this book is old and outdated, and I figured I should pass that information along to you.
However, as you will see, I find his observations to still have merit. Maybe not across the country, but in a place like Albany where time seems to stand still, it’s almost as if this book was written in the past few years.
It helps to not think of the different classes as better or worse than each other. It’s hard, because it defaults into upper, middle and lower, and those words have judgement baked into them. And terms like prole, which Fussell puts within his continuum of the middle class, sound entirely brutish and unflattering. I’m going to do my best to avoid using them.
Perhaps it helps to think of the classes like tribes. And each of these tribes has their preferred eating places. For the most part, I happen to love what Fussell would categorize as prole restaurants. Working class places like diners and taverns are among my favorite places to eat upstate, providing honest, deeply comforting and delicious food. And let’s not forget my affection for the pizza parlor, which can often involve eating while standing or on the go.
Sometime over the past several months, I encountered a restaurant ritual that really surprised me. It was during a conversation that I had with members of the On The Edge community, where I learned that some restaurant patrons pre-bussed their tables at sit-down restaurants to make the job easier for the server.
That never even occurred to me. And then I encountered the following passage in Fussell:
The prole restaurant, on the other hand, will at least be unpretentious…The help in such places are really just folks, like you, and you get into long, intensely friendly conversations with them. “How’s your mother’s sciatica, dear?” On both sides there’s a strong desire to be liked, rather than admired, and an ambition not by any means to be thought hoity-toity.
And I think this is quite illuminating in regards to people’s expectations of what qualifies as good service. The all too common refrain, “Hello, my name is ____ and I’ll be your server tonight” is not part of classic good service. Good service is invisible. It anticipates needs and doesn’t interrupt the flow of a meal.
But I care more about food than service and Fussell covers what this tribe looks for in a restaurant:
Proles never risk the unknown on the menu, which means they tend to feed on dishes familiar in Army messes or college dining facilities, things like meat loaf, liver and onions (sometimes “and bacon strip”), “Swiss” steak, fish on Friday, and macaroni and cheese. All these are flaccid having been kept some time in the handy steam table. In the higher kind of prole restaurant the stainless-steel cutlery will be cast instead of stamped out and there will be a salad bar offering iceberg lettuce and a variety of cut-up vegetables, all frigid and tasting alike.
This reminds me of a lot of restaurants. But let me tell you the story of one local place called The Butcher Block. It was old. They served steak. The food wasn’t fancy, but there was an extensive salad bar.
In an effort to update the space, the management group spruced up the interior, changed its name to Central Steak, and removed the salad bar.
The former patrons of the place never were able to let go of their lost salad bar. Ultimately towards the end of the revamped eatery, the management tried to bring back the salad bar. But it was too late. The restaurant alienated its core audience and weren’t able to attract enough new patrons to stay in business.
I’m still trying to figure it all out. And right now I think that class could be a helpful framework for considering the machinations of the local dining scene. The class behaviors that Fussell illuminates in his book certainly seem to be at play throughout the Capital Region. But the ultimate goal is to try and understand how all of this can then be stripped away, because it would seem that class anxiety is deleterious to having good food, at fair prices, in a nice setting.
Although that sounds like an impossibly daunting task.
I need more sociologists and maybe an anthropologist or two. Plus it may make sense to listen to Mrs. Fussy and explore why some other regions seem like they are able to rise above these class constraints.