Translated from German by Jamie Searle Romanelli
I opened this book in the expectation of gossipy anecdotes about misbehaving chefs or clientele. It may have been the mood I was in (work on the house was not going well) combined with the book jacket.
There were plenty of anecdotes, but no muck-slinging (apart from one anecdote on page 129, which I’ll come back to) for this is a serious history of the restaurant and its place in our society, though written so entertainingly that you don’t realise how learned you have become, until you have been educated. Should you want to formalise that education, you can always dive deeper into the extensive bibliography.
There are four chapters, which take us from the beginnings of the restaurant through to modern times. Development of restaurants in all their gastromical guises are included from best restaurants in the world to the fast food joints in America. I particularly enjoyed the story of how ‘foreign’ restaurants began their post-war takeover of Germany with a pizzeria in Würzburg railway station. The history is told chronologically, although multiple stories are told in parallel in short anecdotal passages interweaving with each other. This could be frustrating, but, actually the style doesn’t take much getting used to at all.
The style is especially effective in showing how the bigger picture affects the individual experience.
Gerta Pfeiffer, a textile designer in a south German weaving mill, sits at an inn with her colleagues. She is enjoying the atmosphere, something she rarely does nowadays. Since the ‘Nuremberg Laws’ of September 1935, her life has been dominated by fear. She is feeling increasingly isolated, and less and less willing to talk to people in public. She is afraid that either someone could start a rumour about her for being a Jew, or that someone else could come to harm through having contact with her. While other young people go dancing, she spends most of her time alone. Tonight, though, here in this restaurant and in the company of her colleagues, Gerta Pfeiffer is feeling cheerful again. Which prompts the diners at the next table to tell the innkeepers that if they see the Jewess laugh one more time they’ll throw her out onto the street.
Poignant, without being wordy. (The good news provided in tbe endnote is that Gerta Pfeiffer managed to emigrate to Britain.)
Ribbat fills his book with the stories of the famous and the not so well-known (both establishments and personages.) The reader’s prior knowledge will determine how many fall into the latter category. For me, it was many. My knowledge of famous cooks is limited to the modern day celebrity chef, and even then just a handful. And so, when Ribbat added a new name to his soup, this was the start of a career in my head and I could enjoy the success story. When Ribbat mentioned a name I did recognise such as Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) who worked in the kitchens during his down and out days in Paris, or Heston Blumenthal, I experienced many well-well-I-never-knew that moments.
The glamour of the fronthouse is contrasted with the hard graft in the kitchens and it is 99.9% fact. I recognised the one fictional anecdote on page 129 from Melinda Nadj Abonji’s novel reviewed here. I breathed a sigh of relief when Ribbat confessed its true nature, because I really, really didn’t want to believe that the human race would stoop so low. (Though actually and unfortunately …)
And so it was that Ribbat’s history of the restaurant, the workforce and the clientele had me ruminating on philosophical and sociological matters. I’m sure Ribbat had these issues in mind (the subtitle gives it away somewhat), but they are interwoven lightly and won’t spoil the pleasure for someone reading solely to discover more about main subject.