Dining in Babylon

Nicholas Powers Aug 10, 2005

Do we eat just to eat? Or do we consume more than food when we eat? During the Holocaust, starving inmates of concentration camps waited before meals. As hunger tightened skin around bone, they set a table and served each other the thin soup because to fight for food was to lose the last remnant of one’s humanity.

More important than the food was the ceremony of eating. It reminded the inmates that they were not the animals of Nazi rhetoric but a people with memory and tradition.

In New York the language of food is also the language of war because it reflects a city caught in class struggle. Winners and losers eat differently even though they’re separated by few streets, as, for example, from Bed-Stuy to Fort Greene.

Restaurants are rare in the ‘hood. More common is the bare cafeteria style of fast food chains or bodegas. You order, pick up and go. My first stop was the McDonald’s on Fulton where a dead-eyed cashier took orders. Workers rolled weariness across their shoulders as if it was easier to bear if set to a rhythm.

Next I went to a Muslim Halal buffet. Halal restaurants promise godly food, cooked according to scripture. It’s not just food but a sign of divine trust. A TV tuned to Al Jazeera flashed images of a U.S. tank aiming its canon at protesters, of Arab-Muslim men yanking at the fence of the refugee camp they were confined in.

I left the Halal restaurant and walked past the African Bistro on Fulton – it was the first restaurant I saw with candles on the tables. In the 19th Century, agents of the Underground Railroad put candles in windows to signal it was a safe house to runaway slaves. So when I see candles, I follow them. I walked past it to Outpost Cafe, Kush and then Bodegas in Clinton Hill, going from one fire-lit restaurant after another to reach the Promised Land of middle-class America.

As I passed them, I noticed that fine restaurants feed our desire to be special, to deserve what others don’t or cannot get. It’s not about food but art like the smile of the waiter, and the menu with adjectives braided into long descriptive sentences. It read of grilled marinated glazed honey dipped French slow simmered fresh organic dinners tailored to your tongue.

Fine restaurants are where one goes for an education in class because you learn how to be obeyed, how to want, how to act and how to sharpen your taste.

Finally I reached Fort Greene’s Havana Outpost, a nostalgic Cuban-themed restaurant with a bright green fence laced with barbed wire. A battered van in the back was converted into an outdoor kitchen where sweaty Mexican cooks called out names and handed out food. It was a return to Bed-Stuy’s cafeteria-style eating but with the twist of Third World kitsch. Here signs of government repression and poverty are pricey First World decor. Here the inmates are aspiring middle-class blacks, home-owning whites and artists eating salty rice and beans off paper plates to taste authenticity.

The owner set up a projector to show Spike Lee’s classic movie Do the Right Thing on the wall of the next building. The movie isn’t just entertainment but our mythology of Brooklyn. So when Buggin’ Out demanded Sal put photos of blacks on his wall of fame, the black man at the table with me pointed to Not Ray’s Pizza across the street and said, “That’s the Sal’s of this neighborhood.”

I glanced at Not Ray’s Pizza and thought, no, it’s not because this is not the Brooklyn and we are not the blacks of Do the Right Thing. Gentrification had long since pushed the poor down Fulton. We were solid middle class or with enough money to pretend. We were a polite inter-racial audience, laughing at a movie critical of gentrification because we benefited from it. Unlike inmates in other places, also surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, we did not want to escape.

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