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What We Miss Out on When We Miss Out on Dining Out

“What truly defines American culture is that Americans love to eat in restaurants even though America has the worst restaurants in the world.”

That’s how my pithy observation about the dismal state of American culture used to go, which would often prompt people to respond, “But what about restaurants in England?”

The first part of my observation is rooted in the astounding and globally unmatched amount of restaurant eating that happens in the US. Before the pandemic, the global restaurant industry accounted for around $3 trillion in annual revenue. The US was responsible for nearly $900 billion of that revenue spread across an estimated 1 million restaurants that employ about 10% of the country’s workforce. We outpaced not only every other country in the world by a considerable margin, but the entirety of the EU by almost $400 billion. Before the pandemic, American households were spending more money eating out than on food for preparation at home—55% of total food expenditures in 2019. This trend has been at work for decades. Commenters have described the past two decades in the United States as a golden age for restaurant dining, with attendant concerns that the dining bubble was bursting.

In light of Covid-19, my remark has lost some of its charm. With so many restaurants shuttered, complaining about the quality of restaurant food seems mean spirited. A depressed commercial real estate market and weak labor market may reinvigorate opportunities for restauranteurs once consumer demand recovers, but, to do so, they’ll need to crawl over quite a bit of human wreckage and, in the meantime, well capitalized corporate chains may swoop in first to box out recovering independent restaurants. In any case, for people who haven’t eaten indoors at a restaurant since February (me, for example!) even eating at a bad restaurant might be a pleasant change of pace. Relatively early in the pandemic I mused that I was surprised, given how frequently I ate at restaurants when there wasn’t a pandemic, that I didn’t miss restaurants more—the stuff I truly missed was dancing and travel. I said that in June. But now? I will admit that I miss eating in restaurants.

But what do I miss? The second part of my snark was rooted in an earnest assessment of the quality of food served in American restaurants: not very good! I think it’s frequently both too salty and oily, which is a function both of some clever cooking tricks and the basic facts of consumer psychology. I think most restaurant food is worse than you could probably cook for yourself with a little skill and planning, a judgment I make as a former short-order cook with only on the job training. Even when the food is better than you could make for yourself, it’s often astronomically expensive and tediously fussy. There is a convenience factor, of course—you don’t have to cook or wash the dishes and that can be a relief after a long day—and for families with complicated dietary preferences a full menu of options can be handy, even indispensable. (Less so if you’re trying to eat a vegetarian diet in North Carolina, alas.) Still, as a value proposition, neither the practical nor the gustatory seem to capture why people in the US eat in restaurants so much more than people in other countries, a fact that also is not well explained by the relative affluence of American consumers.

There is a tendency to lazily explain our dining-out exceptionality in pathologizing and judgmental terms: it reveals something about our nasty national character. Americans eat at restaurants because they’re lazy. And fat. And because they have no national food culture or cuisine of their own. And because they are boors without taste or sophistication who will stuff anything in their gobs. Some of this runs through Pollan’s idea of a “national eating disorder” and you can hear other bits of it in Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation as well as the flurry of aughts documentaries those books inspired such as Food Inc., Supersize Me, and, err, Fast Food Nation. Some of these works use individual consumer failings to stage more sophisticated and thoughtful critiques of capitalist food systems, but mostly—and especially with Pollan—it devolves into hackneyed plea to educate consumers to make better food choices and to learn to cook more at home. More than anything, this line of criticism centers on complaining about fast food restaurants, which also—and not at all coincidentally—are the obsessive focus of anti-obesity discourse.

Whatever truth there is in all of this, I think it fails to grasp the unique social function of restaurants in the United States. I’m not being glib when I say that I think eating in restaurants constitutes the common core of American culture. What I mean is that, more than any other kind of institution, restaurants are the most common way Americans access public sociality—encountering other people in a public space, conditioned by social scripts that are not reducible to labor or intimacy. When you enter a restaurant as a customer you experience both the freedom and the constraints of public behavior. There are some things you would be embarrassed to do in a restaurant that you do regularly in your own home—eat with your hands, for example—and, even though you are in the midst of a commercial transaction, you are not “on the clock” or answering to a supervisor (business meals excepted). You are still governed by norms and conventions, but they are distinct from the codes of kinship, family, and employment, all of which involve more long-term and particular relationships. Restaurants constitute culture in the sense that they also reproduce the various abstracted forms of difference and hierarchy that make up social status through both relations of consumption and production: dining out shapes gender, race, and class by fitting some kinds of people to some kinds of work (and paying them accordingly); through customer-server interactions that depend upon gendered and raced affective labor; by organizing access to public space and social deference through commercial transactions; through the various racial and ethnic imaginaries that shape menu and restaurant concepts and consumer preferences; through the social sorting that constitutes in-groups and out-groups; and in countless other ways too.

One might be tempted to say that I’m merely describing consumerism writ large. You could, for example, say similar things about shopping for clothes, computers, or hammers. American culture is uniquely defined by consumerism, not restaurants, you might object. I would make two points about this.

First, to the extent this was ever true, it is becoming markedly less so: the decline of malls in the US and their replacement by digital consumerism and “big box” megastores such as Target, CostCo, or Wal-Mart that sell everything—trends likely to be accelerated further by the pandemic—is about the decline in spaces of consumption as functional spaces of sociality. Megastores are transitory spaces; unlike malls, you are supposed to move through them and not linger. They aren’t designed to be spaces for sustained social interactions and are frequently hostile to them. How do you know? When was the last time you saw a place to sit in a CostCo outside of the food court? Meanwhile, eating in a restaurant is still normally understood as a social act:

Second, dining in a restaurant is correctly analyzed as the combination of two acts: purchasing food to eat and actually eating the food. Clothing, like food, marks social differences such as gender, race, and class and you similarly reproduce various social relations through shopping for it. But you could only argue that shopping for shirts has the same experiential priority if you regularly went to the store to dress. I know some people enjoy trying on clothes, but this just isn’t how most people relate to clothes shopping on a regular basis. Most people shop for clothes mostly to dress in private later; you “shop” for food in restaurants exclusively to eat in public now. And this is precisely why online retail has been more of a threat to independent boutiques than take-out has been to the restaurant industry. Given that eating is a powerfully charged social actit is a quotidian act that governs your interface with the world, quite literally one of the primary ways that the world gets inside you and, at once, that draws you into undeniable relation with the world—most people will immediately understand why commercialized eating in public is a more profound and significant cultural act than other seemingly similar forms of consumerism.

The thing I’m nibbling around here, then, is that we need to see the centrality of restaurant dining in relationship to the privatization and elimination of shared common spaces. The combined weight of car culture, secularization, winnowing funds for public goods, the impoverishment of built environments in most American communities—these things mean that, at a minimum, shared spaces in many cities and towns are spaces of commercial transaction and the most frequented spaces of commercial transaction are restaurants. (Churches might compete, but many evangelical mega-churches are, in fact, spaces of commercial transaction and, regardless, most Americans spend far more time in restaurants than in churches.)

Rather than leaving our analysis on a pathologizing focus on individual selfishness, I would see our collective love of restaurants as also continuous with a desire for thicker public sociality—sociality not reducible to commercial transaction—in a world that is becoming more and more resolutely hostile to it. Because eating is fraught with meanings that always exceed its function, the experience of dining out is a commercialized activity that we value for reasons in excess of commerce and calories. That we’re paying for “the experience” is a cliche of the restaurant industry, but it captures something deeper that happens to be true both of McDonald’s and Chez Panisse. We crave sociality and restaurants are one of the few and easiest places to find it, even if they are, as these things go, miserably inadequate. Indeed, this miserable inadequacy might suggest a kind of Berlantian “cruel optimism” about restaurants: we keep going back hoping for the thick public sociality we know that conviviality, at its best, provides; we leave with heartburn.

(Incidentally, the pandemic has also shown that we are overly dependent on restaurants for public bathrooms, a realization I painfully came to during a series of summer road trips.)

To zoom out for a moment, I have two big take-aways from this analysis:

1) I suspect restaurant culture will, in the long run, wind up playing a pivotal role in how historians understand the politics of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. I speculate that it partially explains the Democratic party’s mediocre performance in the recent election. Most people associate the Democratic party with the closing of restaurants. One point would be that some portion of Americans are mad about not being able to eat in restaurants as much as they would like, and some others are angry that such closures have led to lost jobs.

But that’s all obvious and kind of banal to observe! It’s not just that Dems were shuttering valued businesses; it’s that they were making people feel differently about their pleasures such that the ambient resentment outlasted the lockdowns. In other words, we haven’t thought enough about what the pandemic meant for how people experienced (or failed to experience) the crucial sociality and convivial pleasures of dining out and what it meant for those pleasures to be politically contested and troubled. Again, much could and will be said for the way that the pandemic has troubled sociality writ large, but my analysis is that dining out is a privileged form of sociality in American culture and therefore a uniquely potent location of this sort of political emotion. Hence, some truly bizarre behavior over the summer when people were doing things like eating on card tables behind chain link fences in parking lots, a phenomenon that led a friend to observe that America had entered a “Weekend at Bernie’s” phase of consumer capitalism: slap some sunglasses on the rotting corpse and just pretend like it’s still the life of the party!

In sum, I suspect many people are bitter not just that they’ve been denied a pleasure they crave, but that they’re also being made to feel guilty about desiring the pleasure in the first place.

2) Speaking of pleasures and guilt, all of this analysis should also give you a sense of why I think food politics—in terms of both production and consumption—must be central to a robust left (and, dare I say, socialist!) program. There are plenty of reasons besides political transformation to care about food politics, including the truly catastrophic environmental, labor, and animal welfare problems that are generated by our current capitalist food system. But political transformation is a big one too! My vision for the left is one that has the left offering an abundant and pleasure-filled alternative to current capitalist society, an alternative rooted in the promise of hedonic democracy. To articulate such an alternative, we need honest and less moralistic analysis of the politics of pleasure in the status quo. That means recognizing just how much of our society’s pleasure is rooted in food culture but also being less judgmental about those pleasures, or, at the least, stop second guessing and denigrating the pleasures people take from food cultures we find aesthetically noxious.

This is part of my irritation with the food left’s tendency to dismiss fast food as intrinsically fallen and irredeemable. If you want to build an alternative food culture that is both abundant and pleasurable, you’re going to need to take seriously the idea that, for the overwhelming majority of Americans, fast food is a critical and cherished pleasure. You’re also going to have to recognize that the spaces of fast food culture are, in fact, spaces of working class sociality in ways that farmer’s markets are not. You may not want to preserve or ally with the fast food industry, per se, but, at the least, you need to understand how and why it provides abundant pleasures to the American working class and you need to have a plan for an infrastructure that can compete with it.

In short, this is notice that, at some point in the near future, I’m planning on writing a short, public facing book called Fast Food Socialism, and it’s going to be lit.