Unusually, I had forgotten to eat. It was mid-afternoon and at Hammersmith Underground station the little kiosk offered hot samosas. I decided to buy one. It was handed over, hot from the microwave, in a small brown bag. At that point, I felt a little embarrassment. I realised that I did not normally eat in public, at least not outside a restaurant of some kind. I sat on a bench and subsequently on the train, gingerly nibbling out of the bag, feeling not unlike a hobo taking a swig of whisky.
There is a time and place for this sort of thing. I find other people eating on the Tube slightly repugnant, hence my shame. In Hong Kong, not a city usually considered reticent about eating in public, it is forbidden to eat on the underground railway, the MTR. Although very crowded, it is an exceptionally clean and well-run transport system and the fastest way to get around in the rush hour. You just don’t eat on it.
The question is, where should we eat? There was a time when it was considered improper for the upper classes to eat anywhere except at home, or in one’s club if male, or possibly in “a hotel”. Restaurants were seen as a little racy and demi-mondaine. Taverns were frequented by the lower classes. Clerks in the City of London dined at chop houses, pie shops, oyster houses. Only with the arrival of Lyons Corner Houses (those resolutely respectable petit bourgeois family restaurants) did the middle classes feel it was all right to eat in public.
Even with the arrival of fish and chips, “respectable” people would buy them to eat at home — though one was always asked if one wanted salt and vinegar in case they were to be eaten in the street. Not until the profusion of fast-food takeaways in the 1970s and 1980s did street eating become a kind of norm.
In Buñuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), guests at a dinner party sit on toilets and disappear occasionally to a private cubicle where they may discreetly go about the very private business of eating food. This is clearly a surrealist inversion of values (the guests politely defecate at the table) but it has always resonated with me. I was intrigued to learn from Robin Lane Fox (in his book The Classical World) that the Sybarites used to take their chamber pots to dinner parties. I have always enjoyed the story of the father of a friend of mine who never ate at his own dinner parties, preferring to concentrate on his guests. As soon as coffee was served, he would disappear to the kitchen to eat a large and copious private dinner.
These days, there is no doubt that we have fewer qualms about eating in public. Some of us do it brashly and with little regard for “table manners”, especially when there is no table, but most of us still refrain from eating with our mouths open or while talking and discreetly wipe our mouths after eating. We still, mostly, respect the view that suggests civilised behaviour partly consists in not eating like savages.
This is not just a class thing. We are currently, for our sins, immersed in a food culture that appears to have abandoned any notion that gluttony and excessive luxury are in any way to be deplored. As a glutton and sybarite myself, I can hardly deprecate such a development, although I harbour misgivings. We all do, consciously or unconsciously. For example, despite this obsession with food and the fact that we endlessly take pictures of the stuff, a very alienating practice in my view, it is rude to take pictures of people eating. Nobody tweets selfies of themselves stuffing their faces with the blueberry muffins or avocado on toast that they are so anxious to tell us that they are contemplating having for their breakfast, as though any of us remotely cares. In an age when it is commonplace to make sex films of ourselves or text selfies of our private parts, we are still reticent when it comes to eating.
These thoughts were brought about by meeting my editor in a restaurant in Borough Market and confessing my squeamishness at the spectacle of crowds of people strolling through its alleyways stuffing their faces with food of a rather dubious quality and provenance. My repugnance may be aesthetic but I have to admit being entirely unreasonable. The majority of these weekday diners are not food tourists but office workers seeking sustenance and, similarly, the stallholders honest and hardworking people who are mining a particular seam, whether it be in “gourmet” sausages, paella or nasi goreng.
In many parts of the world, public eating is totally acceptable. Most of New York appears to eat on the hoof or in parks and squares at lunchtime and much of what they consume — gross pizzas, hot dogs and monstrous sandwiches — could hardly be construed as gastronomically pleasing but at the same time seems perfectly appropriate. The food at racecourses and football grounds is generally close to disgusting but there is nothing repugnant about its consumption. Street food in Mumbai, Bangkok and even the incredibly bourgeois Singapore is of very high quality and esteemed by all. There are obviously places and occasions when eating in public is acceptable to everyone.
It might be thought that my misgivings were something peculiarly English, reflecting perceived notions of snobbery and reserve. But there is nothing uniquely British about them. Our attempts at gastronomic elegance are still faltering. If one looks at those countries that aspire to consider the enjoyment of food, like its production, as something of an art form — let’s posit Japan, China, France and Italy as the peaks — they still consider a table as pretty essential to the proper respect for the act. The Japanese may eat at counters but this is an adaptation of the table for specific uses. People in Hong Kong eat everywhere but they generally do it sitting down. Italians eat pizza but that is a Neapolitan snack and looked down upon elsewhere. The French . . . well, we know about the French.
As soon as there is a table, anywhere in the world, the space becomes privatised. Unless the Blues Brothers have just got out of jail and are seeking to persuade your maître d’ to rejoin the band, you will not be jostled at a table nor confronted by others as they dawdle along, plastic fork in one hand and pumpkin and barley risotto in the other. Had there been a table on the platform at Hammersmith, perhaps I would have felt more at home.
Illustrations by Graham Roumieu