The Kitchen World

The world of the kitchen is almost Dantesque in preoccupation. Re-reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a classic tale of sorrow and slavery in the kitchen pits of big hotels in Paris in the 1920s, I was struck by the references to fire and heat in the dark tunnelled world of a hotel basement kitchen.

It was lighted by one dim electric bulb, and four or five gas-fires that sent out a fierce red breath.” The hot steaming kitchen was a “stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans”.

Orwell’s analysis of poverty has always struck me as being peculiarly effective, perhaps because of his real lived experiences.  Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter or Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying have the battered un-heroic poverty of the very middle-middle class, a world in which appearances have to be maintained and the dinner at an expensive restaurant has got to be paid for airily, languorously even,  although the heart is racing at what this means for the rest of the week.

In Down and Out in Paris and London we take a step further and walk down into those mysterious caverns from which the fine food emerges only to find a sordid tale of poor wages, hours of drudgery, fights, drunkenness, cursing and every other kind of folly and knavery that the outside world has.

Hundreds of years before, Shakespeare had given us similar insights. In Twelfth Night Or What You Will—a play performed in 1602—the genteel world of the nobility in which the  thwarted romance of Duke Orsino for Countess Olivia is played out, is balanced by the seamier sides of the kitchen world of Malvolio, Sir Andrew Agueheek and Sir Toby Belch.

The subplot traces the fooling of the steward Malvolio who is duped, confined to a dark room and driven half mad by a series of supposed acts of tomfoolery under the adroit planning of Maria, the lady’s maid.  There is something sinister in the world of the steward and lady’s attendant and their childish acts of pure cruelty that approximates tragic overtones.

Even in the heightened world of period dramas like Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, the lilting notes of Christmas cheer aired in the Christmas Special episodes are entirely at variance with the dark concerns in the downstairs world.  Barrow’s homosexuality makes him particularly vulnerable, but so are the army of maids who get into ‘trouble’ because of their liaisons with the lord of the manor.

The kitchen frequently became a war zone where sex, class and prejudice combine. Briskly stirring a white sauce or decorating a roast, Daisy and Mrs Patmore had fierce arguments over literacy, propriety and hierarchy.

“Gastronomy is the science of pain” said Anthony Bourdain in his 1999 classic article in The New Yorker entitled  Don’t Eat Before Reading This.

It most certainly is.

Not only in the systematic slaughter and decapitation that cooking involves, carving out head and heart and kidneys, skinning animals still warm with life, washing off bits of clotted blood but also in the appearances that have to be maintained: dressing stale food and passing it off as fresh, using the same ingredients in disguised ways to create a new-fangled soup, huge amounts of pretence in using the same old butter and garlic and cream in a hundred so called innovative ways.

And of course, the tiredness, the rudeness, the squalid lives of the men behind the glass door. Last month, at the Madras hotel in which I was staying, I saw a bitter looking man of twenty something send back his uneaten pasta thrice, complaining that it was tasteless.

Three times the waiters sent it back to the cook, and three times the cook sent it back again with new forms of pasta, garnishing, sauce and yet to no avail. The bitter young man had tasted pasta ambrosia somewhere and no earthly penne could soothe him.

“Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage” noted Orwell. Yes. From Paris in the 1920s to Madras in 2018, from the sham shouting of Gordon Ramsay to the real humiliation of the chef at our hotel, the world of the hotel kitchen is the world of the Inferno. Unknown battles with flesh and vegetables become the Roast Mutton with Brandy Sauce.

Hell’s Kitchens in hotels and restaurants prepare our meals and wait for the depressing business of eating to be got over with before the shift can be brought to an end. Till it begins next morning again.

 

And so the tedium continues.

 

Stray Thoughts

Here’s a secret: I am partial to reading books in which the relationship between man and dog forms a part of the plot. I’m not sure if this is because I grew up on a healthy diet of Enid Blytons with Buster snapping and Timmy woofing and Loony dancing on the kitchen mat, or because my first real friends in this world were brown eyed mongrels sheltering in the garden of our railway bungalows or begging for waste chapatis at the outhouse door. Whatsoever may be the cause, an ill fed stray haunting  the rubbish heap for left overs still brings a lump to my throat.

Lately there are fewer dogs on the city streets. Sometimes I gather rice and bones and have to look for hours before I can spot a decently starving one. The ones that move in packs are huge fellows, battle scarred veterans of years on the streets, worldly wise and grave who disdain my offers. Wasted puppies have disappeared — perhaps they have all been crushed by the cruelties of urban life and its  shrinking spaces. So too has human tolerance — in my childhood the shanty dwellers near my grandmother’s home shared their meagre meals with a brown spotted mutt but the shanties are now pucca houses with television and computer and the mutt is no longer to be seen.

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is the obvious choice for dogs as a metaphor for the unaccountable sadness of modern life, but so are lesser known classics — The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall with its wonderful evocation of World War II in which a boy and dog stay together to survive, Jim Kjelgaard’s A Nose for Trouble and surprisingly Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in which Mutt the dog suffers a bleak end, befitting the general melancholy of Kalimpong split by the Gorkhaland agitation.

420px-Ravi_Varma-Dattatreya

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation has been one of the most influential texts in the world of animal ethics but another one which is no less informative and relevant is Hiranmay Karlekar’s Savage Humans and Stray Dogs: A Study in Aggression. Karlekar, a senior journalist, writer and thinker, who was in college with my parents, has done much to promote awareness of aggression against animals through his columns.

Hinduism, in its general inclusivity, has Bhairav, a manifestation of Shiva in his terrible form, with a dog as his vahana or vehicle. On the left is a favourite representation of mine: the God as a wanderer surrounded by a host of defenceless animals. I like to think of a day when man realises that he is, after all, a non-human animal. That and nothing more. Perhaps even less!