Never complain, never explain. Instead, celebrate the everyday.
Ironically, I sit writing this in a café, distinctly unusual practice for me. Not a new place, but somewhere rather more impersonal than I often gravitate to. Good for people watching, though. I’ve visited a small handful of times before. Heavy snowfall outside, and I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous, so this time I didn’t venture too far. I’ll fix this soon enough, as the sky clears up.
Enough exposition. What do I mean by the title? The usual what? Well, exactly that. How should I know? It’s your usual, wherever and whatever it might be. “The Usual” is both the place you frequent and also what it facilitates. Be it your corner café, neighbourhood restaurant, or the pub down the road. It’s the place where you’ve established some form of human contact and familiarity. It is where you recognise the staff and they recognise you. You might know the owners, and even some of the other regulars. Perhaps you even consider the place as your “base of operations”, as one contemporary poet has put it. If this rings no bells, and you have not established relations with local establishments, I’d heavily suggest changing your ways.
I already hear the groans, but fear not. I am not here to moralise, I am here to celebrate. By and large, nothing is romanticised enough, so we might as well start here. Lest we forget, the most important ingredient of any meal is love. In lieu of love, any form of connection in the direction will do. Point being: communality is more important for eating well than the current understanding knows how to measure for. This has been basic knowledge, pretty much up until we had the chance to stop worrying about procuring our food. And just because the science just hasn’t quite caught up, does not make it any less so. Your “Usual” facilitates these small communal moments. The slow simmer of social contacts. A thread keeping us attached to the happenings of our immediate environment. For better or worse, I suppose, but screens in bars are undeniably closer to real connection than bars on a screen.
True any day of the week, but unavoidably in-your-face yesterday, as Finland won Olympic gold in ice hockey. Bars were packed, certain public squares were packed. The music was loud. People were happy, and many went slightly nuts. As is tradition. I’m sceptical as to whether Finland really is as happy as they say. Not to speak of being the happiest country in the world, despite what the measurements say. Though it’s hard to deny on days like this. I’m not sure if contingency on the success of our national hockey team is included in the UNs reporting, but perhaps it should.
Small and important moments, these. Scattered throughout the days and weeks, like the marshmallows in your cereal, and the guanciale in your carbonara. Essential, yet easy to take for granted; so easy to disregard when present. Until they aren’t anymore. And boy, do we know a story about that now. These are exactly the moments that have disappeared from our day-to-day existence. Not without warning, might I add. It’s no secret that this has been happening for at least a few decades at this point. Though this decay was rather untenably accelerated in the past few years.
“The Usual” is many other things as well. Not only is the place you go to, not only does it convey the community benefits of having such a place to call yours, it’s also a magic phrase.
You walk through the door into one of your favourite restaurants. The bartender knowingly asks you: “The Usual?”, as you fist bump him. High-fiving a few waiters, as you proceed to introduce your date to the owner and his wife. The service that comes along with familiarity is just a cut above. Undeniably cool as hell. If you care about such things. And let’s not kid ourselves, we all do from time to time. And this brings other benefits, beyond considerations of impressing your date, important as they are. This is not a superficial matter we’re addressing here. It goes right to the core of what makes eating and drinking meaningful and fun.
If you want to be real dry about it, it even makes sense on an evolutionary basis. Or at least I can cook up a nice, smart-sounding story about it. Eating is of course one of the most often repeated universal necessities. Everyone needs a few meals a day, roughly speaking. Cooking food takes time, and even cooked food doesn’t last particularly long, Or at least it didn’t, before we figured out how to make it last. We also know the truism, that humans are social creatures. As such, it would probably make a good deal of sense, if we were wired in such a way as to maximise the benefits of eating, when everyone is eating at the same time. What a clever and efficient solution that would be, getting the most out of your time used in cooking, while also automatically coordinating social time into the everyday! Two birds with one stone, as they say. One to grill, one to boil. Who knows how it works, if it does, but it sounds like an evolutionary advantage to me. This is not a profound understanding of the matter, of course, but perhaps you could use it to get through to someone, who doesn’t get it.
Anyway, if the relational aspect of our meals is forgotten, we are yet closer to passing the Turing Test, but in reverse. Not by making computers more like humans, but making ourselves more like machines. This is what you get with a technocratic understanding of the food system, sorry to say. It is not the intention to cultivate, as common as it seems to be among highly important, official people.
As I said, commensality is so normal, so everyday, it’s easy to forget. Well, it should be these things, and it used to be. Only a momentary lapse of presence is enough, and we find ourselves eating alone. Thrown out of the bars and restaurants. And not in the fun way, either. I grant, you I was caught off-guard. But instead of eating a jab to the liver, I was indirectly told my liver needs to be protected. …sorry, that was my soul lashing out at the infantilising alcohol legislation around these parts. I hope you get the point though. All of it’s for your own good, we’re told. Perhaps you didn’t even really want your Usual. And even if you did, you certainly didn’t need it. And in any case, it was probably bad for you, the environment, or both simultaneously. I won’t point fingers. Never complain, never explain. I can sense cracks in the dam, is all I say.
All this said, I will be the last person to deny the benefits of hospitality exploration. Somebody has to do the work. (More on this later.) Expands the perspective too, they said. How else would we find the places worth frequenting? Well, other than by listening to your bon vivant friends. If you don’t yet have a usual place, consider investing a bit of effort into it. Explore your surroundings, engage in leisurely chit-chat. This is a new normal I can get behind.
For your health,