Fashioning Appetite: A Review
by Samantha Felix
In the three years my husband and I have owned and operated a small neighborhood restaurant in the East Village of New York, I have found that the single most important thing I can do to ensure our success is to properly train the front of house staff. But shouldn’t the food be the most important aspect of a restaurant? Well, yes. The food needs to be good, if not great, but the experience is what keeps people coming back. It is the job of the front of house staff to make sure diners leave not only pleased with the food, but pleased with themselves.
Joanne Finkelstein’s latest work, Fashioning Appetite: Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity, seeks to understand this contradictory restaurant phenomenon through a study of the origins of restaurants and restaurant patronage. Finkelstein reveals society’s public/private relationship with eating establishments and the surprising role these establishments play in defining Western identity.
Within this framework, I like to think of the dining room as a stage. The service staff is the stage crew. And, the diners are our unpredictable cast of characters. It is our job to finely tune the restaurant atmosphere to allow diners to perform their private desires in a public setting. “The restaurant engineers circumstances,” explains Finkelstein. A statement that could not be more true. Even in a small neighborhood restaurant like ours, staging this intricate performance is integral to our success.
Finkelstein draws the reader into a world where restaurants are more than just the brick and mortar houses of food: she sees them through a social scientist’s lens. She wants to know why society is so attached to participating in this public display of private moments. In other words, how and why do restaurants “bring strangers together to pursue their own private desires”?
Everything from birthdays to engagements to funerals are acted out in front of a room of complete strangers. Diners are willingly manipulated by the orchestrated world of the restaurant, because, Finkelstein says, the act of eating out has been redefined as a form of “consumable entertainment.”
Finkelstein covers a lot of area in this book from history to obesity to social norms. In terms of both the breadth of information and the complicated sociological terminology, the book can at times be daunting, even to those of us who live and breathe the restaurant industry. But, Fashioning Appetite reminds us how intricately laced our happiness as diners is to the success of a restaurant. “The private and public are inseparable, and the personal pursuit of pleasure, as in dining out, regulates broader ideals of personal pleasure, happiness, a sense of virtue and success.” In other words, as consumers we have fetishized what it means to dine out to the extent that in order to be pleased with our evening and, frankly, ourselves, our restaurant experience needs to be stellar. Not just good, but exceptional.
As a restaurant owner, I can vouch that we willingly participate in this game too. Our identity and livelihood is dependent on our customers’ enjoyment, and we will do just about anything to make sure they have a great time. While gazing out over a dark dining room, packed with expectant faces and grumbling stomachs we take on the responsibility of confirming everyone’s happiness. There is a special pleasure in watching a patron depart drunk, happy, and full—but there is also the inevitable bad experience that leaves both restaurant and guest deeply unsatisfied and with a little less money in their pocket.
By applying new research on emotional capitalism to popular culture’s collective understanding of the dining-out experience, Finkelstein believes we have crafted a socio-economic understanding of restaurants by assigning meaning to each bite and sip consumed. We have essentially “aestheticized food” and molded it into a source of understood “entertainment and novelty.”
This original and inventive interpretation of how modern Western cultures experience restaurants gives a balanced description of society’s pursuit of collective experience through food. The prose is at times dense and a challenge to decode, but it is worth the work. Deep within these pages is a thoughtful and important narrative about the journey society has taken over the centuries to create a shared identity, and how food has delightfully punctuated that journey through moments of public solitude and entertainment.
Samantha Felix is a freelance writer and the community editor for Substance.com. Her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Alternet, and Business Insider among others. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at The New School.