Friday, August 05, 2005

Meringue is Evil

I had another, more clever name for this post, but I forget what it was. Meringue IS evil, but, in deference to kStyle's request, you'll have to wait until after I explain why Pops is wrong to find out WHY meringue is evil.

Pops' latest heuristic is Tocquville, whom I haven't read in a million years, but who apparently blames the lack of appreciation for craftspersonship on democracy. I kind of see the point, but only kind of: that is, Pops says,
And everyone else's fault all at the same time because we live in a democracy, where the differences between classes is blurred to the point of non-existence. Where aritstocracies engendered a tiny class of people with all the resources and a whole crapload of idle time, they could afford to commission, pay for and wait for works of great and unique skill for the sole purpose of adornment and distinction (I spend all this money to show that I can spend all this money).

Whereas in democracies, the taste for really cool stuff still exists, but we can't wait for it forever and it can't cost that much because it has to be accessible to a HUGE (relative to an aristocracy) contingent of the population who MIGHT buy whatever it is should the desire arise. Instead of paying a whole, whole lot for something great, people in democracies are willing to settle for something merely "pretty good" if they don't have to pay an arm and a leg for it and they can get their hands on it before they, say, die.

It's part of Tocqueville's more general point about how democracy fosters a sense of acceptable mediocrity in MANY ways (craftsmanship included), favoring the many over the few, discouraging ideas of distinction and taste in the aristocratic sense; a sense of the vast, overall equality of people everywhere as opposed to the separation of a few. The marketplace reflects that in a shift from adornment and presentation to (nearly) pure consumption. Emphasis shifts from the craftsman's craft to the owner of the shop and his means of production (to briefly get Marxian) for the majority.

But then Tocqueville was making what now seem like quaint and simple distinctions purely between aristocracy and democracy, so none of this may actually be relevant anymore.
There are several problems with this argument, compelling though it is in some ways.

First off, I think that's a false dichotomy between an aristocracy and a democracy and the ability or willingness of people in either to appreciate craft. Much of Europe seems to appreciate craft a whole lot more than we do, but there really isn't an aristocracy to speak of. One could even argue that, given the vast difference in income between the owners and the workers in much of the American economy, we've got more of an actual aristocracy than exists in Europe.

Second, I don't think an aristocracy is a necessary condition for the appreciation and expression of craftspersonship, in part because I don't think craft is necessarily exorbitantly expensive. Craftspeople can also barter their skills more easily, and most craftspeople I know do some form of barter. (My brother was able to make significant modifications to his house this past 18 months, in part by calling in favors. As he put it, "I fixed a lot of cars." In return, his friends who are electricians and plumbers and the like came by and helped with various bits of the construction.)

Third, though, I think one might argue that adornment and presentation are (at least potentially) nearly synonymous with pure consumption rather than opposed to it. We all adorn and present ourselves, of course: as social beings, we make choices about how to clothe ourselves, whether to wear cosmetics, whether to wear heels, which frames we want for our glasses (or how about contacts or laser surgery?), how long to wear our hair, on which parts of our body we allow hair to grow (or not), etc. Despite occasional disingenuous claims to the contrary, none of these are arbitrary decisions. This is not to say that we spend wads of money or time on the decisions, merely that we spend some time on them. But there's a spectrum, and we've all run across people who spend a LOT of time and money on adornment and presentation (and a few people who could stand to spend a few more minutes). There are societal strata where it's necessary to do so--where it makes sense to own several tuxedos, for example, or to have a relationship with a designer or an exclusive dress shop or whatever. There are also strata where a lot of money gets spent, but, to those of us who expect to wear clothes not just more than once but more than one season of one year, it looks like that money is being spent on whatever's hip this season, that it will be fashionable for about 15 minutes, and we can't imagine buying clothes that way. Adornment and presentation are thus tied pretty tightly to consumption, even if they're not necessarily synonymous the way I posited at the beginning of this paragraph.

Pure consumption makes me think of the people I see in shopping malls when I am unfortunate enough to have to go to such places. The people wandering around there don't really fall into the consume-to-adorn-and-present category, at least not in the sense of being "fashion-forward," as they say, but they consume, nearly mindlessly, it seems--consumption becomes a kind of anesthetic, as well as a confirmation that they have the means to consume.

Where was I going with all of this? Oh, right, World War II. (Hah--betcha didn't know I was going there, did you?)

How does one have an appreciation for craft or expertise? Being exposed to it somehow is a necessary condition, but probably not a sufficient condition. How does that exposure get reduced or eliminated? By living in a country where everything is made cheaply and by a machine. In the decades following World War II, the U.S. could afford to make things by machine that the rest of the world continued to make by hand. You people are probably smart enough to go on from here without me.

I'm running out of steam here--even though I stole Pops' comment for half the damn post--so let's cut to the pastry and then go drink beer. We made more ingredients for our opera cakes today, and my partner and I suck at folding, so our sponge cake (also known as a biscuit, pronounced bis-QUEE, not BIS-kit, it turns out) is, as Chef Fred says, more like a cracker than a sponge cake. We've also made coffee syrup and chocolate glaze, and we still have a few more bits to make. We made meringue delights today, too, and they ARE evil, primarily because I love meringue. Sugary, chewy, what's not to like? So I ate too many. Plus, I still can't pipe for shit--I was making what Chef Fred called "truck-driver meringues." (He also refers to large items as the Costco version.) We had a discussion of various kinds of cremes (e.g., pastry cream plus buttercream equals mousseline, used in a Napoleon because straight pastry cream is too wet and would immediately sog up the puff pastry, which reminds me that I have to find my recipe for pumpkin Napoleons). We had a massive kitchen cleaning, which we skipped last week and I'm glad we did this week because the place was getting a little scuzzy. We had another two-minute evaluation from Chef Fred, in which he said I'm doing better, which was nice to hear, but I think I'm not doing as well as he thinks I'm doing. Or maybe we would agree in a longer conversation. In any case, this weekend I want to try my hand at making croissants at home, so i brought my rolling pin and recipe book.

And now, people, there is a beer somewhere with my name on it--several beers, as a matter of fact--so I'm going to go find them and drink them.


Blogger landismom said...

Oooh, beer is good.

I'm not a big meringue fan (although I do like merengue), so today's post didn't make me as hungry as your other posts have done, but now I'm thirsty.

The thing I often wonder about the so-called Greatest Generation and their spending habits is this--aren't these the same guys who, just a few years before, were acting collectively to organize the labor movement? So what the hell happened? How did our country transform itself, in under a generation, from a society where people were united in struggle in unemployed workers' councils and unions, to a society where the individual was the most important thing, and we needed a million Levittowns?

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