The puppy-pile riff-fest on old-line New York French restaurants, in this Diner’s Journal post, is a lot of fun to read. Sam Sifton, who wrote the post, asks at the end for commenters to give their stories of traditional NYC French places, and they do, though what they really provide is a window into a certain restaurant culture, one in which going out to eat equates with advancing yourself – your overall level of “culturedness,” as well as your palate. Then showing off about it, natch – “this was as the French say inoubliable,” you write, talking about a great suckling pig dish. And of course, as the Times’s headline writer slyly implies, as you’re telling a friend about that suckling pig, if he lets drop that he hasn’t eaten at your beloved boite, you say, “What? You’ve never been?” Because not to have certain experiences – and thus not to have attained a certain level of culture – is the same as not existing.
Yet you can’t be irritated by these commenters’ snobbery, or even roll your eyes at it. Why is that? Part of the deal is, this isn’t all snobbery – there are plenty of people here who poke fun at themselves, their affreux French and all, and one guy admits to stealing an ashtray from Lutece. But in making my way through even the would-be snootiest comments, I felt a certain affection toward the people who’d written them. Because they’re a lot like my mother? O.k. – and a lot like a lot of people, of a certain age, who no longer define much of taste, and so are no threat to my or anyone else’s ability to get a good or great meal at a place that’s not haut français. People who won’t be around much longer, and who, after all, did teach many of us a thing or two about food, and culture, back when. So it’s easy enough to see, and share, the enthusiasm that’s ultimately at the root of at least a good deal of the snobbery that’s here.
And of nearly all snobbery, I think, unlike elitism, which has no aim to instruct. Snobbery, after all, rests on the desire to share the valued thing, whatever it is, with at least some people – not to keep it for oneself – and so the snob needs to tell those people about it, in such a way as to convince them they want it too. A key element of which is to make clear, by implication or saying so outright, that part of what’s wonderful about it is that it’s better than whatever the alternatives are. Here, that comes through by implication. Talking about a certain type of French restaurant, and its cuisine, is so much a part of the culture of a certain segment of the population, when that group’s members do so, they can use a shorthand, certain elements of which serve to establish the superiority of those restaurants and their food, vis-a-vis an unnamed other. Tossing in French phrases, for example, which says, “We understand, you and I, that French is the language of great food, and culture,” and therefore English, ultimately, isn’t. And so forth. Again, though, even that stuff doesn’t bug, anymore, or even inspire any laughter other than a gentle chuckle, at a doddering old uncle who’s always been a bit much, but you’ll miss him in a few years when he’s gone.