This article ran as the “Last Call” in the June 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
THE ROOMMATE GODS WERE UNKIND to me when I studied in London for a semester during college. Danillo, who came from outside Rome, often spoke glowingly of the Marquis de Sade as he gestured wildly with his hands and paused to take drags from an ever-present hash joint. “For me, this is the best,” he would say when rhapsodizing his cannabis of choice. One time, in a drug-induced stupor, he interrupted my nap to accuse me of smearing feces on his pink bathrobe. We did not have much in common.
One day, however, I began to lament the meager culinary fare in London. The stale bread. The soft, over-cooked pastas. The bland, watery sauces. We bonded instantly. The long conversation that followed could have been the punch line to a joke: What do a New York Jew and a Roman Sadist talk about when trapped in a room together? It also taught me a tactic that I employ to this day. When in a difficult social situation, turn the conversation immediately to food.
Some people think of the weather as a reliable icebreaker. That may get you through an elevator ride, but not much more. Others choose to bring up television. But try striking up a conversation in Budapest about the latest episode of The Sopranos. Movies may be more universal, but some viewers like Bergman, while others prefer Borat. There are even those who don’t see many movies or watch TV at all. But everybody eats.
I mentioned to my brother Marc that I was thinking of writing something about food as a universal conversation topic, and he dismissed my theory. “You’re just projecting,” he insisted. And I must admit that I come from a family that is quite obsessed. When I called my father from Beijing a few years ago, he didn’t ask me to describe my stroll through the Forbidden City or to elaborate on China’s economic transformation. “How does the grub over there compare to the Chinese food we get here?” he queried. Before I visited my grandmother in the hospital one time, she was sure to remind me to bring bars of Cadbury’s chocolate (the Dairy Milk variety, not Fruit & Nut). This family sweet tooth extends all the way down to my nephew, who by the age of five had already mastered the art of double-fisting my mother’s brownies.
Though my family may have a special connection with food, the older I get, the more I realize that this passion is by no means unique. Over the years, I’ve been surprised by how many times bringing up the subject of pastries could endear me to difficult co-workers or spruce up potentially dull social encounters. I may disagree with my liberal friends about universal healthcare or whether President Bush is the Antichrist, but we can always enjoy a good slice of pizza.
“A great sauce raises food to the level of poetry,” my brother Bruce once pontificated. It has been said that food is the only art form that appeals to all five senses — from the smell of smoking barbecue to the melody of a deep fryer, truer words were never spoken. When I go to my favorite pizzeria in Brooklyn and watch the septuagenarian proprietor Dominick spread the dough apart, ladle the tomato sauce, pour the olive oil, place on chunks of fresh mozzarella, sprinkle aged parmesan on top, and stick his calloused bare hands in the scorching pizza oven, I know that I am watching an artist who has mastered his craft every bit as well as Michelangelo. Only you can’t eat the David.
Beyond tasting good and being essential for our sustenance, food has deep religious and cultural connections. Americans tend to be especially focused on food — after all, we have an entire television channel devoted to it. But throughout the world, countries have their own culinary traditions and national dishes, and they celebrate holidays with large feasts. So whenever I ruminate about food, I feel confident that I’ll have plenty of company.
As for Danillo, he fled London abruptly, after weeks of paranoid delusions involving unsavory characters who were hunting him down. I never got to say goodbye, but we’ll always have penne.