Homo sapiens is the only animal that cooks. Cooking a meal is almost a sacred symbol of our humanity.
It is also a profoundly social pastime. Primitive peoples, like the Flintstones, might have shared meals with one another and with strangers as a way to show that they were not going to fight them for food. A meal was a pact of friendship and security.
And let’s not forget how central the devotional meal is to many religions – Seder, for instance, and Holy Eucharist, which harken back to the urge to share a meal with God.
Food is almost always shared. Meals are – at least until the advent of career-minded parents and pervasive after-school activities -- events when the whole family or community comes together.
So how did something as sacrosanct as the shared meal become so commercialized?
Wayside taverns were a feature of civilizations from Romans to Victorians. But eating in these was not what we’d think of today as a “meal.” It was more like “feeding.”
Aside from travelers, for whom eating out was first invented, few people – even today -- dine out from necessity.
It is the French who are at fault for where we are today.
In the 18th century, they successfully sold the idea that cooking is an art, and that enjoying food is an aesthetic experience worth paying for. (It was in Paris, after all, that the word restaurant was first recorded in 1765 – rooted in the verb "to restore.")
Because of the French, today’s romantic dinners, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, retirement dinners and all such communal celebrations are taken out of the home and made into public ritual.
But how often do we have a truly “aesthetic experience” worth paying for?
It seems that whenever my wife and I go out to a restaurant for some discretionary dining, we discover when the check arrives that we could have brought along a third person as our guest.
For example, two nights ago my wife took a friend out for a birthday dinner in Manhattan. Each of them ordered the $30 prix fixe, which included appetizer, entrée and dessert. Here’s the catch: each had a cocktail to start, at $17 per. For the $34 drink tab, my wife could have treated two friends to dinner.
How about the lobster roll in Providence for which I paid $25?
Here on Cape Cod, I can buy an entire lobster for five or six dollars a pound. So why are restaurants marking up the price by three, four or five times – and serving you far less than a pound? On a hot dog bun.
So on this Fourth of July weekend, I am declaring my own Declaration of Independence. From the tyranny of restaurants. From roadside eateries that charge white-tablecloth prices for meals served with plastic utensils. From shelling out the price of the bottle for a single shot of vodka.
Yes, I am picking a food fight. No more discretionary dining out. From now on, it’s restaurant-free feeding for me. (As soon as I sell my wife on this, my latest lunacy.)
We might be coming full circle, though. At my bed-and-breakfast on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, we have offered with great success a gourmet tasting menu open to the public.
An example of people going out to eat – but actually eating in.
Maybe I will just join them at my own table and pretend I’m eating out.
In my next blog: “The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat”