by Hendrik Herzberg
The Disney Channel showed “Ratatouille” last night, as if in rebuke to the New York City Health Department’s recent decision to humiliate restaurants that value taste over tidiness by forcing them to post letter grades evaluating them for cleanliness—a fine quality no doubt, but one whose traditional place next to godliness might be better occupied by gastronomy.
What with so many awful things happening as we sink into the twenty-tens (global heating, murderous fundamentalisms, chronic warfare, Tea Partisanship, poisoned oceans, media “platforms” that function as scaffolds for journalism), that delicious movie is a reminder of one of the consolations of twenty-first-century American life: the ever-expanding culture of good food and good cooking.
Foodism, as it might be called, won’t cure any global disasters, and its direct beneficiaries are mostly the relatively privileged and comparatively well-educated—the sort of people who shop at Whole Foods, support farmers’ markets, and patronize restaurants that have “executive chefs.” But the benefits have trickled down, as a visit to any midrange chain supermarket will confirm. Compared to the Grand Unions and A&P’s of a generation or two ago, the ShopRites and Safeways of today are a gourmet’s paradise. And at McDonald’s you can now get a salad with that. Let us count our blessings while we can.
By the way, I don’t actually object to the Health Department’s move. Yes, Homo sapiens and Rattus norvegicus have lived together for a long time, and if we ever succeed in getting rid of them entirely we might discover to our regret that in some unforeseen way they had been a vital link in the ecology of urban life. Nevertheless, and “Ratatouille” notwithstanding, it’s probably a good idea to discourage rodents from frequenting restaurant kitchens. Cleanliness in general is a good thing, too, as long as it’s not taken to extremes. (If it weren’t for “germs,” i.e., bacteria, we wouldn’t have cheese.) The evidence is clear: in Los Angeles, which has been rating restaurants for cleanliness since 1998, substantially fewer people end up in the hospital after a nice dinner out.
Like Mayor Bloomberg’s trans-fats bans, smoking bans, and posted calorie counts, awarding A’s, B’s, and C’s for hygiene is an emanation of the liberal Nanny State so scorned by libertarians and conservatives—who, it seems, would prefer a Neglectful/Abusive Parent State and a Tyrannical Stepfather State, respectively. Don’t they know that nanny knows best, and is nicer besides? If the candidates in the next mayoral election are Mary Poppins (Dem.-W.F.P.), Pap Finn (Libertarian), and Mr. Murdstone (Rep.-Cons.), I’m voting for the carpetbagger with the umbrella. Spit spot! ♦
The New Yorker / Good Stuff / Published: July 13, 2010