PARIS — Everywhere in the world, but perhaps especially in France, pandemic management has been characterized by its inconsistencies. How can we justify closing theaters and cinemas when metros and trains are still running? How can we explain why universities are shut when primary schools are still open? And how can we accept that grocery stores are closed at the 7 p.m. curfew, which, for most people is the only time they can do their shopping? One day, all these questions will need to be answered.
An even greater incoherence now affects restaurants: Why is it that we are allowed to eat in our seats on a crowded train, and yet they cannot be opened? Why are they not even allowed to serve customers on the sidewalks or terraces, with all the necessary space-heaters (whose impact on climate change, admittedly, is certain yet minuscule)? At a dining table, we would be spaced just as far apart as we are spaced in our offices, and wearing masks could be compulsory outside the times when people eat. In restaurant kitchens, couldn't we apply the same rules as those canteens that still offer takeaway? With some practice, it could work.
Why is it that we are allowed to eat in our seats on a crowded train, and yet restaurants cannot be opened?
At this point, it's likely too late to change. But if this pandemic should return, or become as regular as the yearly flu, we must put such measures into consideration.
And perhaps, those in power are delighted with this situation. Restaurants are not only a place for food consumption. They are the main way that conversations take place. However, those in charge do not like when people talk while eating: They exchange information; they discuss politics; they organize coalitions, all without government control nor knowledge that it even takes place.
Moreover, shared meals take time — time away from work, time away from shopping. Therefore, the shared meal goes against the ideals of capitalism. It has become, because of this, a brief and solitary moment away from consuming the enemy of man: industrial food products, which kill more than the worst of the pandemics.
A Paris café in October, before bars and bistros shut down over COVID-19 restrictions. — Photo: Adnan Farzat
Those in charge don't like the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next either. They prefer to transmit it themselves. In particular, they do not like the transmission of family recipes, unique and endemic.
For at least the last century and a half, our societies have tried everything to kill meals. We can eat elsewhere, to-go, take-out, in front of the television, at our desk: anywhere, but not together.
We digest these industrial products with artificial flavors, thus dissuading us from really taking the time to savor the taste. Food has become universally uniform, maintaining the illusion that journeys in foods are exotic only by name. And by locking up the elders in nursing homes, we also make it even more difficult to pass on old recipes.
We must restore the meal's subversive function.
If we are careful, the pandemic could accelerate this evolution, even in the most resistant of countries. The pandemic tries to justify the curfew, making it possible only to grocery shop at the time of the forgotten meal, making up for lost productivity by eating a meal while working in front of one's computer or office or even bedroom.
We must fight to deter this deadly trend at all costs. As restaurant owners, farmers and others in the food industry, we must restore the meal's festive and subversive functions, and prepare for healthy changes as soon as possible. This means eliminating artificial sugar, banning pesticides and moving toward organic food. We must share this knowledge with health professionals, and allow our elders to pass down their treasured recipes that are at risk of disappearing.
To re-establish the meal in all its glory, to eat what is not only good but also healthy, and to converse freely and joyfully, is to transmit the essence of our civilizations.
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