Friday, May 16, 2014

The Worst Kitchen in Literature

There must have been dozens of paperbacks of
Down and Out in Paris and London
Last night my literary book club discussed Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. My culinary book club, a different group of people, discussed it a couple of years ago.

What a dark book! Orwell's Hotel X in Paris, where he worked 17 hours a day as a dishwasher and a servant of the lowest other employees, must be the filthiest, most inhumane, and least appetizing kitchen workplace depicted in all the books I've read. It was awful despite a sense of honor among the workers and despite being among the dozen most expensive such establishments in the city. We talked about this and many other issues.

The sheer misery of working in the extreme heat and abusive atmosphere was the part that Orwell really wanted to convey. He had to walk and run 15 miles a day and was under terrible pressure to complete many tasks quickly -- he calls it order in chaos. Workers with slightly more authority routinely cursed and abused their inferiors, though outside of work they may have been friendly or even helpful. Jobs were terribly scarce, so one had to perform accordingly.

Orwell's intention clearly was also to reveal the enormous gap in conditions between the front and back of the house. In the dining room, patrons ate in luxury and assumed their food was of the highest quality, while in the kitchens, clean-up areas, pantries, and cold storage Orwell knew filth, vermin, and extreme carelessness, and "fearful noise and disorder during the rush hours." (p.75)

Orwell distinguishes between the boulot -- obligation to duty felt by the workers -- and the way they did nothing extra:
"The dirt in the Hotel X ... was revolting. Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches.... The others laughed when I wanted to wash my hands before touching the butter. Yet we were clean where we recognized cleanliness as part of the boulot. We scrubbed the tables and polished the brasswork regularly, because we had orders to do that; but we had no orders to be genuinely clean, and in any case we had no time for it." (p. 79)
He embellishes the story with anecdotes from other high-end Paris restaurants of that era, around 1928. Bugs. Rats. Roast chickens dropped on garbage-strewn floors, but still to be served by formally dressed waiters. Horrible odors. Inspectors who dip their unwashed fingers in the sauce, clean the rim of the plate with spit, etc.

The second half of the book is about real destitution in and near London, where Orwell had no job and lived in terrible conditions, much worse than his Paris life. In sum it's a fascinating account of poverty and desperation, a huge contrast to the usual stories of that era in Paris.

1 comment:

Debra Eliotseats said...

I hate to say I have not heard of this book. Good discussion.