Monday, November 06, 2006

What is a French Fry And What It Means For the survival of Our Culture

Ordinarily I would not bother even asking such a trivial question. In fact, I would not even be eating a French fry if it weren’t for my decision to start dining with the devil (more on that in another post). But we went out last week, and in the intermission of one of the shows we felt hungry. We ordered the quickest thing on the menu – French fries. It is also one of my favorites, so I was really disappointed when our order finally arrived and instead of the normal French fries, we got very long and thick strips of potatoes. They were fried in oil but if you take a huge potato and divide it into four pieces like they did and then deep fry them – they will not taste like French fries. I was very irritable that evening, and I did not hesitate in complaining about the dish. I said that this couldn’t be considered a French fry. They said that it is, “It’s just the way we make French fries here” they said. I told them that it would be nicer if they called it something else because it is very misleading. They continued to argue that they are serving fries, but they were also gracious enough to offer to take it back. We were too much in a hurry to do that so we munched on, and I got to thinking about what this meant:
What does it mean when you order a common place, well-established dish, and get something completely different, a bizarre personal interpretation which is not even acknowledged as such? What does it say about our culture that one cook can live in a universe of his own where the words of our common language take on a completely different meaning? How do we live in such a world? I must admit that I am finding this difficult.
I want to unravel this situation, and I guess I should start with answering the question I posed in the beginning – what is a French fry?
What Is A French Fry?
I am no stranger to different versions of French fries – I have eaten several.
In Israel and in most places I have eaten them short and thin, by short meaning up to ten centimeters long, and up to about one cm thick. This gives the delightful contrast between the crispy outside, and the softer inside. As far as I am concerned that is the whole point of the dish. Still, I have eaten thicker versions, or fries in different shapes and in Chicago I had a version that was fried and then dipped and lightly cooked in a very thick and greasy red sauce – a messy dish but a very tasty one. You can read all you need to know about French Fries in this fascinating Wiki, but as far as I can tell, what I was served cannot qualify – the potato strips were at least 20 cm long, and at least 3 cm thick on average, and they weren’t even strips but wedges, since they were cutting each potato into four equal parts. I have never ever seen anything like it in Israel or any place else for that matter. So I feel vindicated in my refusal to accept the definition of that restaurant.
That now leaves us with the second part of the title – what does this mean?

…And What Does It Mean For the Survival of Our Culture
On the one hand we have a universal concept with a well-known definition that has been accepted and practiced for generations. On the other hand we have a new personal definition, invented and defined by one small eating establishment, in defiance of everybody else. The individual against society - does that seem familiar?
Ordinarily I am all for the individual, being one myself. But this was not one person fighting for the survival of an ideal. This was not a heroic stand taken in defiance of a corrupt society. This was just an individual who chooses to deal with society while remaining in the shell of his own personal world.this has become all too common in our culture.

The Blessings of Individualism
The postmodern philosophy, which dominates our culture, gives us the moral license to defy the group and do as we please (more on post-modernism in a previous post). This, I believe, is unprecedented in human history. Probably because never before have such favorable conditions existed from the economic and technological point of view, putting an enormous amount of power in the hands of the individual, together with the time and resources necessary to use it. One of the best results of these conditions is that all of us can be creative. If man was indeed made in His image then perhaps the essence of being human is creativity so that in my view this recent development is a very positive one. I read recently on the technorati blog that every day one hundred thousand new blogs are being created – that is one hundred thousand people expressing themselves and being creative to some degree. That’s really wonderful in my view.
We have so much technology at our hands, and so many choices that we can make, that we can really live in a very individual bubble, shared with just a few people who do not even necessarily have to live near us. This is not essentially a bad thing – we just have more freedom, and we are far less constrained by our circumstances – we can for instance rebel against our family or the society we live in without paying the steep prices that individuals had to pay in the past, when information was scarce and closely held, and job opportunities were controlled by very few people in small, isolated communities. Thankfully, at least in the West, we have gotten past that.

Individualism Carried to the Point of Autism
But with all it’s blessings, there is a limit to this individualism too. We still have to be able to share meaning when we venture out into the public sphere. Society will simply break down if we cannot understand each other when we speak.
If I order a salad, I do not expect to get a bowl of olives, sprinkled with parsley. If I ask for a Greek salad, do not give me a bowl of vegetables and cheese soaked in tahina sauce and English pepper. That is disgusting, and it is not a Greek salad. This is a Greek salad. All of these things have happened to me lately when I had to eat out, and I am really sick of it. It has gotten so bad that I decided that from now on if i have to eat out, I will only eat at fast food shops, and if there are none, then I would order the most simple, easily recognizable dish. That’s how I ordered the fries that got me into writing this post, by the way. When each word holds a different meaning for each individual or group, society is in trouble.

As long as these individual quirks happen on the personal level, and in such harmless areas like eating out, then no real damage is done – but what happens when the meaning of common words ceases to be shared? What will happen when we ask the cab driver to take us to central Jerusalem and he drives us to the kotel because for him that is the center of Jerusalem? What will you do when you want to buy a mobile phone and you simply cannot understand what the salesman is saying - when free means 20 NS a month, and reduced rate means more than you have ever paid in your life for a phone call, and no commitment means that you lose a shirt and a leg if you quit before the end of the subscription? (I know what I did – I just didn’t buy one).
Do we really understand what the person opposite us is talking about when he or she says that they love us, and swears that they are committed? Are we sure we know what those words mean for them, and for us?
When we hear the words war, peace, and freedom on the news – are we sharing the meanings of those words with the reporters and editors? I suspect that many of us do not. Even words like murder, traitor and enemy have been redefined to such an extent that much of the political conversation has become incomprehensible, meaningless, and hence pointless. I do not know how any kind of rational debate can exist when we cannot agree on the definitions of the most basic terms.
But of course, that is one of the main points of the postmodern philosophy – the eradication of meaning altogether, and the reduction of social life to it’s individual units, each one separated from the other, except for fleeting moments.

I must say I liked it better when we were supposed to say what we mean, and mean what we say and act accordingly. I fervently hope that our culture will be able to survive this growing tide of un-sense, and non-meaning. The alternatives to survival do not bear thinking about.




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