Food, glorious food!
There’s a lot of eating in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. The last third of the novel is an orgy of meals—long, expensive meals. And there are quite a few before then, too.
Fancy meals. Meals in expensive New York City restaurants. One in Welsey’s private penthouse on Park Avenue. And several pot lucks in small-town Callicoon.
Perhaps not a novel to read if you’re on a diet.
EWS is about conversation and social interaction. And in our culture, and most others, conversation and social interaction center around eating and drinking. Especially eating.
Eating says a lot about who we are. It’s one of the best ways a writer can define character, geography and social status.
I thought of this the other day after coming across a discussion of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the context of its many feasts. Food plays a major role in that novel, and not just as background. Flaubert’s characters are frequently eating, and the way they eat reveals their characters. Charles’s bad table manners demonstrate his lowly class, something that repulses Emma. But Emma herself sucks her fingers and licks the bottom of a glass, betraying her pretensions of sophistication and her more base side. And when Emma goes to the ball, the table manners of the nobles and the expensive foods in the scene signify their sophistication.
But aside from social refinement, food manifests class. The types of food, of course, signify this, but the fact that, say, Rouault sends Charles a turkey every year defines his character. For the lower class, food is a form of love, as it could be argued, it is in Entertaining Welsey Shaw for Anne, who is constantly worried about how and what Joseph eats. She is constantly meddling in his nutrition, reading the labels on the frozen packages in his refrigerator. Joseph begins sneaking junk food the way a smoker sneaks cigs, tossing the wrappers in a neighbor’s can. With Welsey, he has fun eating. Although Welsey is an actress and has to worry about her weight and her appearance, she seems to be one of these women who truly can eat anything (or at least many things) and not worry too much about how it sticks to her. I hate these types—don’t you?
I searched the web extensively, planning elaborate meals, usually off the actual menus at the real restaurants, both named and unnamed in the novel, that the characters visit. Of course, I don’t know if these items were on the menus back in 2008. When I couldn’t completely visualize I went to online videos to contemplate appetizers such as Caviar and Crème Fraiche Buckwheat Cornets. Then I decided not to use them. I planned and replanned meals because, like Flaubert, I wanted to tell a story partly through food. (For reasons that probably only make sense to me, and even then only on alternate Tuesdays, I substituted savory cheese truffles with chives, pecans and goat cheese instead.)
Drinking, of course, goes with food, but there’s very little alcohol in Entertaining Welsey Shaw. There is, however, coffee, which is probably the most romantic non-alcoholic drink there is. True it’s prosaic coffee, consumed in a Starbucks, the most common place for coffee on earth, but that’s why I wanted most of the story to take place in a Starbucks: it’s the most ordinary place on earth, and here Joseph, our protagonist, encounters the world’s most elusive celebrity. There’s something extraordinary—and this is the idea that fascinated me from the first day and made me want to start writing this thing—about the idea of being able to talk to this incredibly famous person separated only by a very small round table. Two extremely different worlds that nearly, nearly touch.
But it’s as close as they’re likely to. The Internet is filled with pictures of celebrities going to Starbucks for their caffeine fix. Standing in line in one of their New York or LA stores may be the most likely way you’ll ever encounter a celebrity, though buried in their hoodies, wearing sunglasses or without their stage makeup, as with Welsey Shaw, you likely won’t recognize them. It’s amazing to me the hold Starbucks seems to have on the famous set, although perhaps we just get more photos of them coming out of that particularl coffee shop because it’s the most well-known and ubiquitous. Perhaps Robin Wright loves some small beanery in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and Jonah Hill swears allegiance to an out-of-the-way spot in SoHo, but what we see in the media is countless celebs getting succor from the mermaid. Which is why I never considered setting Entertaining Welsey Shaw anywhere else.
One final aspect about all the eating in the novel. One of my favorite character-defining moments comes near the end: Joseph has actually gotten to see Welsey’s highly-private Manhattan penthouse apartment on Park Avenue. Towards evening she decides to order dinner from a fancy Italian restaurant. He, thinking he should, orders something elaborate; she gets the spaghetti and meatballs. As he sits cutting his veal and mushrooms, she slurps her pasta and gets tomato sauce all over her face. At that point he gets it: Welsey, robbed of her childhood, is having it now. That’s the key to understanding her. (They’ve also just spent the afternoon sitting on the floor playing the game of Life, with its little plastic cars and stick figure-people.) That’s one of my favorite moments in the whole novel, and food, glorious food plays a major role in defining it.
It’s easy to tie this entry in with Entertaining Welsey Shaw. Welsey and Daniel meet in a coffee shop, week after week. But their abode is a mere Starbucks in the middle of New York City, no different than thousands of other cookie-cutter Starbucks across the world. It is based on a real location, though I described it a bit larger than real life in my novel. But still, it’s just a Starbucks.
While I was visiting San Luis Obispo recently I stumbled upon the coolest coffee shop I’ve ever seen anywhere. So cool I had to return with my camera and spray the place. (The staff probably thought I was nuts.) You can click on all the photos here to get larger views.
It’s called Kreuzberg Cafe, and the moment I walked inside my jaw dropped. First of all, it’s big (for a coffee shop), bigger than the houses of many people who hang out there, surely. And it’s as hipster as you can get. It’s sort of divided into sections, and filled with old used furniture—sofas, chairs, tables, lamps, bookcases, a giant conference table, you name it. There are chess boards, backgammon boards, monopoly boards, and books books books. You can read them. You can buy them. You can swap them. Basically, the place is something like a frat house and a Boho hangout that happens to serve coffee, cakes (really good cakes), salads, sandwiches (more on that in a moment), pizza, entrées and drinks (including beer). And of course there’s coffee in about every kind of incarnation you can imagine.
They have events galore: music and authors and all the things you’d expect a beatnik (does anyone still use that word) coffee shop to have. One of the baristas told me the owner spent two years in Berlin in the Kreuzberg and found the area enchanting in that famous counter-culture way. (I’ve been there too. If you’ve never been to Berlin, you should know that despite all its tradition it’s possibly hippier than Haight-Ashbury.) He loved the feeling of freedom and decided to bring it back with him. So he opened Kreuzberg Cafe to reflect four coffee shops he’d loved in Berlin.
Author portraits line the walls, and the place is great for reading, whether you bring your own book or take one of the many they have. Their menu features the Miguel de Cervantes, the Sophocles, the Jane Austin, the Ernest Hemingway, the Franz Kafka and Victor Hugo, the Milan Kundera and Amy Tan. I suggested a new sandwich: the Deborah Eisenberger. Yes, I did.
Towards the back there’s a conference-type room, where one can get away from it all (although when I was there no one was; the place has a super-social vibe going, and because of the islands of seats it’s easy for large groups to interact. The one night I was there I witnessed large groups of students in one section, which was furnished with easy chairs, couches a coffee table, and floor lamps. They were sprawled out studying on the chairs and couches, on the floor, books piled on the table. If I were back in college I’d be living in this place.
But there’s more, an upstairs. (I’ve never been in a coffee shop before that had an upstairs.) It’s really nothing different, just more seats, more tables, more books. But it’s smaller and more private.
Night is the best time to visit this place. It has an otherworldly sort of feel, or rather as if it were a whole world in microcosm. The outside seems to disappear in the dim. I’ve never been to a coffeehouse that projects a feeling of community as this place does, seemingly without even trying. The lack of commercial trappings (branded T-shirts and coffee mugs and ornaments and other doodads for sale like you see in Starbucks and Peets) might have something to do with it. It’s like that really cool attic play space of your childhood, writ large and with coffee.
I’ve recently been reading a novel that deals with the (im)permanence of community. (I won’t name the book, because despite its reputation and my own vacillation on its merits, I’ve finally decided I hate it.) The main character determines community is pretty impossible, despite our attempts to preserve it; he compared it to a bottle on a rough sea, seeking a calm patch. He sees communities and the stability they represent as a Quixotic quest. I don’t know if I agree (for one thing I don’t feel he defines his idea of community well) but I do think places like the Kreuzberg Cafe are as close to community as I see it that we’re likely to get in modern times. I don’t think they’re so much about shared place, lifestyle or income, race or ethnicity as they are about sharing moments. You can’t share moments on Twitter or Facebook, or even this blog: you may have an experience you will remember because of something you take away from this posting, but it will be the event, and not reading about it on this blog, that you’ll remember. Places like Kreuzberg Cafe allow this. Although it has free wifi, not as many people seemed to be using it as I see at most cafes. The requisite indie music was there, but it wasn’t distressingly loud, and it was easy for people to talk. Although the vibe was basically “hipster,” all walks of life were there.
Like I said, the most amazing coffee shop I’ve ever seen. And you know what else is amazing? Their website lists other coffee shops they think are cool. They are secure enough in their specialness not to feel they must promote themselves and only themselves. If you build it and it’s great they will come. Community. I love it.