Rachel Cooke

Choose your friends by the way they eat

The Observer Food Monthly - - CONTENTS - rachel.cooke@ob­server.co.uk OFM

Some peo­ple think the worst words in the lan­guage are “rail re­place­ment bus ser­vice”. But not me. I think the worst words in the lan­guage are, “I’m not hav­ing a starter.” When my friend A asked for more but­ter in the restau­rant where we had sup­per to­gether the other night – the but­ter we’d al­ready been given to spread on our sour­dough had not yet, you un­der­stand, en­tirely dis­ap­peared, but as she in­formed our waiter, she wanted to be cer­tain that more would be im­me­di­ately forth­com­ing – I re­mem­bered all over again why we are such pals. She likes to eat. I like to eat. When we’re on the town, there will never come a time when she has to wait it out while I scoff, say, a small moun­tain of crisp, lightly bat­tered squid. More to the point, I will never have to lie and in­sist that, no, no, hon­estly, I didn’t re­ally want the crisp, lightly bat­tered squid in the first place.

To me, the way A eats speaks loudly of the rest of her: she is, in other words, gen­er­ous, straight­for­ward, easy in her own body, sen­sual, ca­pa­ble of just the right kind of ex­trav­a­gance. Also, witty (the waiter laughed out loud). But then, I’ve long read peo­ple by their habits at the ta­ble.

I’m sure there are fussy types out there who are great fun; the­o­ret­i­cally, I sup­pose it’s en­tirely pos­si­ble that some­one with a mor­bid fear of pasta or cake might be nei­ther clenched nor a tiny bit bor­ing. Some­how, though, I can’t quite see it – and be­sides, how are you sup­posed to bond with another hu­man if not over a plate of penne or parkin? Walk­ing is good, but you can’t re­ally do that at night. Sex is also good, but you can’t do that with ev­ery­one. Rule out th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties, and all that’s left of an evening, it seems to me, is to find a place where the salad is prop­erly dressed and the waiter knows the mean­ing of the word “rare”, and to eat to­gether, heartily.

I’m not the only one who sees things like this. On holiday, a friend of a friend re­lated for my amuse­ment se­lected high­lights from the re­cently pub­lished mem­oirs of the former French pres­i­dent, François Hol­lande. In the book, which is called, some­what un­ex­cit­ingly, The Les­sons of Power , Hol­lande throws shade at Barack Obama by de­scrib­ing his dis­tinct lack of en­thu­si­asm in the mat­ter of din­ner. Ap­par­ently, he never once saw Obama have pud­ding. Even worse, of­fered a se­lec­tion of mag­nif­i­cent

Surely a man can­not love life if he does not also love cherry clafoutis?

fro­mages dur­ing a state din­ner, the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent opted – c’est

scan­daleux – for only one thin slice of per­fect ripeness, and there on his plate this pa­thetic sliver re­mained for the rest of the evening.

What does this tell us about Obama? Per­haps it sug­gests to you that he wanted to keep his un­doubt­edly slinky fig­ure. M Hol­lande, how­ever, won­ders if it doesn’t be­to­ken a cer­tain chill­i­ness. The ba­sic mes­sage is: surely a man can­not love life if he does not also love cherry clafoutis and Epoisses de Bour­gogne?

In truth, of course, this says as much, if not more, about Hol­lande than it does about Obama – and only good things, I think. Cer­tainly, it puts his much-mocked out­ings by scooter to visit his lover, Julie Gayet, in a whole new light, or it does for me. At the time, I found it com­i­cal that his body­guard would ar­rive the next morn­ing bear­ing crois­sants; such a pas­try de­liv­ery ser­vice seemed a bit Pooter­ish to me, and there­fore dis­tinctly un­sexy. (I re­mem­ber sar­cas­ti­cally ask­ing a friend if she thought he ever mixed it up by de­liv­er­ing the odd brioche or a cou­ple of pains au choco­lat in­stead.)

But I’m with François now, all the way to the bistro and be­yond. Ap­petite is so im­por­tant. Just as you want a friend who likes but­ter on her bread, so you want a lover who thinks break­fast is worth tak­ing time over. (And lunch. And din­ner.) I’m not sure about crumbs in the bed­room. I’m fas­tid­i­ous enough to hope Hol­lande and his mis­tress got up to drink their cof­fee. But I am ab­so­lutely cer­tain that a man who no­tices what another man leaves on his plate has some of his pri­or­i­ties right, if not all.

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