The Princesses Mary and Sophia Stuart had been entombed next to each for nearly 400 years before I stumbled across them. It was in one of those tourist booklets found in gift shops, this one bought by my parents at Westminster Abbey and given to me ahead of my first trip to London when I was six or seven. Too nice to be a pamphlet but too thin to be comprehensive, it was essentially a collection of photographs stitched together with captions. Easily digestible, I read it cover to cover multiple times a day.
I had been to Europe many times by that age. And, having walked among the stony sarcophagi that clutter the continent, I was aware of their dusty contents. But until that point in my young life, death seemed merely a distant plague confined to the elderly.
Yet, pictured here were two sisters, both children, who only overlapped in life for a few months. Mary, who lived to two, reclines stiffly on a pillow, wearing a dress. She watches over her infant sister Sophia, who is memorialized in her crib a few feet away. While the effigies of ancient poets and warriors, kings and queens stacked cheek-to-jowl at Westminster – including the parents of these princesses, James I and Anne of Denmark – seemed majestic in their eternal slumber, the tombs of these two girls, tucked away in a quiet part of a chapel aptly named Innocents’ Corner, struck me as deeply macabre.
Their premature deaths, which confronted me for the first time with my own mortality, were unsettling. But it was the crudeness of their likenesses, painted in color, as if to suggest the girls might still be alive, that I found particularly ghoulish. Unlike the grand tomb nearby, where the Tudor half sisters Mary I and Elizabeth I lay side-by-side in dignified repose, “partners in throne and grave,” the false cheerfulness of this young, sororal scene betrayed its tragic reality.
These early encounters awakened me to the arbitrariness of life. They also introduced me to the guardrails society erected in an effort, however imperfect, to corral it: birthright, lineage, tradition, hierarchy, ritual, faith, sacrifice, documentation, and remembrance. These concepts – symbolically carved into wood and stone for posterity – left a deep impression on my young, unsorted conscience. As I matured, they would reveal themselves as central themes in humanity’s quest for order and continuity amidst a world of chaos and entropy. The abbey at Westminster testifies to this enduring struggle. Launchpad and graveyard to dynasties and reigns (next month, it will witness its 40th coronation when Charles III is crowned), it serves as the ledger to an unbroken – but far from peaceful – millennium of British history. Brimming with colorful stories, the abbey is also a trove of important lessons.
Experiences like this one laid the groundwork for the way I would come to perceive and understand the world and the things I value in it. Most pronounced among them is an abiding respect for the past, and a desire to preserve it in order to learn from it.
That last part is essential. Without it, history is just a short flight away from orthodoxy, dogmatism, fundamentalism, and institutionalism. Those are scary destinations. But, marrying the past with an earnest desire to learn from it paves the way for innovation, efficiency, improvement – progress. At its best, history is both restorative and constructive.
This is why attempts to erase, deface, obscure, or “cancel” the past are abhorrent to me. This is red-flag behavior that heralds the most dangerous voices, whose radical ideologies are so inferior, so unmeritorious that their advancement depends solely on silencing competitors in the open marketplace of ideas. History repeats, especially when history is forgotten.
Troubling too, is the rejection of the past simply because it’s flawed. Postmodernism adopts this premise to justify a deconstructive, and sometimes, destructive posture. I understand the value of questioning the status quo, of taking things apart and reconsidering them. But what happens once everything has been dismantled and all of the guardrails have been removed? What then? Postmodernism doesn’t answer this question. In fact, it seems incapable of, or at the very least, disinterested in offering a superior or even viable alternative to the world it wants to leave behind.
The value, we are told, is not in the outcome, but rather, in the process of questioning, deconstructing, and reconsidering. In a postmodern world, art and culture is the journey not the end product. Perhaps this explains why much of what postmodernism produces is illegible, coded in a language only comprehensible to the journeyman. So long as it has meaning to its creator, whether anyone else understands it is inconsequential. It is the ultimate triumph of individuality over collectivism.
But how does this advance society, which is inherently a collective enterprise? Where is the learning and improving? If all we have are deconstruction and individuality, we are well on our way to scary places, if we haven’t already arrived. Museums crowd with unintelligible installations, fashion has departed reality and wearability (forget about durability), and chefs and restaurants are now celebrated for incoherence and inedibility. But warning to he who dares to question or criticize the genius: postmodernism won’t hear of it. Dissension is dismissed as ignorance or condemned as apostasy. (The irony of this intolerance is brilliantly captured in the film “The Menu,” a dark, satirical comedy about contemporary fine dining. Likewise, Tom Wolfe’s book “From Bauhaus to Our House” is a wonderful – and hilarious – examination of the orthodoxy of postmodernism in the world of architecture. I highly recommend it.).
It is said that history is written by the victors. I don’t think that’s entirely true. The world is littered with evidence of the conquered. That’s because, in actuality, history is determined by that which endures. And what endures is rarely prevailing wisdom. More often, it’s the product of generational wisdom – the preservation and accrual of knowledge, the repeated testing and refining of it, and, ideally, its employment for the betterment of society. This is the definition of science and the soul of true craftsmanship, both of which seem to be in dwindling supply nowadays.
What shall be our legacy? What from our deconstructive, trendy, disposable, convenient, and increasingly virtual society will endure? Our civilization’s monuments are made of glass. Our cars and appliances aren’t expected to last more than a few years. We record our world in electronic ones and zeroes, a binary medium that’s also used to produce much of our art (at least digital art has a longer shelf life than a lot of contemporary art, some of which is already fading – like Rothko’s canvases – or rotting – like Damien Hirst’s $12 million stuffed shark). We drown in information, and yet remain clueless to what is happening in our world today, never mind what happened a hundred years ago. Meanwhile, going extinct are all the skills needed for true survival and endurance: how to run a farm, carve in stone, work in wood, dig a well, hunt for food, and cook a hot, delicious meal. We’ve made available Thanos one-piece swimsuits for men (whatever that is) online at a click, but we’re still unsure how the Egyptians managed to built the pyramids at Giza over 3,000 years ago.
This blog is a record of my own quest for order and continuity – mostly confined to food and cooking, but it bleeds into other fields as well. If my tastes and preferences seem conservative, they are. It’s not because I’m allergic to change. Rather, I believe that in proper conservation we have the hope of meaningful progress. The chefs and restaurants I like and champion are those that respect and appreciate the past, learn from it, and, more importantly, aspire to improve upon it. Instead of merely picking it apart, they build upon what came before to create something that is not just different or unique or exciting, but something that is also coherent. It’s not good enough to just be exploratory, the things that endure need to be somewhat self-explanatory (and what is more self-explanatory than something of exceptional quality?).
It’s not hard to understand why I like the cooking at restaurants like l’Ambroisie or Kong Hans Kælder or Cotogna or The Barn at Blackberry Farm. In the same way that the tombs at Westminster preserve the stories of the past with masonry and smithing in marble and metal, these restaurants preserve a long tradition of cooking through the craft of saucework, roasting, poaching, grilling, pasta-making, and baking. The food may not be exciting enough for some, but it’s readily understandable and undeniably delicious to almost all, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Understanding my values and perspective in this way hopefully clarifies my thoughts on cooking in general. I admit, my likes and dislikes don’t always seem straightforward – why, for example I respect the cuisine of chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adriá, but avoid most of their acolytes, as well as the New Nordic movement. The former are masters of communicating ideas through food. Although it’s not the kind of food I want to eat (indeed, I wouldn’t want to eat anything I had at their restaurants again), all of it was skillfully crafted to convey a message or thought that needed no additional explanation. The latter groups, on the other hand, tend to rely heavily on supplemental storytelling rather than the craft of cooking to justify the value of their work.
Or, why I’m unbothered by the thematic gimmickry at some restaurants, like The House of Prime Rib or the Major Food Group establishments like Carbone and The Grill (here again, despite their antics, they offer something coherent, well-crafted, and tasty), but strongly dislike similar showmanship elsewhere (most likely because they lack coherence, quality craftsmanship, and tastiness). My preferences are far from arbitrary. Like the arc of history, they bend towards qualities that endure.
The world has changed since my first visit to the abbey at Westminster nearly four decades ago, those days when the public could be trusted with the sacred things of our past. Like most tourist sites of historical significance, the abbey is now under tight security, and capacity is heavily throttled. The chair of St. Edward (upon which Charles III will sit at his crowning, scepter and orb in hand) is now behind thick plate glass (probably bullet proof too). Lines are long, and, sadly, visitors, who are herded through a one-way route to keep traffic moving, no longer enjoy an open floor plan. It’s a fitting illustration of humanity’s increasing need for guardrails, despite our society’s insistence on removing them.
But, I am happy to say, there is progress. Now, the abbey has an audio guide (with pictures!) narrated by Jeremy Irons. His calm, soothing diction, with lazy syllables yawning from one to the next, wonderfully expresses the unhurried pace with which history should be considered. It is so delicious that I’ve downloaded the abbey’s guide to my phone (and so can you). At the end of a long day, I’ll have a good soak in Irons’s drooling tour of England’s premier necropolis. If you haven’t already suspected me an odd fellow, this should be sufficient confirmation.
Photograph: Cinestill BwXX; St. Paul’s Cathedral; London, The United Kingdom (October, 2022)