A brief statement of purpose

There are already about a billion food blogs, so what might be a justification of yet another one, and who am I to do it?

What I aim to do in this blog is more than simply provide recipes. While recipes of my own will, in fact, be posted, some of the blog will consist of a variety of comments about restaurants and their practices, food preparation tips, personal annoyances (such as loud restaurants and the epidemic of misspellings on menus), and whatever else pops into my head relating to what we put in our mouths (and swallow, I hasten to add). The whole thing is meant to be somewhat provocative. I hope, if nothing else, it won't be boring. I, of course, solicit reader participation.

As for who I am and why I think I might have something to contribute to public discussions on this essential and pleasurable activity - eating - you'll have to click here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Restaurants and auditory assaults

   My hearing is fine. It may not be, though, if I continue to go to restaurants which must be getting a nice cut from hearing aid manufacturers. I haven’t done a study of this, but it seems to me that this exceptionally annoying phenomenon is of fairly recent vintage, at least to the extent it exists today. I just don’t recall .80db noise levels (some venues have actually been measured this high), say, fifteen years ago and possibly more recently. Let me say at the outset that I’m referring to what are considered good restaurants of the upper-middle and upper range, the kind of restaurants about which newspapers and other printed and on-line media write reviews. No offense intended, because they have their place, but I’m not referring to Perkin’s, Country Kitchen, and such, nor, of course, to fast food venues or to sports bars which one must expect to be loud.
   In short, many, many restaurants deliberately create these conditions of auditory assault. I’ve never heard of anyone saying (assuming they could be heard), “Damn! It’s only .80db in here! It’s crypt-like! My ears aren’t even hurting, much less bleeding! I'm not having fun! We need .20db more! Now!” Well, maybe patrons have said that. I can’t hear them. Remember?
   Why are so many restaurants so loud? Well, the physical layout plays probably the biggest role. Hard surfaces don’t absorb sound. If you walk in a restaurant, see both a good-sized crowd and no sound-absorbing materials on the floor, walls, and ceiling, then it’ll be loud. Keep in mind, too, that if the place is loud, patrons themselves make it even louder because they are forced to raise their voices to be heard over the din. I’m not an acoustic engineer, so that’s as far as I’ll go. My main interest is in why owners, managers, and consultants responsible for this form of torture, for which one pays, think it adds some quantity of pleasure to the evening. I want to toss out the possibility that restaurant noise is part and parcel of “societal” noise by which we’re surrounded in so many venues that many people become accustomed to it, aren’t even aware of it and, therefore, aren’t annoyed by it. Think, for example, about baseball parks. I don’t know when the periods between half-innings began to be taken up by blaring rock music, game-playing on the huge centerfield auditron, and other efforts to “entertain” the crowd who, apparently, would otherwise slump into a state of torpor and think later, when they’re back home that, they don’t know why, but they just didn’t find the game that ended with a bottom-of-the-ninth, bases loaded, inside the park homerun, was very interesting.
   The restaurant consultants, owners, etc and the sports event people must have attended the same “Louder is Better” convention. At one time, years ago, there would be some announcements and such as baseball teams changed, but otherwise the crowd occupied themselves for this, after all, very brief period by getting a hot dog, going potty, or by conversation. So now we’re treated to ear-splitting noisemaking, made even worse if the stadium is enclosed. I’ll also mention a form of entertainment which far exceeds .80db and is known to result in auditory damage over a period of time. I refer to rock music concerts. I’ve never been to one, but it's very obvious that the music is secondary at many of them. Rather, it's about the overall spectacle, and of course spectacles must be accompanied by very loud noise. Will we reach a point where the food on the plate, like the music, is secondary to the overall spectacle-experience? There’s something going on here which has to do with the collision of a complex array of technology, a perceived need for almost constant auditory stimuli., and manipulation of human beings. Put simply, it seems as though "having a good time" isn't possible in the absence of a lot of noise.
   Have restaurateurs ever actually conducted a survey of their customers to try to determine their opinions of the noise levels? I doubt that very seriously. The results might be very interesting. Do customers feel more “hip” to be in a place with the sound of dozens of pneumatic drills? Does it make them feel more beautiful? Does the ringing in their ears increase their chances of amorous activities later? Does it increase their food and alcohol intake and, therefore, profits for the establishment? I think there is evidence that the answer to at least this last question is, yes! It would be so simple. Just give a questionnaire to patrons as they leave. The results won't necessarily be precise because the methodology isn't scientific (I'll spare you the details), but they should provide some notion of the appeal of high decible levels.
   I have, on rare occasions, dined in restaurants, almost invariably those which would describe themselves as “elegant”, where one could hear only the tinkling of utensils on plates and hushed conversations. There is, in fact, something disconcerting and discomfiting about this sort of ambience. The crypt-like silence is a clear disincentive for a discussion of the new position you and your mate will attempt at home later that night, or for explaining how you figured out how to scam all those people who fell for your “investment” scheme. It must be admitted that funeral parlor restaurants are not – I speak in general terms here - conducive to enjoyment. Some background noise seems to be, if not necessary, at least desirable. But there’s a helluva lot of auditory space between .10db and .80db.
   Fortunately, restaurant critics and others are finally taking note of this supremely annoying trend. Some reviewers here in the Minneapolis-St Paul area are now specifying noise levels along with the usual star rating system. Not long ago (Feb 3 2010), there was an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal, "Pass the salt . .  and a megaphone" by Katy McLaughlin. The article focuses mostly on how the design of the restaurant effects noise levels, although there are some interesting quotes from restaurateurs. One says he doesn't think of it as noise, rather as "excitement" and "a good vibe". Others claim the only complaints they get are from old people. How amusing.
   Perhaps younger customers are more likely to accept and even prefer eardrum-splitting noise, but how and why? Do they have hearing that magically blocks out the din so they can converse with each other? I've seen young wait staff being forced to lean over much closer to customers to hear their orders. Isn't there something wrong with this scene? If people can get cancer from secondhand smoke, then just possibly people - the wait staff - can suffer later hearing loss as a result of being exposed to this kind of environment.
   All right, enough of this for now. I anticipate compiling a list of Auditory Assaulters among restaurants in the Minneapolis-St Paul area. No, it isn't as bad as waterboarding, but it is very irritating. It should become one of the criteria by which restaurants are judged, and critics should make this clear in their reviews.

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