One of you readers suggested that I listen to a recent episode of This American Life in which Neil Drumming, a producer for the show and an old and close friend of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s, did a piece on how TNC’s wealth and fame, which has come very fast, has affected their friendship. So I listened to it today, and boy, I’m glad I did. It’s fascinating, and even though I can’t abide his cultural politics, it makes me like TNC more as a person.
In this excerpt from the transcript, TNC and Drumming are at a fancy hotel bar in New York, where TNC is staying while in town from Paris (where he and his family are living for a while) to give a talk. They start by joking about how TNC, who grew up in the West Baltimore ghetto, has become a snob:
Ta-Nehisi knew we were here to talk about his snobbery, and he wasted zero time getting into character. He told me a story about the other night when he’d had dinner in the restaurant of this very hotel.
Ta: And I was sitting at the bar. And the food was OK. It’s like one of these OK food restaurants. But it was decent. I was having a good time. And there was a couple like down the bar, and they had ordered this big-ass thing of oysters. It might have been 24 oysters. It was huge.
Neil Drumming (narration): Ta-Nehisi was fine with that. He loves oysters. It was what happened next that offended him.
Ta: Then the bartender started making drinks, right? And he makes the woman a sangria and the other dude some sweet something, some red, sweet something-or-other that no one should ever drink. And he took it over there, and I was like, you’re going to drink sangria and eat oysters? Like, we’re doing this now? Like, this is a thing you’re going to do? Oh, come on.
Ta: Come on. Just order a Hi-C. Get the Capri Sun. Just get the Capri Sun with your oysters.
Neil Drumming (narration): See, this is what I’m talking about.
I had to laugh, first because I’m so pleased to learn that TNC and I share a passion for both Paris and oysters (I have written him privately to urge him to go to Huîtrerie Régis, the happiest place on earth), but also because had I been sitting in his seat, this is exactly what I would have done — gotten all judgy of the couple drinking crap with their oysters. It’s like going to a fine steakhouse and putting ketchup all over your prime rib. Or like ordering a bourbon and coke, but asking the bartender to use Pappy Van Winkel.
But is that snobby? I say no. Any working-class guy in France would have been appalled to see that, because he knows that sweet red drinks would ruin the taste of the oysters. You want to drink crisp white wine with them, or possibly beer (for me, beer only with Gulf Coast oysters, which are flabby and need cocktail sauce to be at their best). If you learn to love oysters, you will also learn what tastes good to drink with them. The other night I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s Shanghai episode, and saw some Shanghai billionaire eating raw oysters that had been flown in from France, and served on the half shell with their liquor replaced by Champagne. That is just awful; anybody who eats oysters knows that their briny liquor makes them taste great. Replacing it with Champagne is what a real snob (as opposed to a connoisseur) would do.
More from that interview:
(Neil Drumming, narrating): During all those years, I honestly don’t recall fine dining being a big part of our lives, so it’s kind of bizarre to hear Ta-Nehisi go on about it now. The guy talks about food with almost as much passion and conviction as he writes scathing critiques of American institutionalized racism.
Ta: There’s this joint in Chicago called the Girl & the Goat, and they made this asparagus last time I was there, and I think about it. Like I actually think about the vegetables.
Ta: I mean, what is this? [LAUGHS] Like sex or something. Like, I think about it. Like god, that was awesome. That was great.
Yep, that’s me, to the fingertips. Listening to this, I realized that if I ever became rich and famous like TNC, I would do pretty much what he’s doing, using my money in part to enjoy food even more than I do. He seems to have a great sense of humor about it all.
I felt even more of a kinship with him when he talked about how having money makes him uncomfortable. One more clip:
Ta: The money’s uncomfortable. Um– why is the money uncomfortable? Because you have the money, but like, in your mind, you haven’t changed. Like you still rock a hoodie.
Neil Drumming: Yeah, yeah.
Ta: The food is not uncomfortable. The food feels like some bringing to fruition of something that was always there.
That’s a good insight. Drumming goes on to say that TNC now gets invited to hang with celebrities and other important people, and that he (Drumming) has seen TNC blow these people off — though he has taken up their invitations as well. TNC, in the interview, distinguishes between snobs and “bougies,” short for “bourgeoises.” In his nomenclature, a “bougie” (pron. boo-zhee) is a snob who is a snob because he wants to impress other people, and wants to move in the “right” crowd.
It’s a useful distinction, actually. Someone once said that everyone’s a conservative about the thing they know well. I think it’s true that everyone is a snob in the same way. I don’t care much for gin; it all tastes the same to me. But I admire people who really love gin, and can distinguish what makes good gin from bad gin. Similarly, I have never been a clothes horse, but I enjoy listening to people who know what makes for quality clothing, talking about how to recognize a well-made suit, pair of shoes, and so forth. Connoisseurship is not the same thing as snobbery. I don’t think TNC is a snob at all for being a connoisseur of good oysters. It only becomes snobbery when you think you are a better human being because of your superior taste in oysters, liquor, clothes, and so forth. Don’t you think?
That line of TNC’s about how having money brought out something in him that was latent — a love of good food — strikes me as a basically good way to enjoy your money (unless, of course, it becomes gluttony). People who were raised poor, or who have struggled for a long time to get money, and who come into success — I think it’s great if they use some of it to enjoy things that they never would have been able to otherwise. Maybe you always wanted to go whitewater rafting, but never could have afforded it. Or maybe you have always been interested in working on antique cars, and can now afford to take that up as a hobby. Well and good. Money can also call forth and exacerbate latent character flaws, of course, but one hopes to be moderate and sensible about these things. It sounds like TNC is well on course.
About fame, though, that is something I don’t understand people desiring. To me, the best thing about being really rich would be the liberty to be completely anonymous. Unfortunately for TNC, the nature of his vocation and the source of his fortune means that he will always have to be in the public eye.